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EDITORIAL: Assembly launches statewide DUI experiment

EDITORIAL: Assembly launches statewide DUI experiment

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WITH THE legalization of recreational marijuana and to-go cocktails in Virginia, one has to wonder if incidents of driving under the influence (DUI) will increase in the commonwealth. What will happen on Virginia highways when drivers are able to order to-go cocktails or weed on their cellphones? Nobody knows for sure, but the chances that these new laws will reduce DUIs seem pretty low.

Two bills just passed by the General Assembly relax current laws regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. If signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, HB 1979 would allow restaurants to sell two mixed take-out alcoholic beverages per meal, or a maximum of four grab-and-go cocktails. Wineries would also be allowed to sell mixed wine drinks to consumers for off-premises consumption.

Another bill passed by the legislature, HB 2266, gives the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board “authority to increase the frequency and duration of events” requiring a liquor license if requested by a locality. Current law allows localities to hold 16 events of not more than three days duration annually.

Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana won’t be legal until Jan. 1, 2024, when retail sales of weed will be allowed under another bill passed by state lawmakers. Last year, the General Assembly decriminalized pot by making possession a civil penalty punishable by a fine of no more than $25.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical reasons. It then went on to legalize marijuana for recreational use as well, and many other states have followed. As of November 2020, 14 states have legalized pot and another 16 states have decriminalized it.

A study published in March 2020 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that “the proportion of cannabis-positive drivers involved in fatal crashes increased from 8 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2014, raising concerns about the impact of cannabis use on driving. … Overall, cannabis users demonstrated impaired driving relative to healthy control participants with increased accidents, speed, and lateral movement, and reduced rule-following.”

The researchers noted that these impairments were seen in regular cannabis users even when they were not intoxicated, particularly “early onset users” who began smoking pot before age 16.

We already know that driving drunk is a recipe for disaster. In Virginia, it is also a Class 1 misdemeanor, with up to a $2,500 fine and up to 12 months in jail for a first offense in addition to revocation of your driver’s license.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, 34 percent of all traffic fatalities in Virginia in 2018 were alcohol-related, causing 278 of the 819 traffic deaths that year. Virginians currently have a 1-in-6 chance of being involved in an alcohol-related crash over the course of their lifetime in the commonwealth. Will their chances of getting into an accident with a marijuana- or alcohol-impaired driver increase when these intoxicating substances will be as easy to get as a slurpee? Nobody knows.

What we do know is that the Virginia legislature has just launched a statewide DUI experiment, and all drivers in Virginia are the guinea pigs.

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