Steve May: Deterrence should outweigh drugged driving standards

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve May, a licensed independent clinical social worker specializing in addiction medicine and a member of the Selectboard in Richmond, where he lives.

Most states adopted the .10 blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for drunk driving a generation ago and when they did, it was not universally embraced. The .10 BAC was selected because it represents some consensus; but that meeting of the minds represented a decision bound every bit as much in politics as it was in clinical science and addiction medicine.

Congress passed a Transportation Authorization bill in the mid-1980s and compelled the states to adopt .10 as condition of receiving​ their portion of the monies. When that funding bill was passed, imposing .10 on the states, it entered a political environment with a patchwork of drunken driving rules with minimum BAC guidelines across a wide spectrum. There was no consensus. All of those states used the best information available to them to set their guidelines, and there were significant difference state to state.

Whatever standard we ultimately adopt for drugged driving, be clear that standard will be equally arbitrary, informed by political reality every bit as much as best medical practices.

Gov. Phil Scott has been arguing that his acceptance of a marijuana bill depends on creating some enforcement standards for drugged driving. With all due respect to the governor, the standard is the least important part of the law. Rather, a commitment to deterrence is much critical than the actual standard. Cannabis users are citizens who notwithstanding their marijuana use are good neighbors and productive members of society. When cannabis use has consequences which impact others, then the full impact of the judicial system should be brought to bear. Drugged driving is not tolerable. When misuse of cannabis is an element in criminal activity it must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

When cannabis use has consequences which impact others, then the full impact of the judicial system should be brought to bear. Drugged driving is not tolerable.


Australia’s various states provide a useful model for Americans. They have a saliva test which has been tested rigorously and held up to scrutiny. More importantly, New South Wales and Queensland impose automatic loss of a driver’s license when found guilty of drugged driving, and drugged driving is aggravating factor should an accident result. Repeat offenders are mandated to treatment facilities in addition to facing the loss of a driver’s license for years not months. Polysubstance users, people who mix their cannabis with some other narcotic are most volatile and represent a real danger to the public. Any meaningful test must be able to detect the presence of multiple narcotics.

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Whatever standard the governor and Legislature adopt for drugged driving, it will be arbitrary. Sure, there will be plenty of folks with insight or advice. Many of them will even be well meaning. But at the end of the day, the number we pick will be more like a suggestion. After all, the .10 was replaced by .08 and now the push for .05 continues in many places in this country and around the world. These numbers are borne of a want to make us increasingly safe, but in truth they are the “manufacturer suggested retail price” of public policy.

Responsible cannabis users support strict enforcement, because drugged driving makes all cannabis users look bad. Misuse of cannabis is a threat to the safe, responsible use of cannabis for all cannabis users. A test which truly recognizes that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can continue to stay in the tissue and blood stream beyond last use should be welcomed.


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