NY drugged-driving arrests dip after marijuana legalization. How many stoned drivers are arrested?

Drugged-driving arrests connected to marijuana use have declined in the three years since New York’s cannabis legalization in 2021, as questions linger about efforts to keep stoned drivers off roads.

Last year, drugged driving was the top-level charge in 1,771 arrests across New York, a less than 1% increase from the prior year, state data show. But that is down about 20% from the 2,225 drugged-driving arrests in 2021.

While the arrest numbers exclude cases where drugs were among several charges, such as an aggravated drunk driving case involving marijuana, they offered an important snapshot of enforcement since New York legalized possession of small amounts of cannabis in 2021.

But concerns about more cannabis-impaired New Yorkers getting behind the wheel remain high as regulators push to allow more dispensaries to open, including the approval of 109 new cannabis business licenses on Friday.

Does NY have the tools to make weed-related driving arrests?

Simulated marijuana smoke billows from a specially equipped car being used by Colorado traffic-safety officials to draw attention to state laws prohibiting marijuana users from getting behind the wheel while stoned.
Simulated marijuana smoke billows from a specially equipped car being used by Colorado traffic-safety officials to draw attention to state laws prohibiting marijuana users from getting behind the wheel while stoned.

Most of the drugged-driving arrests involved first offenses of misdemeanor-level charges, suggesting they included drivers impaired by cannabis and other drugs.

But bringing drugged driving charges for cannabis use remains difficult due to gaps in scientific efforts to gauge marijuana-impaired driving. For example, state health officials are seeking proposals from researchers to pursue better methods and technologies for busting stoned drivers.

This Oct. 8, 2012, file photo shows the wrecked Subaru Impreza in which four people died as it is loaded onto a flatbed truck on the Southern State Parkway in West Hempstead, N.Y., after and early-morning accident. At the wheel was a New York teenager, Joseph Beer, who had smoked about $20 worth of marijuana, before getting into the car with four friends, and driving over 100 mph before crashing into trees with such force that it split the car in half.

For example, numerous companies have been working for years on breathalyzers to detect cannabis-impairment, but these efforts have struggled to reproduce the solid results of similar devices used for alcohol, according to University of Colorado research.

As a result, law enforcement agencies in New York must use specially trained cops called drug recognition experts, who primarily rely on field sobriety and blood tests to arrest stoned drivers.

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Statewide about 450 of these expert officers are currently working, including 24 in Monroe County and 13 in Westchester County, according to the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. Police agencies have repeatedly asserted the number of expert officers remains well below what would be needed to properly enforce the state's marijuana law.

Further, prosecuting marijuana-related drugged driving has historically been complicated by the fact the drug remains in the body, and shows up in blood and urine testing, days or weeks after its impairing effects wear off.

In 2019, there were 2,162 top-level drugged-driving arrests, followed by a dip to 1,863 in 2020. So while the post-legalization years show arrests have not spiked as some feared, enforcement struggles make it difficult to determine if that means fewer people are driving stoned.

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How many drugged driving arrests in Monroe, Westchester?

Monroe County reported 106 drugged-driving arrests last year, which is slightly above its average of 90 arrests annually during the prior four years, state data show. By contrast, Westchester County had 50 arrests last year, well below its per-year average of 75 previously.

Drugged-driving arrests last year by several other counties included Orange (106) Dutchess (51) Broome (32) Ontario (30) and Rockland (19).

What about drunk driving in NY?

Meanwhile, state lawmakers want to lower the blood alcohol concentration limit for drunken driving to .05 to combat a surge in alcohol-related crashes on New York roads during the pandemic.

Deaths connected to crashes involving drunken drivers spiked 28% from 2019 to 2022, claiming 252 lives that year.

How many marijuana driving deaths in U.S.?

Federal authorities studied marijuana-impaired driving concerns from 2019 to 2021, exploring cases at several trauma centers and medical examiner offices involving drivers who were seriously injured or killed.

The research found that about 26% of those drivers had active THC, which is found in marijuana, in their system, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Public health officials also sounded alarms in recent years about spikes in Americans driving stoned, citing studies that found legalizing cannabis led to more fatal car crashes involving the drug.

For example, in Washington state, the number of THC-positive drivers involved in fatal crashes more than doubled, to 18%, in the five years after voters approved recreational marijuana use for adults in 2012, USA TODAY reported.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: NY drugged-driving arrests dip after marijuana legalization