Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association Shares Safety, Regulatory Concerns Regarding State’s Proposed Commercial Marijuana Legislation

PROVIDENCE — As commercial marijuana legislation continues through the state legislature, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association (RIPCA) would like to draw attention to several public health and safety holes in the legislation that, as drafted could result in immediate detrimental effects for Rhode Islanders if they are not responsibly and adequately addressed. 

“The regulation of commercial marijuana in Rhode Island, if it is to come to pass, must be done so with due concern and care for public health and safety. We stand as Rhode Island police chiefs who have a duty to call real and obvious concerns to the attention of our policymakers in state government,” said Sidney M. Wordell, RIPCA Executive Director. “Further evaluation of several aspects of the bill is needed in order to support a safe and healthy environment for all Rhode Islanders.”

Specifically, public safety, public health and transportation safety advocates wish to call the following to the public’s attention:

  • There is no legal or commercially viable test for police to detect the presence of marijuana or determine whether a motorist is driving under the influence of marijuana on the roadways. Police would have no remedy to keep potentially impaired motorists off the road. The current legislation allows passengers in motor vehicles to actively use marijuana. This is inherently dangerous. Marijuana use in a motor vehicle should be fully banned, so to reduce the likelihood that a driver will be operating under the influence or operating while using marijuana.
  • Roadway fatalities have sharply increased in Rhode Island is recent years. Seventy-three people died on our roads in 2020, up from 57 in 2019. Rhode Island has the highest percentage of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in the nation; 44% versus a national average of 28%, as of 2019. The problem is so significant in Rhode Island that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers it a crisis and has sent additional federal aid and resources to address the problem of death and alcohol-fueled death on the roadways. Adding commercial marijuana to the equation without any safeguards to discourage or prevent marijuana-impaired driving would make a bad problem worse.
  • The current legislation makes marijuana akin to cigarette smoking and would make smoking/using marijuana legal in all public places where smoking is allowed — including public sidewalks, beaches and parks. This is the wrong approach. Marijuana should be treated, in public, more like alcohol consumption. Marijuana is psychoactive and causes behavior changes in the form of a high and second-hand smoke from marijuana can also have immediate effects on others in public who do not desire this. 

Research has shown that marijuana use directly affects the brain and the areas responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions and reaction time, thereby causing impaired driving and increasing the risk of crashes. 

A 2019 study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area titled, “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact,” documented significant increases in traffic fatalities in Colorado related to impaired driving. Since marijuana was legalized in 2012, traffic deaths in which drivers tested positive for marijuana increased 109% while all other traffic deaths increased 31%, and more than doubled from 55 in 2013 to 115 in 2018.

However, detecting marijuana-impaired drivers is virtually impossible in the field, given many factors that influence intoxication onset, intensity and duration, including the method of consumption, type of marijuana product consumed, product potency and user characteristics, all of which can influence the timing and degree of impairment. Furthermore, there is insufficient scientific data to provide motorists with guidance on the use of the drug in a way that does not impact their ability to drive. 

Additionally, while there is a national standard and clear impairment thresholds for Blood Alcohol Content and the limit, there is no such standard outlined in the proposed bill, and researching and defining a legal threshold for THC nanograms to indicate impairment must be a priority.

In stark contrast to the availability of devices that can instantly evaluate an individual’s level of impairment from alcohol, no such nationally-accepted roadside device or chemical testing procedure exists that can adequately detect levels of THC in an individual’s system. Some states use behavioral evaluations to help determine impairment, however to date, the courtroom testimony of Drug Recognition Experts is not recognized in Rhode Island making it impossible for law enforcement to successfully prosecute a case based on behavioral evaluations alone.

From a public safety and public wellness perspective, the current bill is woefully inadequate on the question of restricting marijuana use in public. As written, the bill would allow for cannabis use – including smoking, eating or vaping –  by vehicle passengers; on public roads and sidewalks; on campsites; at parks, beaches and playgrounds; at sporting and music venues; in businesses, restaurants, cafes or bars; and in common areas of apartment buildings or condominiums. This creates a public nuisance by putting the privileges of marijuana users above the rights of those who, for example, do not wish to breathe in marijuana smoke while out in public.

Without stipulations included within the law, any further regulation of cannabis use in public spaces and on public property would be the responsibility of individual municipalities, burdening them with creating regulations and assigning unfunded enforcement responsibilities on police and boards of health. 

“Driving while impaired by marijuana can increase the risk of motor vehicle fatalities, and significant research would be needed to evaluate procedures, tools and resources that can be made available to officers to properly detect marijuana-impaired drivers and keep everyone on the roadways safe,” said RIPCA President and Narragansett Chief of Police Sean Corrigan. “Without addressing the above factors, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association believes that the passage of this legislation as is would have adverse effects on the safety and wellbeing of Rhode Island communities.”

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Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association Shares Safety, Regulatory Concerns Regarding State’s Proposed Commercial Marijuana Legislation