This was completely predictable. It was only a matter of time before someone who uses medical cannabis as prescribed got a DWI. It was inevitable that the CRASH evaluator was going say that she had no basis determine the likelihood to re-offend for a felon who used another legal drug to excess and caught a DWI. After all, how could she? There is no viable legal standard to provide her the guidance to analyze levels of misuse when dealing with medical cannabis patients because the legislature and governor could not agree to one. In the absence of guidance, the public will muddle through and attempt to fill a vacuum, and policymakers left a giant vacuum.
Daniel Ballard, an ALS patient using cannabis for a medical reason, just wanted to quietly go about returning his life to some sort of normalcy. Barbara Mayhew-Belatski, the CRASH evaluator at the Howard Center, was just going about her business. As a CRASH evaluator she is effectively an umpire; just calling balls and strikes. Neither one of them were looking to become the centerpiece of the next great legal concern confronting all Vermonters. They weren’t, but they very much are. Let’s be clear, the State of Vermont has very much failed both of them.
The legislature kicked the can here and because they did, this mental health worker, who was just trying to do her job, and Ballard, a man who is trying to move on from a bad choice months ago; are stuck in a state of limbo. Because there are no standards for detailing the limits of safe use of cannabis for motor vehicle operators, this worker is unable to offer a reasonable opinion about the likelihood of re-offense. In the absence of guidance from the State of Vermont, this worker is standing out on a branch alone.
This case is making its way through the courts and will almost certainly wind up before the State Supreme Court. At its current pace, it may wind up creating the legal standard for permitted use of cannabis while driving before the legislature returns in January. This case is a legally significant civil rights matter because it is a case of first impression. For Vermonters, its reach will likely be broad and deep. Not only will it address standards for drugged driving; but it potentially could be so far reaching that it affects the entire medical cannabis delivery system. Nationally, this case represents one of the first of a handful of cases addressing standards for drugged driving and what is fair to the individuals involved, and what is fair to society as a whole. As a matter of policy, today there is little consensus. Cases like this one are the building blocks necessary to create a consensus.
A legal standard may not come in the form of a single number being set from the bench as the bright line standard for intoxication by cannabis. Rather, it may be a balancing test or some other guidance. And having acted, the legislature — in a fit of pique — may try to undo or redo standards. Gov. Phil Scott may, by administrative rule, attempt to impact the standards for drugged driving in the wake of judicial action. The consequences of this legal challenge are massive.
All that having been said, what’s lost in all of this is that two people’s lives are forever intertwined through this case. They each have been impacted in multiple ways, large and small. And then, of course, there is the question of how many other folks are in similar straits? Neither one of these people, Ballard or Mayhew-Belatski, woke up one morning and decided that they wanted to be in the middle of this legal odyssey. Yet here we stand, watching…waiting for the courts to break the log jam that should never have been. We wait as you wait.
Editor’s Note: Steve May is a licensed independent clinical social worker specializing in addiction medicine, a member of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Advisory Board, and a member of the Richmond Selectboard.