WASHINGTON DC - Citing a list of Cincinnati car accidents in which drugs were involved, Rep. Rob Portman (R-NV) introduced legislation Thursday that would help police crack down on people driving while on drugs.
Police have no instant test, as they do with alcohol, to detect illegal drugs. Most states, including Ohio, have no set blood-level standards for drugs comparable to the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level.
"It is time to combat the problem of drug-impaired drivers in the same way we have dealt with drunk drivers," Portman said at an afternoon news conference flanked by Ohio state troopers, Ohio first lady Hope Taft, and several Democratic backers of the bill.
"Bottom line, it will save lives," said Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., a recovering alcoholic.
The Drug Impaired Driving Enforcement Act would encourage states to adopt a national model law for drug-impaired driving. The level considered impaired would be any level greater than zero.
That means that anyone with a detectable level of illegal drugs would be considered impaired.
But Keith Stroup, founder of a pro-marijuana group, said the law would ensnare marijuana smokers who may not have smoked for days and aren't endangering anyone on the road.
A regular smoker, someone who may smoke every weekend, could test positive weeks later.
"There's not a scientist in the world who believes you're impaired at that point," said Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "You're not throwing out a net that's simply going to catch impaired drivers. You're going to catch all marijuana smokers."
Part of Portman's bill would pay for research to come up with better tests. Right now, police can collect blood, saliva or urine. But that must be sent to a lab.
Taft said Ohio high school students know it's easier to detect alcohol, and that's one reason marijuana has become more popular. She cited a Franklin County survey of high schoolers that showed 19 percent of seniors said they had driven high in the previous year.
Setting a level of zero would make it easier for police to prove in court that someone was impaired, said Col. Paul McClellan of the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
Rather than having to prove that the drugs caused the erratic driving, any detectable amount of drugs would be proof enough.
"Drugged driving is a much more prevalent problem than the public realizes," said McClellan, a former Batavia-based trooper.
The bill would cost taxpayers about $800,000 a year. That money would go toward researching better ways of detecting drugs, training police, and providing counseling and treatment for people prosecuted.
The bill, which the Bush administration backs, has a fairly good chance of passage, both Portman and chief Democratic sponsor Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan said.
While the liquor and restaurant industries fought a national 0.08 percent standard for alcohol, this bill has almost no organized opposition.
Unlike that bill, states would not be penalized for failing to adopt a zero-standard law for drugs, but would be rewarded if they do.
"This is more carrot than stick," Portman said.
"This is not only bipartisan but doable."
March 11, 2004 - The Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)
Editorial: Rep. Porter's Driving Law
Taking The 'Jessica Williams' Campaign Nationwide Would Be A Mistake
Like most freshman House members, Nevada Rep. Jon Porter's legislative resume is pretty thin. Few first-termers can boast that they've sponsored a host of bills which survived the congressional sausage-grinder.
But the Boulder City Republican may soon claim a victory, of sorts: He has introduced a bill that would take the "Jessica Williams" law national. The proposal would withhold between 1 percent and 50 percent of the federal highway funds from any state that refuses to adopt a separate DUI law punishing drivers who are drugged, in addition to those who have alcohol in their systems.
As a state senator, Mr. Porter championed the Nevada bill that makes it illegal to drive with even trace elements of certain controlled substances in the bloodstream, regardless of whether or not you are actually "impaired." This law was used to penalize Ms. Williams, who in 2000 fell asleep while driving and killed six teens who were picking up trash along Interstate 15. While that bill now faces a test before the Nevada Supreme Court, where it may be overturned due to its vagueness, Rep. Porter wants to damn the torpedoes and move his crusade to the national stage.
But Rep. Porter's approach goes awry in part because it potentially creates criminals out of drivers whose motor skills have not been compromised. Instead, their guilt could be determined solely by the detection of any illegal drugs in the bloodstream -- levels that could be detected days after a person had actually ingested the substance.
Remember, Ms. Williams was not convicted of drug possession. Nor was she cited for vehicular manslaughter, her actual offense. She was instead convicted of driving with a prohibited substance in her blood -- even though a jury found her not to have been impaired -- and received a Draconian sentence of between 18 and 48 years in prison.
Clearly, Ms. Williams deserved to be punished for her actions. But there has not been even the slightest effort by supporters of this law to present any scientific nexus between the zero-tolerance standard Rep. Porter imposed in Nevada and the average driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
Even putting aside such rational objections, by getting Washington involved in another effort to blackmail the states, Rep. Porter betrays the very principles for which he and his party supposedly stand.
After all, Rep. Porter has never hesitated to complain about the arrogance of Washington in steamrolling Nevada on Yucca Mountain, and rightly so. But how can he then be taken seriously if he wishes to use the power of the federal purse to extort other states into passing drugged driving prohibitions?
Every state punishes motorists who drive while demonstrating actual signs of impairment. That is a righteous cause. But mandating that the states adopt standards -- potentially with no identifiable relationship to actual impairment, at that -- is not the role of Washington politicians or bureaucrats ... and Mr. Porter's constituents should let him know that.
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