Public safety remains concern two years after legalization of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts

recreational marijuana
(Photo via Creative Commons)

By Lauren Frias
BU News Service

BOSTON — More than two years after recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts, the state has yet to see much physical change in the new industry. But officials say the concern for public safety in the age of legal weed remains a priority.

Public officials and experts are weighing in on the possible consequences that the developing marijuana industry could have on the state; in particular, the dangers of impaired driving and the fact some cannabis consumers are sustaining the black market out of personal convenience.

Driving under the influence

Studies in Massachusetts found that from 2013 to 2017, marijuana was the most prevalent drug, aside from alcohol, involved in fatal crashes from driver usage, being found in the systems of 30 percent of motorists at the time of the crash.

“We have a long history of studies — real situation and simulation studies — and decades of data clearly showing how marijuana interferes with motor coordination, time perception, reaction time and driving performance,” said Dr. Ruben Baler, a health science administrator for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “This is known for many, many years, and it is measurable and very significant.

“The action of driving is actually a really complex function that the brain performs almost seamlessly,” he added. “When you are unable to coordinate, to calculate the time that it would take to stop or when you’re over-compensating or over-conscious of your driving, things can go wrong, and that lack of coordination can lead to crashes.”

Gov. Charlie Baker announced recently plans to strengthen the state’s laws against impaired driving and to launch a campaign to educate cannabis users about the dangers of driving while high.

“Driving impaired is both illegal and dangerous, and represents a significant threat to public safety,” Baker said in a statement. “In addition to working with public safety officials to enforce existing impaired driving laws, our administration has also introduced legislation that will equalize the treatment of alcohol and drugs with respect to driving under the influence, and give law enforcement more tools and resources to keep our roads safe.”

Despite legislation and educational initiatives cracking down on impaired driving, there is no current scientific measure to determine if marijuana impairment is involved in a crash. Nonetheless, Jeff Larason, director of highway safety at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said that alternative methods are in place to keep the roads safe.

“Drug recognition experts” are law enforcement officers trained to identify drivers impaired by drugs by referring to a 12-step evaluation process. Programs like Advanced Roadside Impaired Detection Enforcement also provide general law enforcement with sufficient training and information to detect if a person is impaired in the context of traffic safety, Larason said.

While equating marijuana impairment with alcohol impairment “is really comparing apples and oranges,” Baler said that alcohol use is more strongly associated with accidents on the roads, but it’s only because the prevalence of drunk driving is higher.

Marijuana can be just as impairing, Baler said. And that is contrary to public belief that some people can still drive while high, according to Larason.

“Cannabis is something that can affect your ability to drive safely, but a lot of people in the community said, ‘No, marijuana does not impair drivers,’” Larason said. “It’s very important for people to understand and recognize for themselves, as they make decisions about their own driving … in some circumstances, and for some people, it does impair.

“If you feel different, you drive different,” he added.

Marijuana on the black market

The slow ramp-up of recreational cannabis shops throughout the state has contributed to the public’s continued reliance on the black market, with 75 percent of marijuana purchases in Massachusetts this year going through unlicensed sellers, according to the Boston Globe.

Cannabis consumers continue to fuel the illicit market by turning to street dealers instead of licensed establishments, as more expensive products and long lines at establishments in communities farther out of the greater Boston area struggle to serve a large portion of city residents.

“The black market that was supposed to be diminished, it’s actually been exacerbated; it’s become much worse,” said Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael. “Our goal here was to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system.

“What we’re dealing with now” he continued, “is not just a large illicit market, but a gray market as well.”

Some pot shops are attempting to open closer to Boston proper to circumvent patronage on the black/gray market — one just opened in Brookline, and one is proposed for Commonwealth Avenue in Boston — but residents have offered some pushback relating to traffic and congestion concerns.

However, Rep. David LeBoeuf, D-Worcester, a member of the Legislature’s Committee on Cannabis Policy, said that the more businesses that show up in the state, the less traffic there will be.

“When the facility [in Leicester] opened up, it was one of only two legal recreational facilities on the East Coast, with the exception of Washington, D.C.,” LeBoeuf said. “You have people coming from Virginia, from Canada, all over the place coming to these facilities, and it was causing the chaos that people were experiencing.

“Now if you drive past that area, it’s gone down pretty significantly, and that’s something we’re going to see now that there’s so many more across the state that are opening up,” he added. “The traffic and congestion issues are going away.”

From a health and safety perspective, LeBoeuf also recommends that cannabis consumers purchase in retail shops so “they know what they’re putting into their body.”

“The fact that people are able to get their product from a facility that tested the product to abide by strict health and safety regulations, it does essentially let people know exactly what they are consuming,” he said. “On the street, you might not know if it was laced with something else or the potency of the product or how your body is going to react to it.”

LeBoeuf said that, with time, the public will adjust to the existence of the legalized recreational marijuana in the state and encourage safer methods of distribution moving forward.

“I see it evolving in a similar way to how alcohol did after the prohibition,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot more information on the industry that will come about in the future.”

This article was previously published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.


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