Article by Jimi Devine, Cannabis Now
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts saw its highest court rule on Tuesday that roadside field sobriety tests — used to see if someone is under the influence of alcohol while operating a motor vehicle — cannot be treated as conclusive evidence to prove someone is operating under the influence of marijuana.
However, the Supreme Judicial Court did conclude it was fair game for officers to tell jurors how someone performed on the test, but not whether they passed or failed. Police will also not be allowed to tell jurors whether or not they felt someone was too high to be behind the wheel.
“While not all researchers agree, a significant amount of research has shown that consumption of marijuana can impair the ability to drive,” the court said in its opinion. “There is ongoing disagreement among scientists, however, as to whether the [field sobriety tests] are indicative of marijuana impairment. In recent years, numerous studies have been conducted in an effort to determine whether a person’s performance on the [field sobriety test] is a reliable indicator of impairment by marijuana. These studies have produced mixed results.”
The experts tend to agree with the courts on the ongoing complexity of the issue.
“This is one of the more complicated cannabis policy issues out there, and we expect to see a variety of legal, scientific, and technological developments around it over the next several years,” said Mason Tvert, an activist who led Colorado’s successful legalization effort.
Tvert went on to speak of the compelling public interest in preventing impaired driving, but said that many states have adopted laws that result in the punishment of drivers who were not actually impaired.
“Not surprisingly, these flawed laws result in court challenges, leaving it up to judges to keep law enforcement in check, as was the case in Massachusetts,” he said
The D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project said it supports the use of field sobriety tests to deal with impaired driving, and noted that the court did not strike down the legality of these tests. “This ruling just says that police officers cannot definitively say if a person failed, so the court must look at the totality of circumstances,” said Senior Communications Manager Morgan Fox. “This could actually protect drivers from being falsely convicted based on one officer’s testimony, but won’t hamper efforts to prevent impaired driving.”