This article is part of MACo’s Deep Dive series, where expert analysts explore and explain the top county issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Deep Dives.
In a recent interview, Baltimore County Police estimated 450,000 new cannabis users would begin to enter the legal market on July 1, making driver impairment training for officers a priority in order to ensure the safety of Maryland roadways. A 2022 report from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services cited research from the opening of Colorado’s recreational market, noting that the percentage of all traffic deaths that were marijuana-related increased from 15 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2019. The study also showed that following legalization, traffic deaths involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana increased more than 130 percent, going from 55 in 2013 to 129 in 2019. As noted in MACo testimony throughout the 2023 legislative session, the counties will be responsible for ensuring the safety of all communities as the new market opens, especially where driver safety is concerned.
NEW STANDARD CANNABIS MARKET OPENS SATURDAY
Starting this Saturday, medical cannabis dispensaries that have converted their license to a new standard cannabis license will be able to sell to anyone older than 21 years of age. These converted medical dispensaries will be the first operational retail locations for recreational cannabis in Maryland following the referendum to legalize adult-use marijuana. A list of all licensed dispensaries that have converted will be posted on the Maryland Cannabis Administration (MCA) website before July 1, but the most current list from June 16th shows that, so far, 94 of the existing 102 medical dispensaries are ready for Saturday. According to the MCA, licenses that do not convert will not be able to operate beginning on July 1.
PUBLIC SAFETY TRAINING
“After the amendment was passed into law, we knew July 1 was coming,” said Sergeant Tom Morehouse, with the Baltimore County Police Department, in an interview with CBS News. “We actually added even more of those classes so we can get more officers trained on what cannabis impairment looks like.”
Sergeant Morehouse explained that the cannabis-specific curriculum being used is consistent with both medical school training and pharmaceutical licensing standards. Although this type of training began in Baltimore County back in 2018, previously, not all officers were given the specialized course on drug impairment; now, they are trying to get as many up to speed as possible. Basic training up to that point was sufficient, but this new approach has a substantial focus on cannabis impairment in light of the traffic research from other states. Similarly, Colorado invested in specialized training on the behavioral and physiological detection of drug impairment with the hope of bolstering law enforcement’s ability to effectively combat drug-impaired driving and ultimately save lives.
TRAINING HELPS AVOID FALSE-POSITIVE FIELD TESTS
At one event that was organized in partnership with multiple non-profit advocacy groups collaborating with the police, six experts were on hand to train officers as they practiced field assessments with a test group. During the training, where members of multiple county police forces were present, medical cannabis users volunteered to get high and go through an impairment assessment. Aaron Shepherd, an advocate from the organization Americans for Safe Access, said that while the format of this session was for officers to see and understand the behavior of someone who is intoxicated, it was equally as useful for assessing when someone is not impaired.
Shepherd reflected to a WBAL reporter, “I think, through these workshops, what officers are also seeing is that not everyone using gets intoxicated,” and therefore, they will be more equipped to avoid detaining an individual as a result of a false-positive from a field test. Officer Jeff Schaub from Baltimore County, from the same report, agreed with Shepherd:
There’s going to be recreational users of marijuana, patients with marijuana in their system, but that may not mean that they are impaired. When officers can see the difference, they are able to better identify impaired drivers.
The course also made clear that reaction time, duration of impairment, motor coordination, and attention can all vary by user.
Counties are certainly not alone in strategizing to keep communities safe starting this Saturday. State officials have confirmed that the Maryland Department of Transportation has launched a public education campaign in coordination with the market opening. The Maryland Department of Health will be disseminating information and collaborating with local health departments on added and enhanced safety measures. And, for information specific to driver impairment, the MCA website has a one-pager highlighting the dangers of driving while high and encouraging anyone using cannabis to wait at least six hours before operating a vehicle.
Across the state, law enforcement agencies are reiterating that while possession and use of recreational marijuana by those 21 and over will become legal on July 1, Maryland law will continue to prohibit those from smoking in public or behind the wheel of a vehicle. If a person is found in violation of the law, a citation and fine can and will be imposed. Charges of DUI will result in cases of impairment. Of additional note is that while the odor of cannabis, burnt or unburnt, is not just cause for a stop or search of a vehicle, it is probable cause to search the vehicle of a driver who is under the age of 21. Counties will continue to monitor any unforeseen public safety issues as they arise and prepare public safety teams accordingly.