**DISCLAIMER** These statements are my own.
by Deputy John Howard
Last month, I was pleased to be a guest Every Brain Matters (c/o Parents Opposed to Pot) podcast, all of which is made possible, in part, by Patreon. Corinne LaMarca, Director of Jennifer’s Messengers interviewed me for the series, “It’s Just Pot – What’s The Problem?” – Corinne’s story about her daughter’s murder caused by a marijuana-impaired driver is heartbreaking, see Jennifer’s Story. Her passion for this topic is admirable.
In that podcast, we discussed the marijuana laws in Florida and how those laws are affecting public safety, noting specific challenges that have arisen from the state’s development of medical marijuana (and then vastly expanding it).
We covered specifics about Florida DUID and the background behind my passion to aggressively investigate and pursue impaired drivers. I presented my personal opinions about what the state should change, in order to prevent marijuana-drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers from killing our family and friends.
During each stage of the research I gathered in advance, during the podcast itself and our discussions thereafter, it has become painfully clear that the answers to all the negative impacts of Florida’s medical marijuana system and laws and reduced drug possession enforcement are simply “Enforcement, Enforcement, Enforcement.”
The key take-away from that podcast should be the knowledge that marijuana users, with medical approval or not, who drive, are drugged drivers. Just like drivers impaired by alcohol, drivers impaired by marijuana kill children, parents and grandparents, every day. Period.
Preventing DUI and drugged driving crashes will require substantially increased levels of enforcement of every piece of the medical marijuana puzzle, consistent and aggressive enforcement of existing DUI / Drugged driving laws, and reinvigorated efforts of cities and counties to call themselves “Zero Tolerance Sanctuaries,” while simultaneously unleashing their law enforcement professionals to enforce existing drug and drug paraphernalia possession laws.
ENFORCEMENT – Florida’s “Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act”
Most of you reading this, are aware of Florida’s “Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 CS for SB 1030 2014”. Most of you likely also know that after five years of intense television campaigning and lobbying, Amendment 2 was passed into law on March 18, 2019, officially legalizing smokable marijuana.
While Gov. DeSantis knew that Amendment 2, also known as SB-182, [the] Medical Use of Marijuana Act, redefines the term “medical use” to include the possession, use and administration of marijuana in a form for smoking, it’s unlikely that he knew that Florida marijuana laws and enforcement would devolve quickly, down to a point that Florida is now, by default, a recreational marijuana state. It happened almost immediately after his signature.
He would have been aware that several criminal statutes, covering marijuana and other drugs were not being watered down, including the following, all of which are still Florida State Law:
FSS: 893.13(6)(b) Prohibited acts…..”If the offense is the possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis, as defined in this chapter, the person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree…
FSS: 381.986(1)(j) Growing: A person or entity that cultivates, processes, distributes, sells, or dispenses marijuana and is not licensed as a medical marijuana treatment center violates s. 893.13….
FSS: 893.147 Use, possession, etc…It is unlawful for any person to use, or to possess with intent to use, drug paraphernalia:
FSS: 893.145 “Drug paraphernalia” defined.—The term “drug paraphernalia” means all equipment, products, and materials of any kind which are used, intended for use, or designed for use in planting, propagating, cultivating…. or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance…..
Lastly, while Gov. DeSantis knew that medical marijuana was going to become easier to obtain in Florida, he knew that marijuana possession would still be illegal under Federal law.
I would bet Gov. DeSantis initially had issues signing this bill, but believed that the latest Amendment would only enable some Floridians to have better access to legal marijuana, while still prohibiting illegal drug and drug paraphernalia possession / growth / sales / distribution, for the vast majority of citizens, in the State.
Unfortunately, lack of enforcement of nearly every requirement of the “Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014” has had a trickle-down effect on other Florida drug possession and impaired-driving statutes, with substantial negative results. Traffic crashes and fatalities have increased across Florida. There’s been an explosion of illegal marijuana and drug paraphernalia in Florida. High-potency marijuana, sometimes with THC levels above 90%, has become most of the marijuana in the state.
The total numbers of Floridians with medical marijuana cards are skyrocketing. If you check in with the Florida Office of Medical Marijuana, they will tell you that they are vastly understaffed and have insufficient funds to police the more than “….2800 doctors in Florida who are certified to recommend [marijuana]…” nor the “….[large] number of open cannabis dispensaries [which] has crossed 385..” nor the “….646k+ Floridians (3.75%+ of all adult residents) with active medical marijuana cards…” The doctors prescribe medical marijuana with little concern about the three steps it takes to get to smokeable marijuana. The quality control is near zero on the doctors, the producers, and the processors of marijuana.
Ask them why it’s as easy to get a medical marijuana card as it is to buy a pack of gum and they will not have an answer.
Accordingly, on top of all the marijuana-drugged drivers who purchased their drugs illegally, there are now more than 646,000 “legal” operators of mobile missile launchers out there, on our roadways, just seconds away killing you or someone you love.
ENFORCEMENT – DUI / Drugged Driving / Aggressive Driving / Traffic Crashes
In 2018, the State of Florida started specifically tracking drug-related crash data. It’s already abundantly clear that marijuana is the number one most prevalent drug found in drugged drivers that caused a crash in Florida.
From 01/01/18 to 12/31/20, nearly 3000 crashes were caused by drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers. More than 1800 fatalities resulted and more than 2400 people were maimed by drugged and drunk drivers.
In 2020 alone, there were 746 fatalities from crashes involving alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both, in Florida. “The tragedies caused by impaired drivers on our roadways haunt the families who will never have the chance to hug their loved ones again,” per Colonel Gene S. Spaulding, Director of the Florida Highway Patrol. His team of consummate professionals have a saying: “If you are impaired in any capacity, don’t drive – no excuses.”
FHP, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV), recently produced an excellent PSA: Never Drive Impaired – FHP PSA.
Similar to the Statewide statistics, in St. Johns County alone, not including statistics captured by FHP State Troopers, our traffic crash numbers have doubled in 10 years (more than 5900 a year) and our DUI rates are up from 164 in 2012 to over 985 in 2021 (in a County with a population of only 275,000 residents). See the below chart that I assembled from several public sources.
As mentioned before, during the Every Brain Matters Podcast, current DUI / DUID laws regarding marijuana have made things more difficult to get marijuana-impaired drivers off the roads.
Most everyone is familiar with the DUI laws in their State, but in the State of Florida, knowing full well that most impaired drivers are drinking and taking drugs [also known as poly-drug users], has a consolidated DUI Statute:
FSS: 316.193(1) prohibits driving or being in physical control of a vehicle in Florida while under the influence of alcoholic beverages, chemical or controlled substances to the extent that his or her faculties were impaired…”
Marijuana falls into both the chemical and controlled substance categories, depending on the driver’s medical marijuana cardholder status.
Medical marijuana cards gets impaired drivers out of charges
One key problem that I’ve witnessed more than once is that a law enforcement officer will stop a likely DUI driver, and as soon as the driver whips out their medical marijuana card, the deputy will stop in his or her tracks, concerned that any additional DUI investigation might result in an arrest that could be argued as an improper one.
Another problem that has resulted from “medical marijuana” laws, is that it has tied law enforcement’s hands from arresting criminals who violate drug (marijuana) possession laws, whose only crime is “simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
I have two issues with that. First, Drug and Drug Paraphernalia possession is still illegal, by Statute. Secondarily, there is no immediate way to distinguish “high-THC cannabis from low-THC cannabis” in the field. I believe most of the medical marijuana cardholders we contact are holding marijuana containing extremely high levels of THC, even though we know that there is nothing “medical” or even “palliative” about high-THC cannabis.
There are also extensive accounts of marijuana being laced with other drugs, like Fentanyl. See https://www.wmur.com/article/marijuana-fentanyl-arrests-vermont/38422594 and https://wtvbam.com/2021/12/06/mdhhs-warns-marijuana-users-of-possible-issue-with-fentanyl-laced-product/ and https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/3-arrested-in-connection-with-fentanyl-laced-16668835.php, all of which were just posted this month.
To be clear, I strongly encourage all our deputies to treat traffic stops of suspected DUI / marijuana-impaired drivers just like any other DUI stop. Medical marijuana patients are not permitted to operate any vehicle while under the influence of medical marijuana. The fact that the driver is a “patient” that has a marijuana registry ID card, does not exempt them from arrest, prosecution or excuse them from any requirement under Florida law to submit to a breath, urine, or blood tests. 381.986(14)(f), F.S.).
If we adequately enforced immigration law, we’d also have fewer traffic deaths. Florida Statutes require every driver of a motor vehicle to have a valid driver’s license, from one of 50 US states or from their home country. I believe it’s critical to get these illegal criminals into the Florida criminal justice system as soon as possible, in hopes that they don’t go on to commit worse crimes, such as the following DUI fatalities. Here’s one that happened this past month: https://www.foxnews.com/us/guatemalan-illegally-kills-florida-collision
With all the above in mind, it seems clear that the patriots that originally objected to the new “compassion” marijuana statute were exactly right – our new medical marijuana became a direct gateway to the legalization of cannabis!
In closing, I believe the only way we can fix this massive problem is enforcement, enforcement, enforcement. I encourage every legislative body to double funding for every law enforcement traffic unit with a specific focus on fielding unmarked, slick top, “ghost cars”, which are awarded to those ARIDE- or DRE-certified Officers / Deputies / Trooper who are committed to finding and arresting DUI and DUID violators.
I also call on the Florida legislature to completely retract all medical marijuana laws and enhance DUI and cannabis possession charges to the felony level. The flooding of Florida with tens of thousands more marijuana-impaired drivers must be stopped.
Charging DUI / DUID drivers with a felony might finally be enough incentive for people to stop smoking marijuana, stop drinking alcohol, and stop driving while impaired by drugs or other chemicals.
Perhaps they might also consider adding a provision to Florida statutes to immediately suspend the driving privileges of anyone who “qualifies” for a medical marijuana card. That seems to be the only way to ensure those that need to smoke marijuana stay off the roads of our Great State.
**DISCLAIMER** These statements are my own.
Deputy John G. Howard
St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office, St. Augustine, FL.