BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker made his latest push Monday for the Legislature to get moving on his impaired driving bill, which he said took on greater urgency when the Cannabis Control Commission last week took a step towards allowing social consumption marijuana lounges.
Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, CCC member Britte McBride, Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael, Mothers Against Drunk Driving National President Helen Witty and a representative of the state's marijuana dispensaries held a press conference Monday to tout a bill Baker filed earlier this year to deal with operating under the influence in the wake of marijuana legalization.
"Our bill will equalize treatment of alcohol and drugs with respect to driving under the influence and aims to improve the process leading up to, during and after a suspected operating under the influence incident," Baker said.
After alcohol, marijuana was the most prevalent drug found in the systems of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Massachusetts between 2013 and 2017, the governor's office said. The bill (H 71) he filed in January touches upon detection of impaired drivers, the interaction between police officers and drivers who are thought to be impaired, and how cases involving suspected impaired drivers are handled in the state's courts.
The CCC approved regulations in late September that pave the way for establishments where adults could use marijuana together in a social setting. The Legislature would need to act before the CCC's planned social consumption site pilot program could begin, and Baker said Monday that lawmakers should not allow social consumption to move ahead without addressing his concerns about impaired driving.
"While this idea still requires a change in statute before social consumption sites become a reality, this move underscores the reality that our commonwealth and our communities are facing new public safety challenges in the context of the legalization of the adult use of marijuana," the governor said. "Just as the social consumption of alcohol is a major driver of impaired driving, these sites also create new challenges for our public safety officials seeking to keep our communities safe."
Baker's bill was referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The committee has not yet scheduled a hearing on the bill.
Baker did not directly call for the committee to schedule a hearing soon, but instead thanked the Legislature for "a number of conversations with them about this issue at the leadership and committee level."
Last year, a Department of Public Health study found that nearly 35 percent of adults who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days also reported driving under the influence of marijuana. DPH said baseline data suggest that about 7 percent of all adults drove under the influence of marijuana in the past 30 days and that about 12 percent of all adults rode with a driver who was under the influence of marijuana.
Baker's bill (H 71)is based on 19 recommendations from the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving. If the Legislature adopts the recommendations, a driver suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana who refuses to take a chemical test for impairment would lose their license for at least six months, the same penalty applied to suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take a breathalyzer test.
Also among the group's recommendations is a proposal for the Legislature to pass a law authorizing state courts to take "judicial notice" that ingesting the active component in marijuana, THC, "impairs motor function, reaction time, tracking, cognitive attention, decision-making, judgment, perception, peripheral vision, impulse control, and memory." The group also suggested that lawmakers amend the open-container law so it can apply to marijuana, meaning drivers could not have loose or unsealed packages of marijuana in an area of the car accessible to the driver.
The special commission, which was created as part of the 2017 law that established the CCC, also suggests amending the existing operating under the influence law so that, in court, the state would have to prove only that the driver was impaired to obtain a conviction.
The commission's recommendations, and Baker's bill, also call for the Municipal Police Training Committee to expand training of drug recognition experts -- the commission said the state's municipal police forces should have at least 351 DREs total, as well as other DREs at the State Police -- and for the state's court system to allow DREs to testify as expert witnesses.
Since retail marijuana sales began in Massachusetts 11 months ago, Carmichael, the chief of police in Walpole, said it is too soon to know the overall impact of legalization on road safety, but said his officers have been noticing an increase in OUI incidents involving drugs, while drunk driving incidents decrease.
"We have seen the same kind of trend with more OUI-drugs -- and not just marijuana, marijuana is a component of that but some of it is OUI-drugs in general -- surpassing the amount of times that we're coming across people who are under the influence of alcohol," he said.
McBride, a member of the CCC appointed by Attorney General Maura Healey, said that there is no silver bullet to deal with impaired driving, but called Baker's bill "a constellation of pieces" that will help deter people from driving while under the influence, identify when people are driving impaired and hold people accountable for making the roads less safe for everyone else.
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