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The “THC concentration” in question refers to, as the initiative says, “delta-9” THC, also called “active” THC, rather than the “metabolite” THC that stays in the body for months after use.
The truth is confusing. Sarich claims active delta-9 THC could also be present for up to a month after use. A recent Seattle Times article claimed that the majority of research suggests “active THC dissipates in casual users within hours." Still, the same article also cited a study that found the detection period to be “highly variable,” and said time frame for a positive test “may not completely include the interval during which the user may be affected by the drug.”
New Approach Washington, the organization that authored I-502, cites a 2009 National Institute of Health study that shows active THC drops below the legal 5-nanogram limit within hours. Unless you smoke regularly. In which case, a 2005 study in the journal Addiction found that users can have between 1.0 and 6.4 nanograms of THC in their blood, even 24-48 hours after smoking their last joint.
Vivian McPeak, the co-founder and executive director of Seattle Hempfest, said there’s a lot of speculation at this point.
“If you’re taking some tokes on the weekend, it’s unknown what your blood levels will be the next day, or that evening,” he said.
If an officer pulls you over for driving erratically, and the officer identifies what West called “obvious signs of impairment,” they have probable cause to begin a DUI investigation. This could mean conducting field sobriety tests, consulting a drug recognition expert, or asking permission to draw blood to test for THC.
Under implied consent licensing laws in Washington, you can have your license suspended for refusing a blood test. If you’re charged with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, if you’re unconscious, or if you committed an action that caused serious injury to another, West said, officers can draw blood without consent. Blood draws normally occur at a hospital, because a medic has to perform them, but can be done in the field if a medic is present.
And even if you refuse and lose your license, it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
“DOL and criminal hearings are done separately,” West said. “Even if a person refuses to take a blood test, that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to go to trial or get charged with a DUI.”
Atwell, who is well-acquainted with the drug and its effects, said stringent regulations are reasonable because weed is unpredictable. Whereas drinking different varieties of alcohol produces a similar state of impairment, she said, different strains of pot vary drastically.
“There are strains of everything out there,” she said. “Some of it’s really euphoric and energetic, a lot of it is really depressive, so it really depends on what you’re smoking.”
Whatever strain they might be toking, underage users should know many studies suggest it takes much longer for active THC levels to drop to 0.0 nanograms — the requirement for them to avoid a DUI or other legal action. The same National Institute of Health study cited by New Approach Washington suggests it could take almost a week for heavy users to test completely negative.
More questions than answers
The science is less than conclusive, and the legality is far from straightforward. Until next month, there’s no way to know how this will all play out.
West has told Washingtonians to proceed with caution. For younger users, she framed her warning around missing out on out-of-state and government job opportunities. The sheriff’s office, for example, will still conduct drug tests and won’t let employees smoke pot.
“People need to go in with their eyes wide open,” she said. “Just because it’s legal here doesn’t mean it is around the country, and that can affect us.”
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