WASHINGTON — The U.S. attorney for Colorado on Tuesday told a House panel that legalization of marijuana for recreational use has fueled fears that it would lead to more traffic accidents and fatalities.
Attorney John Walsh said that federal law enforcement officials have no plans to target casual marijuana users in Colorado, however the prevention of drugged driving associated with marijuana use would be a top priority for the Justice Department.
Thomas M. Harrigan, deputy administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), also told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on government operations that 28 percent of drivers killed in car accidents tested positive for marijuana.
“I would note — and I believe the DEA has the same concern — that we are highly concerned about the increase in the rate of drugged driving and in Colorado, it’s an issue we’re facing right now,” Walsh said.
The U.S. attorney also noted that the numbers for marijuana-related car fatalities are not as consistently collected as information on alcohol-related deaths because blood tests are not always conducted.
Critics of the Colorado and Washington state laws have expressed concern that the driving and toking trend will continue and exceed alcohol as a contributing factor to traffic fatalities.
Colorado’s Transportation Department is planning a $430,000 public service campaign called “Drive High, Get a DUI” to warn people about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana. Colorado law stipulates that drivers can be arrested and charged the same as those under the influence of alcohol if they test positive for five nanograms per milliliter of THC.
The panel also discussed problems arising from the Obama administration’s recently released rules for how the banking industry would be allowed to conduct business with pot shops.
Harrigan testified that organized crime is already working to exploit those banking rules announced in February.
“Because they are ongoing investigations, I cannot comment on them, but we’ve already seen organizations, foreign drug trafficking organizations, attempting to exploit these new banking laws,” Harrigan said.
“Drug trafficking organizations aren’t particularly in the business to traffic drugs, they’re in the business to make money,” Harrigan said. “So any time they can exploit, whether it’s a change in state laws, a change in the banking industry, and what is legal and not legal, they’re going to exploit it.”
The Colorado Observer reported last month the new banking rules raised red flags within the Colorado Bankers Association that warned the risk of doing business with the fledgling marijuana industry would still be risky.
Marijuana businesses were counting on the rules to provide security for their largely cash-only industry by allowing them to access banks. Bankers expected the new rules would remove some threats of prosecution.
Instead, the guidance reinforced a heavy burden on banks to identify and control their customers’ activities that observers said would only compound the problem.
The House hearing was chaired by Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, who said these and other issues raised by Walsh and Harrigan would require more congressional hearings.
“You’re still scratching your head?” Mica asked Harrigan.
“I scratch my head everyday sir, you have no idea,” Harrigan responded.