Massachusetts learns perils of driving while high
Friday, June 10, 2016
If a police officer can smell burning marijuana or can see a driver holding a lit marijuana joint, that's too bad in Massachusetts. According to a ruling from the state's Supreme Judicial Court last fall, neither of those instances gives police the right to pull over the vehicle.
The court ruling effectively made it legal to drive and smoke marijuana in the state of Massachusetts. And that surprising decision has now resulted in dire consequences for one law enforcement officer.
On March 16, State Police Trooper Thomas Clardy was in his police cruiser when it was hit by a driver allegedly high on marijuana. Clardy, a father of six children under the age of 18, died of his injuries.
If another police officer had seen David Njuguna when he was allegedly smoking the marijuana he had just purchased one hour earlier — even if he was smoking it while traveling on the highway — the officer could not have done anything. Until Njuguna crossed three lanes of traffic in an irregular manner, a law enforcement officer could take no action.
But for Clardy, that would have been too late. Njuguna reportedly crossed three lanes of traffic and hit Clardy's car at a speed of 81 miles per hour. Clardy was on duty and had pulled off to the side of the road for a routine traffic check.
Njuguna has been charged with manslaughter, motor vehicle homicide, operating to endanger, operating under the influence of drugs, and operating an uninsured motor vehicle in Worcester Superior Court of Massachusetts.
The assistant district attorney involved in the case, Jeffrey Travers, reports that Njuguna had obtained three marijuana cigarettes just one hour before the crash and that police officers had found one partially smoked marijuana cigarette in the car and one was missing. Njuguna had a positive blood test for THC when examined at the hospital after the crash.
The substantial limits to what a law enforcement officer can now do when observing use of marijuana is a threat to public safety. As a result of this deadly incident, several legislative actions are being discussed to remedy the loophole in the law that now exists.
One such bill had been proposed by the state senate in April of 2015 to at least allow the odor of marijuana to be allowable means to further investigate. This bill has recently been referred for study. Two other bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — propose standards related to open containers much like those for alcohol.
The states of Washington and Colorado — where the recreational use of marijuana is legal — had already addressed this concern at the time Massachusetts was making it essentially legal to drive high on marijuana.
It is too late for Clardy. It is too late for his wife, his six young children and another child who as an adult must reconcile his loss. The law enforcement community is encouraging support for the family.
It is not safe to drive after having consumed marijuana. Just like with alcohol, it should be illegal to use marijuana while in a car, it should be illegal to have it available for use in the car. The states of Washington and Colorado already understand this. And sadly, the state of Massachusetts has learned this the hard way.
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