Warning All Bakehead Drivers

© Karen Roach | 123RF.com

© Karen Roach | 123RF.com

“Our society is changing our views on marijuana, it’s becoming legalized in many states… young people have no fear of driving after smoking.” (Kal Mahli)

As I write this article, 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Four states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon) plus the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, the rest have passed medical marijuana laws for limited use of cannabis. Here is a map showing which states have legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes.

There’s been a prediction that the 2016 election year could be a “break-out” year for several states legalizing recreational marijuana. Phillip Smith of AlterNet suggested that seven states are likely candidates for that to happen: California, Nevada, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Missouri. This growing legalization movement is also spurring on the development of the pot breathalyzer.

A company called Cannabix Technologies has received some recent media attention on its cutting-edge drug-impairment recognition system: the Cannabix Marijuana Breathalyzer. It is a patent pending device that will detect if an individual has used THC in last two hours. The device is currently in prototype development, and the company said in a February 2 news release that it hopes the prototype will be complete “in the coming weeks.” You can watch a video promo of the product here on YouTube.

The President and Director of Cannabix is Kal Malhi, a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). He worked in the marijuana enforcement division for four of his ten years with the RCMP. Dr. Raj Attariwala, a Vancouver radiologist and nuclear medicine physician, is the Lead Engineer of the company. Malhi got the idea for the Cannabix breathalyzer while doing some reading while on a family trip to India. At an airport, he read about a Swedish study that used breath testing technology developed at Kerolinska University. The Swedish study showed how breath samples could be collected and sent to a lab for testing.

Malhi said the device functions like a blood glucose meter. “The breath sample is collected in one component and then is fed into a second part of the device, which tests the sample and gives an immediate result.” He said it could also be used in workplaces to carry out drug testing on employees. Product development is moving along quickly. Johnny Plankton at AfterPartyChat noted that Market Watch suggested that Cannabix Technologies could warrant a closer look by investors. He indicated that Mahli hopes to launch the device by the end of 2015.

Cannabix isn’t the only one attempting to develop a THC breathalyzer. Lifeloc Technologies, a Colorado-based company making breathalyzers, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development to develop one. The CEO of Lifeloc, Barry Knott said that the company was in a race with itself to develop their own pot breathalyzer. “As far as we know there’s nobody else as far along in this.” They hoped to have the prototype by late 2015. Hey Barry, you may be behind Kal and Cannabix.

Researchers at Washington State University are also developing a breathalyzer for marijuana. Herbert Hill, a chemistry professor, is working with a research team from the university to develop the device. He told the Tacoma News Tribute: “We believe, at least initially, that it would lower the false positives that an officer would have. . . . They would have a higher level of confidence in making an arrest.” Lawmakers have expressed public support for the research. Hill and his team should be finished with their protoype by now and plan to test the device on human breath in 2015. Looks like there is at least a three-way race here.

But Adam Banner, a criminal defense lawyer with experience defending DUI cases, said he felt the marijuana breathalyzer may do more harm than good. Among his biggest concerns was the “zero tolerance” policy for drugged driving in some states like Oklahoma. Banner said that in these states a person could be charged with a DUI for having any detectable amount of THC in their system. He noted that in Washington State (as in Colorado) the current limit for driving under the influence of THC was 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood (5ng/ml).

Consequently, a person could be criminally charged for driving under the influence days or even weeks after he or she used marijuana–long after he or she was under any influence of the drug and when his or her driving would likely be unimpaired by the past drug use.

Banner seems to be misdirecting attention to a problem that doesn’t exist when he says: “In fact, in many states, the marijuana breathalyzer would ultimately put unimpaired drivers in jail instead.” He acknowledged that: “Drivers with a THC concentration greater than 5 ng/mL–the amount determined for DUID in Washington–have a significantly higher accident rate than drivers with no THC in their systems.” But his rhetoric gave an example of the hypothetical arrest of an individual returning to a zero tolerance state from a Colorado pot vacation who gets pulled over for a burned out tail light-and ends up arrested for DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) because he failed the breathalyzer—“despite being in no way impaired.”

Banner seems to have not read the information that indicates the THC breathalyzers are testing for the recent use of THC, sometime within the past two hours. He is right that a pot breathalyzer would increase the number of DUI arrests. But it doesn’t suggest that those arrests will be drivers posing no greater risk than teetotalers who never indulge. If marijuana legalization makes THC more likely to be in the bloodstream of individuals who drive, then the technology to accurately detect THC levels and research into their effect of driving will be done. As Banner said in the beginning of his article, he is all for finding ways to accurately indentify and eradicate impaired driving.

Or as Johnny Plankton succinctly put it: “Bakehead drivers, don’t say you weren’t warned.”


Conscientious Objectors to AA

image credit: iStock

Not all the drunk driving stories I’ve heard were tragic. One individual driving back from an out-of-state visit became lost on a rural road in the middle of the night. He saw a local police officer in the process of having another vehicle towed, so he stopped to ask directions. As it turned out, the officer was finishing up with a DUI arrest he had made earlier that night. Soon after the lost man lowered his window to ask for directions, he became the officer’s second DUI arrest of the night.

Another person returned to her downtown apartment after a long workday and was relaxing with a few glasses of wine. She answered an insistent knocking on her door from her landlord, who informed her the city would tow her car in the morning if she didn’t move it. The officer who arrested her for DUI was not sympathetic. The woman was particularly incensed because she previously thought she was doing the right thing by sleeping it off in her car instead of driving home from a restaurant. But she was still charged with a DUI when a police officer woke her in her car a few hours later.

In many states, multiple offenders have the opportunity to receive alternate sentencing to DUI courts or treatment programs in lieu of jail time. The American Automobile Association (AAA) reported that there are currently more then 1900 DUI/Drug Courts across the country.  And there is evidence that these programs reduce recidivism. The vast majority of DUI episodes are caused by a small group of repeat offenders. Estimates suggest that 3-5 percent of drivers account for around 80 percent of the DUI episodes.

These courts are mostly post-conviction, meaning that the accused must plead guilty or be convicted to participate in them. . . . Compliance with treatment and other court-mandated requirements is verified by frequent testing, close community supervision and interaction with the judge in non-adversarial court review hearings.

A frequent requirement of DUI courts and other legal-based substance-abuse intervention programs is for the individual to attend some sort of a treatment program and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And some individuals raise strong objections to the court-ordered AA attendance.

One former court mandated attendee of AA meetings viewed her attendance as the government prescribing “prayer under the threat of imprisonment.” As an atheist, she found it difficult to believe she had an imaginary friend. A court ordered treatment program she was in structured its group therapy sessions with opening and closing prayers (the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer). She reported that when she took a bathroom break during the “Our Father,” she was told she couldn’t leave during the prayer.

Another individual is suing the state of Nebraska, alleging his constitutional rights were violated because he was required to attend AA meetings even though he objected to its religious foundation: “I do not believe the state should be telling anybody to go to them, and it cost me a career as a massage therapist because I didn’t go.” Somehow I think there is a little bit more to the loss of his masseuse license.

When I hear of experiences like these, I wonder what’s missing. Was the woman really reprimanded for not participating in a prayer or for leaving the group without permission? Did the Nebraska man lose his career because he refused to attend AA meetings, or because an alcohol-related arrest violated a professional code of ethics?  I think many of the conscientious objectors to AA attendance on nonreligious grounds are erecting straw man arguments to knock down because they are angry about the legal consequences of their drinking—and not simply their forced attendance at “religious” gatherings.

AA meetings have been legally designated as “religious” within the U.S. The court cases that successfully challenged mandated meeting attendance were all brought by parolees, probationers and inmates. They argued that mandated attendance was a violation of the Establishment Clause, which requires “governmental neutrality with respect to religion and a wall of separation between Church and State.” So it seems there will have to be an ongoing adjustment to how governmental agencies address this perceived violation of Church and State through mandated AA attendance. This is a state-by-state battle for now.

However, I don’t think it is a forgone conclusion that A.A. is “religious” because the courts have said its literature reflects elements common to most theistic religions. Yes, there are clear elements of religious dogma if the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” is recited at meetings. But that does not occur at all A.A. meetings and I’ve not known where it is expected of anyone to recite the prayer.

There are conceptions of what constitutes a “religion” and a “church” that do not equate any and all belief in God or a Higher Power as religious dogma. If these views were to be legally recognized, then mandated A.A. attendance would not necessarily be a violation of the Establishment Clause. I’ll look at this in some future posts. But back to the conscientious objectors to AA attendance.

Erica Larsen on AfterPartyChat is more sympathetic to these individuals than I am. She empathizes with their “feelings of alienation from AA’s more Christian elements. The whole Higher Power thing kept me out of any 12-Step programs for years, so I get it. I totally get it.” But now that she is actually involved in 12-Step fellowships, she believes it was one of the best personal decisions she ever made. “Getting over the God thing was surprisingly easy once I decided to actually give meetings and sponsorship a try.” But she still wanted to just shake the guy in Nebraska and tell him to just go to the meetings.



Playing Chemical Whack-a-Mole

image credit: iStock

image credit: iStock

Eight people at a Friday night party in Oklahoma took a liquid version of the drug 2C-E, a chemical cousin to “Smiles” (a synthetic imitation of ecstasy). They all began having seizures and coughing up blood after about an hour. A 22 year-old woman—one of eight—died. “She just kept having one seizure after another.” The 20-year-old guy who bought the drug off the internet from a company in China, was charged with first-degree murder.

A naked 35 year-old mother died of cardiac arrest after she was tasered by police. High on bath salts, she had tried to chock her three-year old son. She was seen chasing her partner and the three year-old through the neighborhood. The police initially tried unsuccessfully to restrain her with pepper spray, but she was violently combative, so they tasered her.

I’ve been following reports and news stories about the new psychoactive substances (NPS) for awhile, and found a Facebook page, “Synthetic Marijuana and Bath Salts Deaths,” that posted links to the above two stories. The insanity of individuals willing to ingest these unknown and largely untried chemicals amazes me; and I’ve been counseling addicts for over thirty years.

The synthetic drug market is booming worldwide. By 2013, 348 new psychoactive substances (NPS) had been reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), most of which were identified between 2008 and 2013. They exist in every region of the world; 94 countries have reported their existence. See the graphic below, found in the 2014 Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment. Roughly five NPS enter the market every month.

NPS graphThe greatest percentage of the NPS fall within three groups: synthetic cannabinoids (28%), synthetic cathinones (25%), and phenethylamines (17%). Synthetic cannabinoids mimic THC. Synthetic cathinones mimic stimulants and other ATS, including MDMA. Phenethylamines have effects that range from stimulant to hallucinogenics.

Easy to obtain, NPS are increasingly popular with teens and young adults. When they become known and are under legal scrutiny, a domino-like effect triggers the creation of newer, and often more potent, versions. A detective with the Grand Forks police department said that: “Anytime we try to figure something out it changes.” Another problem is that synthetic drugs typically don’t show up on drug tests, which makes them popular with anyone who gets treated for drugs—like military personnel and college athletes.

The U.S. and Canada are among the largest and most diversified markets for NPS in the world. Synthetic cannabinoids first appeared in 2008 and were marketed as “legal alternatives to marijuana.” The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported that between 2010 and 2012, the number of calls about synthetic marijuana rose by almost 80 percent.

There is some evidence that local “hobby chemists” are making batches of these drugs from chemical products shipped from China. “ Two California men are facing life sentences for their role in the production and distribution of synthetic drugs made from 660 pound of chemical products (worth $1.4 million) smuggled into the U.S. from China. Their arrests were the result of a three-year federal investigation.

“Anybody with a little money to front can import chemicals, mix, and sell it.” China’s new chemical entrepreneurs have also become involved in direct-to-the-consumer sales. A recent report confirmed that last November Eric Chang of Shanghai was arrested by Chinese officials and charged with producing ecstasy. Investigators said he made around $30 million selling drugs to the U.S. and Europe.

Erica Larsen captured the growing problem of NPS beautifully in the closing comments of her AfterPartyChat blog post, “Chem-Sex: Europe’s Synthetic Madness”:

Oh brave new world. You know the future has arrived when even former junkies haven’t heard of half the drugs on the market. Will 12-step groups of the next decade be filled with recovering Miaow Miaow [a synthetic cathinone] addicts? How many arcade tokens will it take before authorities give up on whack-a-mole?