On the road, pot belongs out of sight, out of reach

What the law calls “open consumption” is probably the chief reason some voters have felt buyer’s remorse for approving legal marijuana in 2012.

The sponsors of Initiative 502 assured us that pot-smokers would not suddenly be dragging on their joints and pipes in public. In reality, that’s exactly what has happened. The distinctive odor of cannabis is increasingly evident in theaters, sidewalks, beaches, parks and other places frequented by families.

Many of the in-your-face tokers appear to be younger than 21. Though state law continues to forbid them from using marijuana, they’ve taken I-502 – and its minimal $27 open-use citations – as implicit permission to do it openly.

The biggest potential problem is on the roads, where drunk and drugged motorists kill others. Competent driving requires cold sober attentiveness; no one maneuvering a ton of steel at high speeds should be impaired – by pot, alcohol, texting or anything else.

Concerned by an increase in pot-linked crashes, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission is asking lawmakers to fix a loophole in I-502.

The theory behind the initiative is that the state should treat marijuana like alcohol, legalizing – but also regulating – its consumption.

Like other states, Washington regulates alcohol most tightly when motor vehicles are involved. One law forbids opened containers in cars, a bright-line rule that discourages rolling drinking parties and flags drivers who are getting a head start on the evening drunk.

I-502 did not enact a corresponding restriction on marijuana. It also created a grey area: Some dopers think they’re entitled to smoke inside cars even when they’re visible to people outside the cars.

This is another failure to restrict marijuana consumption to private settings. In one respect, smoking marijuana inside a car is even more dangerous than drinking: A passenger swigging a beer doesn’t affect the driver, but enough marijuana smoke will eventually affect anyone who inhales it secondhand.

The remedy is to explicitly ban marijuana use and opened containers of marijuana inside vehicles. People who can control their cannabis use will have no problem keeping it in the trunk for the duration of a drive. An open-container ban will give police an extra tool to stop those who can’t manage to drive across town without being stoned.

The research on driving-while-high is a long way from settled. In general, marijuana appears to impair drivers less than alcohol does – though that’s a very low bar to clear. In some cases, irresponsible drivers who would normally drink might get stoned instead, making them less dangerous to a degree.

Traffic-safety authorities tend to agree, though, that the combination of marijuana plus alcohol is worse than either drug by itself. Many traffic fatalities are caused by drivers who are simultaneously drunk and stoned. That’s reason enough to keep both pot and booze out of reach when that ton of steel is on the road.