When Juanita Sorrentino hung up the phone with her eldest granddaughter, she never imagined that the quick, casual goodbye would be her last. Isabelle Gonzalez, a 16-year-old San Jose High School student, told her grandma she’d hang out with friends for a few hours, but would come home in time to rest up for her cheerleading rally the next morning.
Around 1:30 a.m. on March 16, Gonzalez sat in the back seat of a Honda Accord. The car’s driver, 22-year-old Brandon Gomez Hunsperger, barrelled down Casselino Drive at freeway speed before losing control of the car, striking a small tree and careening over a nearby hill. Paramedics pronounced her and Hunsperger dead on the scene. Her best friend and another man in the car survived with treatable injuries.
Though the crash remains under investigation, the coroner’s toxicology report showed that he had 11 nanograms of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in his system. Had Hunsperger been driving in Colorado, that would have put him over twice the legal limit for that particular cannabinoid, perhaps the drug’s most common and also most psychoactive ingredient. What should not be overlooked is that lab results also showed that Hunsperger died with more than twice the legal limit for alcohol in his bloodstream as well.
When pot became fully legal for recreational use in California at the beginning of the year, law firms and law enforcement stepped up warnings about stoned driving. Signs like “Drive High, Get a DUI” along freeways warned about the consequences of getting busted behind the wheel while under the influence. But unlike Colorado, California does not yet have a definite maximum THC level, so policing marijuana-induced driving under the influence (DUI) charges has proved challenging.
“It is the officer’s interpretation of the situation based on their training to determine whether a person is too intoxicated to drive,” says Santa Cruz County California Highway Patrol (CHP) spokesperson Trista Drake. “Hopefully, we will have something like Colorado. We have been slow to catch up so far.”
Officer training, Drake says, includes programs on both enforcement of impaired driving and recognizing various substances, each of which includes identifying if someone is high. And the state legislature will soon fund a UC San Diego study to look at the effects of cannabis on driving.
One of the problems with using THC to draw a hard line, however, is that cannabis affects different users differently. Medical cannabis patients, for example, may have a tolerance that is far beyond that of recreational users—and not be impaired regardless of how much THC is built up in their bloodstream, where it can remain for weeks after use.
Issues of drug use and driving have come up in Santa Cruz recently, as well. On the Westside, 24-year-old Kelsey Knoll was recently charged with murder after barreling her SUV into 23-year-old McKenzie Gilbert. Knoll’s toxicology reports have yet to come back, but she’s faced felony drug charges in the past, including for methamphetamine and heroin.
In general, Sorrentino says she’s concerned that, absent a standard for intoxication, the legal penalties for driving while stoned will fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime. “We want justice served,” Sorrentino says. “We want justice for Isabelle.”
Because it’s still early in weed’s post-prohibition era, regional law enforcement officials have been unable to confirm to what extent such fears are warranted. CHP’s San Jose branch has been tracking the number of marijuana-related DUIs, but the office has yet to draw any conclusions about whether stoned driving has gone up there.
While DUI related arrests in Santa Cruz County are on the rise, compared to last year (with a total of 615 for the first six months), Drake says incidents of cannabis-specific DUIs in Santa Cruz County haven’t increased.
Local cannabis attorney Ben Rice isn’t surprised by that fact, adding that cannabis-specific DUIs are “pretty darn rare” in his experience. “Cannabis is so different from alcohol. Users are more relaxed, and they mostly become more careful, and it makes them slow down, not speed up,” Rice says.
Rice adds that although CHP officers will arrest someone they believe is under the influence of cannabis, there’s often little the district attorney can do to prosecute such cases, since studies have yet to conclusively prove how to measure impairment.
Although federal research has shown that while smoking before driving does elevate the risk of crashing, it’s less impairing than alcohol. Anyone using both substances at the same time, though, can end up far more impaired than someone using either drug on its own.
While the American Journal of Public Health published a study last summer reporting that the states of Colorado and Washington saw no increase in fatal crashes after legalization, a separate study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that collisions went up 3 percent. The Washington Post called it “plausible that legalization could lead to a slight increase in minor accidents that don’t prove fatal.”
According to a Denver Post analysis last year, however, data from Colorado showed an increase in fatalities where the driver tested positive for recent cannabis use, with the rate more than doubling annually between 2013 and 2016.
In San Jose, the crash that killed Gonzalez wasn’t Hunsperger’s first drug offense. Court records show he had both drug- and driving-related infractions to his name. In April 2016, police pulled him over for participating in a speed contest. An officer found cocaine, pot and drug paraphernalia in his car. A judge gave him two years’ probation and suspended his license for one year—but he violated the terms of his sentence by getting behind the wheel again in 2017.
Hunsperger also entered a deferred entry judgement, a program for drug offenders that offers counseling or substance-use education in exchange for the chance to expunge their record. Gonzalez’s loved ones say the system that tried to save Hunsperger failed their family.
“She was underage, she was a little girl,” her aunt, Vivian Chavez, says. “That guy had no business drinking.”
There are other incidents that have indicated the trickiness of prosecuting drug-related DUIs in the year 2018.
On May 15, Fremont police arrested 21-year-old Dang Nguyen Hai Tran for allegedly causing a a five-car pile-up that killed three people. Police suspected Tran was under the influence of marijuana during the wreck, but released him from jail three days later without charges. “The justice system is that easy to let these guys go,” Sorrentino laments.
But others say that after decades of heavy-handed enforcement that disproportionately impacted people of color and fueled the crisis of mass incarceration, the powers that be have been trying to strike the right balance. Chris Johnson, a program manager for the pedestrian safety advocacy group Walk San Jose, says he isn’t entirely convinced that more severe punishment is the best way to prevent drug-related DUIs. Instead, he calls for expanding public transportation options.
“You make the choice to get behind the wheel of a car,” he says. “Yes, there should be very serious consequences for that, but I’m skeptical of the harshness of that sentence as a deterrent. It’s not premeditated.”
Update 8/3/18, 9:05 a.m.: A previous version of this story misstated attorney Ben Rice’s views on cannabis testing.