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Editorial: N.M. lawmakers must define drugged driving

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New Mexico’s drug problem has hit the streets. Literally. The Land of Enchantment now leads the nation in prescription overdose deaths. It’s also routinely tops in heroin overdose deaths. It legalized medical marijuana in 2007.

And it still doesn’t have a drugged driving law.

Judge Christina Argyres pointed out in 2011 that drugged-driving cases are “about impairment. And what makes it difficult to decide is that in these types of cases, we have no bright-line standards of impairment. Each case is determined on its own unique set of facts.”

It’s not for a lack of need. Or a lack of trying.

Real-life New Mexico cases include no charges being filed against a driver who smoked pot, dropped ecstasy, then ran over and killed a teenager, as well as one who shot up heroin, ran down a man changing a tire on the shoulder and killed him. Meanwhile drivers who got behind the wheel while on the sleep medication Ambien or the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prescription Adderall, but injured no one, were hauled into court.

Does it make sense to prosecute individuals with legal prescription drugs while those wasted on illegal narcotics go free to drug and drive another day?

A standard DWI case relies on the legal benchmarks of a presumed level of intoxication (.08 percent blood-alcohol concentration) and actions that show a driver is “impaired to the slightest degree.” State Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, has tried since 2006 to get fellow lawmakers to set a similar bright line for prosecuting drugged driving. Each failed proposal would have allowed therapeutic levels for prescriptions and disallowed driving with an illegal drug on board. And of course impairment must be factored in.

A recent Chicago Tribune article cites two studies that found drivers on high doses of painkillers are more likely to perform “unsafe driving actions” and be involved in a crash. One credits prescription drug users with 150 traffic deaths a year. The article quotes Phoenix physician Dr. Brian Wilhelmi, who has researched opioid-related DUIs, as saying the country’s aging, heavier population is more reliant on prescription drugs, meaning drugged driving “is an issue that will reach a tipping point with these kinds of accidents, and we’ll decide to get serious.”

Given New Mexico’s legal and illegal drug problems, that tipping point is already here. The 2014 Legislature needs to finally set legal standards – presumed levels of intoxication, blood levels that can be challenged, zero tolerance for illegal drugs – so the state’s patients and public are safe from those who would drive high.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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