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State seeks DWI pot-testing tech years after legalization

What are they smoking?

The Hochul administration is nowhere close to implementing a statewide system to test whether motorists are driving stoned – more than two-and-a-half years after New York legalized recreational pot use. 

The state Department of Health is searching for the latest technology to test whether drivers are impaired by weed — the second time it has made such a solicitation in the past year.

“With the legalization of adult-use cannabis, there are concerns of increased incidences of driving while impaired after cannabis use,” DOH said in a Sept. 8 solicitation seeking the latest academic research for cannabis testing — including blood, saliva, or breath samples.

“Identifying drivers impaired by cannabis use is of critical importance. . . . However, unlike alcohol, there are currently no evidence-based methods to detect cannabis-impaired driving,” health officials said in the pitch to research institutes.

The solicitation, due Oct. 8, is identical to one DOH issued in September 2022 — and the agency refused to say whether it went back to the drawing board because the first attempt was a bust. Spokesman Cort Ruddy would only say the new one was deemed “necessary after evaluating the initial responses.”

Assemblyman Keith Brown (R-Northport) slammed the state’s backward logic.

“You legalize it — then you figure it out? The horse is already out of the barn,” he said.  

Despite lacking a valid testing system, the state has greenlighted more than 460 licenses for cannabis businesses. So far, 23 are up and running. However, some 1,500 unlicensed businesses are operating in New York City alone.

Brown said he’s in the process of drafting legislation that would require police to conduct roadside saliva tests to determine marijuana intoxication.  

“They really need to do a comparative analysis and look at what other states have done,” said Brown, adding that Michigan launched a pilot program for the saliva tests that its state police deemed accurate in a 2021 report. “New York is so far behind when it comes to this issue.” 

The law legalizing cannabis in New York – approved in March 2021 by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature — mandated the DOH study ways to detect whether drivers are high.

But when Hochul took over as governor later that year, she moved to accelerate the process of getting the marijuana industry running.

This infuriated New York law enforcement groups and other critics who opposed legalizing marijuana in large part because hurdles still remained to prove drugged driving.

“We should’ve had all the research, information, and ability to identify cannabis-impaired drivers long before a legalization bill ever came to the floor,” fumed Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay (R-Pulaski). “Now, it appears the Department of Health is falling further behind on an effort that should have been top priority.”

A recent study by University of Illinois Chicago researchers found that in seven states where recreational cannabis was legalized — Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — car crash deaths jumped on average 10% post-legalization. 

Smoking weed can hinder people’s driving abilities by affecting their reaction time and decision-making abilities, impairing their coordination, and distorting their perception, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Pot also remains in a person’s system longer than alcohol, making it harder to link usage to DWI, officials have said — and there’s no test like an alcohol breath test to prove intoxication.

So far this year, only 157 arrests for driving while under the influence of drugs have been made in the Big Apple, according to the NYPD, which does not break down arrests by substance used. Last year, 204 drugged-driving arrests were made — a decrease from the 249 arrested in 2021. 

“The NYPD has trained over 20,000 officers in the detection and deterrence of alcohol and drug impairment since 2018,” a department spokesperson said. “The methods for testing alcohol and drug-impaired motorists have been unchanged since before legalization of recreational cannabis.”