Medical marijuana legalization brings questions about how Missouri will deal with impaired drivers

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- Thousands of Missourians are expected to start using medical marijuana this year after voters approved it for treatment of certain conditions.

But local law enforcement warns it can have serious consequences if users try driving while high.

In 2016, there were 947 deadly crashes in Missouri. According to the Missouri Safety Center, 78 of those drivers were using marijuana.

The same year nationally, 42% of impaired drivers killed in crashes tested positive for marijuana.

"We've investigated hundreds of crashes involving someone who has been impaired on drugs," Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Lowe said.

Cops realize there's no safe way to simulate the effects of impaired driving, so they use goggles.

FOX4 tested goggles Lee's Summit Police use, made by a company called Drunk Busters. The company's name is derived from their beginnings decades ago manufacturing drunk goggles. But now they're also making cannabis-specific goggles to replicate the effects of driving while high.

FOX4's Dave D'Marko went through the course three times set up by Lee's Summit Police. First sober, then simulating drunk and high, driving wearing the different sets of goggles. See how he did in the video above.

While he breezed through the course in 17 seconds sober, it took him 53 seconds wearing the drunk goggles, and a full minute and 20 seconds wearing the cannabis goggles.

How realistic are those cannabis goggles?

The founder and owner of the manufacturing company Curt Kindschuh told FOX4 they underwent rigorous testing creating the goggles and were told by multiple people who have used marijuana, the distortion effect they create is "spot on."

"I feel like I shouldn't be behind the wheel right now," D'Marko said to Officer Carmen Spaeth after finishing up the final course, leaving a trail of crushed cones behind him.

That's a message cops are stressing, especially as more people start to use medical marijuana in Missouri this year.

"Just because they get that medical card or clearance to use that drug doesn't necessarily mean that they are safe to operate a car with it," Spaeth said.

A University of Michigan study released this year found 5% of medical marijuana patients admitted to driving while at least a little high.

So as Missouri rolls out the program this year, how is it dealing with the issue?

So far that's just about as unclear as it looks through the haze of those marijuana goggles.

FOX4 asked the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which is set to release rules for the new medical marijuana program next month. They were unsure whose responsibility it will be to discuss safe use and driving practices with medical marijuana patients -- or if it will be anyone's.

Dr. Kathy Trumbull is starting to see patients at Green Health Docs interested in getting conditions certified for medical marijuana use after dispensaries cultivators and manufacturers submit applications in August.

"I'm telling them already, use it responsibly," Trumbull said.

She's less concerned with patients driving while high than some studies would indicate.

"They are going to have less anxiety. They are going to have less pain. For a lot of people, they will be using it, and they will be driving because they aren't going to be high," Trumbull said.

She points out the CBD components are generally higher and THC lower for medical marijuana than street marijuana. But that doesn't mean, like many prescription drugs, driving is without its dangers.

"I tell them already if you are going to try something new, whether it's more of something or a different strain, I don't want you doing that and jumping in a car and driving," Trumbull said.

So how long can medical marijuana affect you? Just like alcohol, it depends on the person and their body type.

"It could be only a couple of hours, or it could be longer," Trumbull said.

There's also a misconception that, because there's no breathalyzer or set level like the .08 for blood alcohol content, cops can't distinguish between recent and past marijuana use.

"We look in their eyes. Are they bloodshot, glassy? Are they able to focus on us?" Spaeth said.

Missouri employs 200 specially trained Drug Recognition Experts to test drivers for impairment other than alcohol.

"It's just going to have to be able to say inside yourself, 'I'm still not my normal self, so I shouldn't be driving a car,'" Spaeth said.

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