New law restricts open containers of marijuana in vehicles

By Steve Guntli

A new law will ban the use of marijuana while driving.

House Bill 1276 will tighten regulations by prohibiting the transport of marijuana in unsealed containers. The law will take effect statewide on September 26.

Initiative 502 had regulations in place to govern how much THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, a person could have in their system while operating a vehicle. However, the bill contained no explicit language saying a person could not smoke and drive.

Under the new law, loose joints, unfinished edibles or open bags of marijuana must be kept in the vehicle’s trunk or behind the car’s rearmost row of seats.

The new law would treat marijuana more like alcohol. Opponents to the bill argue marijuana affects drivers differently than alcohol, with some medical marijuana advocates claiming driving while high can actually improve your driving. A 2014 roadside poll conducted by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported 24 percent of people who ingested marijuana two hours or less before driving believed it made them better drivers by inducing slower driving.

Studies cited by NORML, a marijuana advocacy group, found no solid evidence that marijuana has a negative effect on one’s driving skills.

Other studies have found evidence to the contrary. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 18 percent of drivers killed in an accident in the U.S. in 2009 tested positive for at least one drug. After alcohol, marijuana is the most common substance linked to DUI offenses in the U.S. However, NIDA stipulates that it can often be difficult to gather statistics for drugged driving, since reliable roadside tests for drugs don’t yet exist.

State representative Brad Klippert (R-Kennewick) sponsored the bill. Klippert, a Benton County sheriff’s deputy, said he’s seen too many fatalities from drug and alcohol-related traffic accidents to think smoking pot and driving is harmless.

Drivers found with a blood content of at least five nanograms of active THC in their system are supposed to face a 90-day suspension of their license. However, in 2013, the legislature inadvertently took away the Washington State Department of Licensing’s ability to suspend licenses for drugged driving offenses, essentially stripping away punishment for driving while high. The new bill restores the power to suspend licenses.

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