BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – The Suffolk County district attorney is urging lawmakers to quickly address the issue of marijuana-impaired driving after a Swampscott man was arraigned on charges of killing two travelers from Texas while allegedly driving drunk and high.
Steven Birenbaum, 27 of Swampscott, was held on $5,000 cash bail after being charged with two counts of manslaughter and motor vehicle homicide while operating under the influence.
Birenbaum in August allegedly drove into the back of an airport shuttle driving east on the Massachusetts Turnpike at a speed approaching 80 miles per hour, causing both vehicles to crash into highway barriers. Joseph Rodriguez and Sandra L. Arreola, both of El Paso, Texas, suffered fatal injuries, and toxicology screens of the defendant’s blood and urine found THC and blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit.
“Cases like this one speak to the urgency with which lawmakers should address marijuana-impaired driving,” Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement. “It’s a proven fact that driving under the influence of marijuana is every bit as dangerous as it is for alcohol, but unlike alcohol, we don’t yet have a way to quantify a driver’s impairment from marijuana.”
A group of marijuana industry representatives, lawyers and activists met with legislative leaders to discuss the implementation of marijuana legalization amid talks that lawmakers may seek to delay some parts of the ballot law.
The danger of marijuana-impaired driving was one of the central arguments used by opponents against the successful ballot question legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts this month. While Colorado and Washington – two states that have already legalized marijuana – have set limits for marijuana intoxication while driving, states still lack quick and reliable roadside tests that could be administered to drivers suspected of being impaired.
“Massachusetts has neither an established impairment level nor an efficient means to test for one. Policymakers should be aware of this knowledge gap and take steps to bridge it if we expect to identify and prevent THC impairment among drivers,” Conley said.
While retail operations are much further off, the ballot law approved Nov. 8 authorizes on Dec. 15 the use of marijuana by individuals 21 and older, and authorizes people to possess up to one ounce of marijuana outside of their residences and up to 10 ounces of marijuana inside their residences, to grow up to six marijuana plants in their residences and to give one ounce or less of marijuana to a person at least 21 years old without payment.
Marijuana advocates met in Senate President Stanley Rosenberg’s office on Monday afternoon to talk about the steps required to create a legal marijuana market in Massachusetts.
“We had a fair and frank discussion about the initiative and we have committed to continuing to work with the Legislature on implementation of the law the way it was written,” Will Luzier, a former assistant attorney general who led the Yes on 4 campaign, said after the meeting.
Luzier said the group specifically discussed making sure there is funding available for the treasurer’s office to move forward with implementation. Gov. Charlie Baker has until Feb. 1, 2017 to appoint the 15-member Cannabis Advisory Board and Treasurer Deb Goldberg must appoint the three members of the Cannabis Control Commission by March 1, 2017.
Asked if lawmakers are discussing making minor or major changes to the ballot law approved by about 54 percent of voters, Luzier said, “I would say that they were talking about tweaks. I wouldn’t say that those are major changes.”
Several legislative leaders have indicated they hope to change the marijuana law, citing potential issues with the effective 12 percent tax rate on legal marijuana, the costs associated with building a regulatory structure for the marijuana industry and the provision that allows people to grow marijuana at their homes.
“I expect that the personal possession limits will go into effect on the 15th,” Luzier said. Asked whether home growing will also become legal on Dec. 15, Luzier said, “I’m very hopeful that that will also go into effect at the same time.”
Though Luzier said his position is that the Legislature should implement the law as voters approved it without making tweaks, he suggested that there may be a willingness to delay full legalization and the launch of retail marijuana shops.
“We’re certainly open to working with the Legislature. If they feel it’s important to extend the time limits, we’re open to working with them around that,” he said. “But our position is now that Colorado did it in the same time frame that we have proposed and we’re looking forward to their implementing the law in the way it was written.”
Rosenberg’s office did not respond to a request for the complete list of those who attended Monday afternoon’s meeting, but Rosenberg has previously expressed doubts about altering the home growing provision.
“I don’t believe people will be willing to get rid of home grown, but there may be some changes that would have to occur in that,” Rosenberg said on WCVB’s ‘On the Record’ about two weeks ago.
Baker, who led the opposition to the ballot question that legalized marijuana, told the News Service earlier this month that he expects the home-grown provision to take effect on Dec. 15 as anticipated, in part because of the difficulty in addressing controversial matters during informal legislative sessions when it only takes one objecting lawmaker to block a bill.
The governor on Monday, however, signaled an openness to some “modest” delays.
“I think the fact that people want to make sure they get this right and that they deal with some of the issues around public health, local control and pubic safety is not a bad thing, and as long as what the Legislature’s talking about is a modest period for debate, discussion and sort of some proposed alternative language and it’s done in conjunction with the folks who supported the ballot question and with others who are interested parties I think that’s OK,” Baker said during an appearance on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio.
He continued, “I think it would be a mistake if the thing got pushed way out.”