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Highly Informed: A followup on cannabis DUI

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 6, 2015

This week we're following up on the driving under the influence discussion published April 8. A few Anchorage readers since then have asked for more clarity about how DUI evidence works with cannabis in Alaska's largest city.

As we discussed that week, the chief chemical in cannabis that's believed responsible for impairment is delta-9 THC. As the body uses that substance, it changes into different, inactive forms of THC that no longer produce a "high," but that are evidence of past use. Levels of active THC high enough to cause impairment typically dissipate after several hours, but the inactive form can last in the body for a month or more depending on individual factors. Both types of THC are detectable in blood tests, but the inactive type is more commonly associated with urine tests like the ones used for employers with zero-tolerance drug policies.

So, to make absolutely certain: Are the inactive forms of THC, also known as THC metabolites, used as evidence in cases of people suspected of operating motor vehicles under the influence (OUI)?

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

"The answer is no," said Anchorage municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno, "Metabolites are not used as direct evidence of impairment in an OUI case."

Pretty clear cut there.

So what about reporting crime statistics? Do metabolite levels figure into the definition of a marijuana-involved OUI for purposes of reporting stats on drugged driving?

In that April installment of Highly Informed, Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew identified a few problems posed by cannabis impairment, and testing for it, when it comes to gathering statistics. But he was able to give a rough estimate that between legalization day and the first week of April, APD suspects "marijuana involvement" in two dozen cases. Those cases include ones where a suspect blew lower than .08 percent for blood alcohol content but was showing signs of impairment anyway. Mew said that it's not possible now for his department to determine how many people suspected of impaired driving are both drunk and high on cannabis at the time of their arrest.

Mew said in a followup that he is unsure that we'll ever get the level of precision we'll need to really know for certain how many Alaska cases marijuana is involved in. "The question," he wrote, "of whether 'marijuana is involved' is a decision made by the initial responding officer -- essentially a tick box on the face sheet of the police report. It may be weeks or months before the lab results come back and 'we' know whether that's a metabolite or Delta 9. And 'we' may mean the prosecutor. Or the traffic investigator. But if the case doesn't go to trial the original officer may never know and, besides, the data entry is long done."

Mew said that if police suspect marijuana of contributing to any crime, and if they have some corroboration (like smelling it, seeing it or getting an admission), then they'll check that box on the police report. But Mew said that isn't alleging "proof beyond a reasonable doubt for purposes of collecting the statistic." He said it's just a call based on common sense that helps police understand how often they encounter the contributing factor, whether it's marijuana or anything else. Mew said, "We apply the same bar to 'alcohol involved,' '(domestic violence) involved,' and maybe some other things we want to track."

Unscientific survey

Recently, Highly Informed has been hearing whispers about changes taking place here and there in Alaska's black market for cannabis, but details are sparse. It'll be completely unscientific, and we're more interested in information than names, but we're hoping readers can help us take a rough snapshot of the cannabis markets that consumers statewide are encountering. Have prices changed in your area since Ballot Measure 2 took effect?

Let us know where you are, what you're paying for a gram (or any size bag, and we'll do the math), and whether the price, selection or quality have changed in your area since around Feb. 24. If we get enough response, we'll try to assemble the information into something we can all learn from.

If you're willing to match info-nugs with folks across the state, please send an email with your answers to the questions above to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com, with "Survey" leading the subject line.

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com, with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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