Opinion

Dan Morain: Car insurance magnate pushes measures to make pot more available

dmorain@sacbee.comSeptember 20, 2013 

Rafael Garcia is trying to piece his life together after the horrible night three years ago when, after smoking weed, he fell asleep at the wheel on Interstate 15, and drove onto the shoulder where California Highway Patrol officer Justin McGrory stood.

Garcia doesn’t know about the ways of Sacramento. But on the question of driving while high, Garcia’s gives the clear-eyed answer of a man who is far older than his 21 years.

“It’s not safe. It slows your reaction,” Garcia told me by phone from the tough Los Angeles suburb of Southgate where he lives and has relived that terrible moment every day since.

Peter B. Lewis is much savvier and certainly has more clout. Lewis is the billionaire chairman of Progressive Insurance Corp., the nation’s fourth-largest auto insurance company and one that preaches, as it should, about the perils of driving under the influence.

Lewis also is a true believer in the virtues of marijuana and has spent millions to influence voters and politicians to make it legal in several states, including California.

Most recently, Lewis retained some of Sacramento’s top lobby and consulting shops – California Strategies and Advocacy, and Aaron Read and Associates – to push for legislation that would add some regulation to marijuana but also expand its commercial availability.

Lewis’ minions fought until the final hours of the legislative year for passage of the bill by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. Although they failed, they will return in 2014 with another version of the legislation, and probably place a legalization initiative on the ballot in 2014 or, more likely, in 2016.

Lewis, who is based in Ohio, already has spent $2 million on California campaigns to liberalize drug and sentencing laws since 2000, plus $500,000 to win passage of California’s 1996 medical marijuana initiative. Lewis generally shuns the press, but he explained his views in a Forbes interview two years ago:

“When I was 39 I tried marijuana for the first time. I found it to be better than scotch. … When I was 64 my left leg was amputated below the knee because there was an infection that couldn’t be cured.

“I spent a year after the amputation in excruciating pain and a year in a wheelchair. So during that period I was very glad I had marijuana. It didn’t exactly eliminate the pain, but it made the pain tolerable.”

Terry McHale, a partner in the Read firm, said Ammiano’s bill is intended to end the “Wild West rogue nature” of marijuana sales in California by giving the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control the authority to regulate commercial marijuana operations.

The League of California Cities, most police organizations, and the California Psychiatric Association oppose the measure. The psychiatrists said the concept central to the legislation “contributes to a fiction about marijuana’s broad medical usefulness and harmlessness, particularly for adolescents and for our psychiatric patients.”

Ammiano’s legislation is silent on the issue of driving while under the influence of marijuana. Another bill that would have dealt with it died early in the year. Officer Justin McGrory’s death early on June 27, 2010, was the inspiration.

Rafael Garcia and some of his buddies had driven to Los Angeles from their home in Las Vegas looking for a good time on that weekend in June.

In theory, California law prohibits out-of-state residents from using California-issued marijuana cards. But one of Garcia’s friends had a card, and they stopped at a Los Angeles dispensary. They caught a Dodgers-Yankees night game at Chavez Ravine, and headed back to Vegas late. Garcia had been smoking marijuana, but took the wheel because unlike his friends, he had not been drinking.

Garcia cranked up the air conditioning and radio to keep from falling asleep. But at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 27, 2010, he shut his eyes and drove onto the shoulder where McGrory and another officer had stopped a motorist.

Nevada law presumes drivers are impaired if they have two nanograms of marijuana’s active ingredient per milliliter of blood. Washington state law allows 5 nanograms. California’s law is muddled.

But about an hour after the crash, CHP officers took a blood sample from Garcia. He had eight nanograms of marijuana’s active ingredient. He ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served 2 1/2 years in San Bernardino County jail.

Garcia has sworn off intoxicants, and pledges to never drive again if he does get impaired. He lives with a brother in Southgate and is looking for a job so he can start paying restitution, and maybe go back to school.

He is reminded of that horrible night every time he looks at his left wrist. He wears a band imprinted with the name Officer Justin McGrory, the words, “End of Watch,” and the date of June 27, 2010.

“It makes me humble,” he said.

McGrory, 28 and a father of three young children, had followed in the footsteps of his father, Robert, who had put 20 years in as a California Highway Patrol officer.

Bob McGrory and Gina, his wife of 36 years, visited Garcia in the San Bernardino County jail and “gave him our forgiveness for what he had done. The forgiveness has set my wife and me free.” They remain in touch. Although he forgives Garcia, McGrory cannot forgive the laxity of California’s law. He has made it his mission to create zero tolerance for drugged driving.

“I do believe there are medical uses for marijuana,” McGrory said. “But at no time should somebody smoke marijuana and drive a vehicle. My son was killed because of this, and because of the inability to enforce the drugged-driving laws.”

Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, introduced legislation that sought to establish zero tolerance for driving while under the influence of drugs including marijuana.

Organizations that Peter Lewis has funded, including the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project, lobbied to kill Correa’s bill. It died without even coming up for a vote.

“My own folks in my own party” blocked it, Correa said.

Their reasoning was that by creating new crimes, the bill would lead to more people doing costly jail and prison time. It’s an excuse. Politicians can become blinded by the green that billionaires and other marijuana supporters can spread, and don’t see the need to restrict marijuana.

But as they edge ever closer to legalizing marijuana, California legislators ought to give some thought to Rafael Garcia and Justin McGrory, and take a stand against driving while stoned.

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