Medical pot brings up DUI questions - 8 News NOW

Medical pot brings up DUI questions

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LAS VEGAS -- Medical marijuana is about to become available in southern Nevada.

As of today, 9,000 Nevadans have been issued medical marijuana cards and that number is expected to surge once dispensaries start opening in the coming months.

This trend is also raising questions about the impact of marijuana users on our roads.

In Las Vegas, there is no last call for alcohol. Club drugs can be a way of life in some circles and getting hooked on prescription drugs is an epidemic.

Now, like it or not, pot is about to be even more prevalent here, and southern Nevada could see more people driving while high.

‘Drive high, and get a DUI,’ is the message from the Nevada Highway Patrol as troopers are getting used to the distinct smell of pot.

"Probably about one out of every four stops, we'll see where there is the odor of it, or there is some presence of the marijuana," NHP trooper Loy Hixson said.

Trooper Hixson sees different effects of marijuana on drivers.

"From their eyes being bloodshot and glassy. Their thinking may be a bit slower also,” Hixson said.

A recent study by Columbia University found fatal car crashes involving marijuana use tripled in six states between 1999 and 2010.

Locally, Metro Police say statistically, if they tested each impaired driver involved in a deadly crash, one in nine would likely test positive for marijuana.

Now that medical marijuana dispensaries are coming online and legalizing marijuana for recreation is gaining momentum, an age-old old debate about weed is gaining new life.

The anti-cannabis film "Reefer Madness" went on to become a cult classic. It gave a dramatic portrayal of the dangers of driving stoned back in 1936. But 78 years later, this is a serious subject in southern Nevada.

"If you do the math, the logical assumption is, yes, there's going to be more people driving high," Erin Breen, with the UNLV Transportation Research Center, said.

Breen says we're going down the wrong road, in the wrong direction.

"What we worry about the most is slower reaction times," Breen said.

Dr. Mel Pohl is medical director of the Las Vegas recovery center. Pohl believes too many people driving high may bring roadway safety to a new low.

"I have no doubt accidents and fatalities are going to go up from marijuana," Dr. Pohl said, "Marijuana does a lot of things to the central nervous system. It distorts time perception. It distorts the ability to tell distances. It distorts memory."

"There are some studies that were done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that said there were people who actually drive better after using marijuana. Nobody likes to talk about that," Las Vegas attorney John Watkins said.

Watkins represented Jessica Williams. In March 2000, the former exotic dancer smoked a joint at the Valley of Fire, and three hours later, fell asleep while driving her van back to Las Vegas, mowing down and killing six teens, as they picked up trash in a highway median.

"It's a sad case, all the way around, no question about it. But Jessica Williams was not impaired on marijuana, and that's what the jury found," Watkins said.

Watkins says Nevada law, with a two-nanogram legal limit, needs to be changed because as it stands now, anyone who uses medical marijuana would be guilty of a DUI, weeks after they took a hit.

"’Oh, so Mr. Watkins, so then you want people driving out there who are impaired on marijuana.’ Absolutely not! The police are trained. We have an impairment statute," Watkins said.

State officials this month already are tackling a host of issues, including Nevada's medical marijuana driving dilemma. As green signs and marijuana leaves pop up.

"We're in a rocky ride, in my opinion," Dr. Pohl said.

"The public is completely safe," Watkins said.

"It just makes me sad," Breen said.

The cannabis controversy will no doubt heat up.

Colorado began allowing recreational marijuana on January 1. Washington State started two weeks ago.

Traffic data in those two states will be under the microscope, as other states like Nevada debate the drug and driving.

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