Daniel Becker, a man suspected of hitting multiple vehicles and killing three pedestrians in Las Vegas, NV said he takes medication for seizures and used cannabis before the crash. The arrest report stated that Becker has a medical condition which produces seizures. For his condition, Becker had been prescribed Phenytoin but also disclosed that he smoked cannabis daily and had done so before work on the day of the crash, December 13th at 5:30 a.m. Police said Becker was driving a Ford Expedition when he struck the back of a Ford Mustang. Becker did not stop at the scene and headed southbound where he hit the back of a GMC Jimmy, continued over a center median and hit three pedestrians. Becker continued and struck a BMW 5 Series and a Chevrolet Silverado. All three pedestrians died at the scene of the crash.
The incident was tragic and leaves questions of, to what level, if any, did marijuana cause in the crash?Especially considering Phenytoin was also part of his regular treatment? Daniel Becker’s incident will surely be replayed as law enforcement awaits a way to successfully field test marijuana sobriety. Despite the increasingly legal use of cannabis in many states, cops still don’t have the equivalent of a reliable alcohol breathalyzer or blood test to understand what cannabis is doing in the brain chemically. Though a blood test exists that can detect some of marijuana’s components, there is no standardized amount in the breath or blood that gives police or courts or anyone else a good sense of who is impaired and to what degree.
A multitude of scientists are working hard to create a standard chemical test to re-define the behavioral indicators police use to determine impairment levels. Aside from legal complications for testing due to cannabis remaining as a Schedule 1 Drug, creating a standardized blood or breath test is also a tricky chemistry issue because of the properties of the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In states like Colorado, there is a THC blood test that law enforcement can use to show “presumed” impairment. If a person has more than 5 nanograms of delta-9-THC per milliliter of blood, a court or jury can infer that they are impaired, according to Colorado law.
Here enters Graham Lambert and Charles Cullison, two graduate students at Touro University Nevada (Henderson, NV). They told the President of the Nevada State Medical Association, Dr. Weldon Havins, that under current Nevada State DUI testing, law enforcement officials would not be able to detect the essential components in cannabis that could impair drivers. Lambert and Cullison’s research was so precise that Nevada legislatures passed a new DUI measure governing testing for marijuana impairment at field sobriety tests. Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the law into effect this past July. A blood test is now checking for delta-9-THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient, and 11-OH-THC which is a cannabis metabolite associated with cognitive impairment. Before that, urine tests would only be able to detect THC-COOH, a non-psychoactive waste product of marijuana that has no association with motor impairment and can remain in a person’s system for weeks after cannabis has been consumed.
These medical students, Lambert & Cullison, have opened the playing field for sound science regarding testing for the psychoactive ingredients in cannabis but there is much more work that needs to be done to create a fair and accurate testing system similar to the accuracy of alcohol sobriety tests.
By Tracy Jerome Chisley (@PoeticPanther)
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