Aug. 29

Santa Cruz Sentinel on marijuana impairment standards in California being long overdue:

Maybe California Controller Betty Yee will have better luck than law enforcement and editorial writers on making the case for setting standards for driving under the influence of marijuana.

Yee has at least gained attention after being hurt last month in a car crash caused by a 25-year-old driver suspected of being under the influence of pot.

Yee, who is still suffering from injuries suffered in the crash, told reporters that California's legal pot industry needs to stop complaining about taxes and state and local regulations and do something about stoned drivers. Pot growers and sellers, she notes, have a long adversarial history with law enforcement, which may make them reluctant to start advocating for new laws and tests regarding pot impairment — but, she says, "people are getting hurt. So deal with it."

We hate to say "told you so," especially about something as serious as people getting killed or injured, but, more stoned drivers on the road is exactly what police and this newspaper warned would happen once recreational marijuana was legalized by state voters in 2016.

The driver who rear-ended the car Yee was riding in with her husband — a California Highway Patrol officer was driving — and then hit it again, was arrested for driving while intoxicated and subsequently bailed out of jail.

Yee opposed Proposition 64, the 2016 pot measure, because of just this issue, and says the industry should work with law enforcement to develop a test for unsafe levels of marijuana impairment for drivers.

The number of pot-impaired traffic collisions has been rising in recent years, and so have fatalities.

The problem is that while police have a legally defined limit for alcohol found in a driver's bloodstream, there is no such defined level for marijuana. The CHP has estimated that if current rates of arrests for DUI continue there could be a 70 percent increase in DUI under the influence of marijuana alone by year's end in our region of California.

Cops are well acquainted with the smell of pot coming from cars they stop. Officers often put these motorists through field sobriety tests, which the driver often passes. But if it were a suspected drunken driver, the cop would use a breathalyzer test to confirm they were legally impaired by alcohol.

No such measuring device exists for pot.

And so, absent a definitive standard, police officers have to make a judgment call to determine if someone is driving high and the final decision on whether an arrested driver was impaired is subjective, resting with a judge or jury.

California, like other states that have legalized marijuana, is relying at present on drug recognition experts — officers trained to conduct cognitive tests and notice other physical signs of drug-related impairment during a vehicle stop — to determine if a driver is intoxicated.

Law enforcement officials said they believe these experts are more than capable of determining impairment, even without an objective standard. In addition to those experts, the California Highway Patrol has trained thousands of officers through its Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement program, which includes taking a subject's blood pressure and their pulse, in addition to field sobriety tests.

San Diego police have been using two Dräger DrugTest 5000 machines during DUI checkpoints since March 2017. Although the devices can detect the presence of the psychoactive compound THC — which shows if a person has used marijuana or other impairing drugs recently — in a person's saliva, they cannot tell if a person is impaired.

But this testing method has skeptics. Among the issues is recent research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety which found that the claim that blood tests could show THC impairment "cannot be scientifically supported."

Clearly, defense attorneys are well aware of how this report, and the absence of fully vetted and accurate standards, will affect marijuana DUI charges.

The good news is that research is ongoing to evaluate the effects of cannabis and how it impairs drivers - and Proposition 64 provides funding for attempts to devise more reliable law enforcement tools.

One promising development is that The UC San Diego Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research is evaluating field tests that measure reaction time, attention, coordination and perception instead of THC.

Yee's serious brush with near death hopefully will provide the next push to solve a problem that is not going to go away.

California needs to establish a legal definition for marijuana impairment — and do it soon, before more people get hurt or killed.


Aug. 28

Los Angeles Times on hanging bench warrants over the heads of L.A.'s homeless people:

Being homeless often means camping on a sidewalk or living in a car and suffering the indignity of having to use the street as a bathroom. It also means a good chance of being cited by a police officer for one or more of the above at some point.

Much of what homeless people are compelled to do in their everyday lives by virtue of not having a home violates quality-of-life ordinances in the city of Los Angeles. For example, it's against the law to urinate or defecate in public, but what choice do you have if you're nowhere near one of the rare public toilets in the city? It's against the law to sit or sleep on public sidewalks during the daytime, but what choice do you have if you're exhausted and need to rest?

Yet police officers still cite homeless people for this sort of behavior, exposing them to fines of up to $300. That starts a vicious cycle for those with no ability to pay: When they fail to pay or appear in court, the judge issues a bench warrant for their arrest. The next time they're stopped by a police officer, they could get arrested and jailed — for about a minute, given that the jails are too crowded — but then they go back to living on the streets, where eventually they get cited again. Their lives get caught in an absurd cycle of citation, bench warrant, arrest, jail, more citations, more bench warrants and so on.

Ultimately, the warrants and fines can hurt a homeless person's ability to get permanent housing, benefits, social services and employment.

The Los Angeles City Attorney's office runs citation clinics to help homeless people clear their records of citations for minor, nonviolent infractions of the law. That's terrific. But people need to get their warrants recalled by the Superior Court as well.

L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore recently proposed recalling five- to 10-year-old bench warrants, a smart move that would remove an obstacle to homeless people getting into housing and services while eliminating a headache for the court system. Moore can't do this unilaterally, but after he proposed the idea, City Attorney Mike Feuer started working with representatives of the police and the courts to figure out what the parameters of such a program might be. That includes deciding the sorts of infractions involved and how old the bench warrants would have to be to qualify.

As a model, the group should look at the San Francisco Superior Court system. Three years ago, judges there stopped issuing arrest and bench warrants altogether on infractions (which were never punishable by jail time, anyway) and recalled tens of thousands of outstanding warrants. The warrants were mainly for failure to pay or show up in court on violations of the same types of quality-of-life ordinances in effect in L.A.

The court suspended the fines but still found every person guilty of the underlying infractions, which remained on their records. In other words, people were still held accountable for their violations of the law. But the courts no longer exacerbated the problems that stemmed from their lack of housing.

The Los Angeles courts should recall these warrants as swiftly and sweepingly as San Francisco did — and stop issuing them on minor offenses.

Unfortunately, a wide-scale court recall of warrants doesn't offer judges the opportunity to require a homeless person to obtain counseling and other services in exchange for the relief. This isn't a process like the city attorney's citation clinic, where homeless people deal directly with a city prosecutor to clear their citations in exchange for agreeing to work with a service provider.

But that shouldn't discourage city officials from supporting a plan to clear the overhang of years-old warrants. There are outreach workers on the street every day trying to get homeless people into services. That process continues on various fronts.

Ultimately, the solution to all these legal issues is to get homeless people out of situations that leave them prone to violating these ordinances in the first place. It's almost impossible to prevent people from resting on a sidewalk during the day with a shopping cart full of belongings if we don't provide them with a place to live and store their possessions. Housing and shelter must be our main priority.


Aug. 28

San Francisco Chronicle on political ploy destroying California's roads:

California's roads are ranked as some of the worst in the country. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that driving on them costs each driver $844 per year in vehicle repairs. Roads, highways and traffic congestion are among Californians' top complaints about quality of life in this state.

So it's critical for voters to understand how destructive Proposition 6, a November ballot initiative to repeal last year's gas tax increase, could be for each and every motorist.

Last year, California lawmakers approved SB1, a badly needed gas tax increase of 12 cents per gallon (diesel would see an increase of 20 cents per gallon). California hadn't raised the gas tax since 1990.

It was a heavy lift for the Legislature, as tax and fee increases always are. But the roads are in terrible shape, and the bill was estimated to provide more than $50 billion between 2017 and 2027. In June 2018, California voters approved an initiative requiring the revenue to be spent on transportation-related purposes.

That should have been the end of the story.

Instead, the state's Republican delegation smelled opportunity. Californians have a liberal reputation, but they've always been sensitive to tax increases — and the state's high cost of living means that more and more working people are struggling to get by.

After successfully leading a recall campaign against state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, over his gas tax vote, California Republicans realized they might be able to use the gas tax as a way to increase Republican voter turnout in November — and possibly save some U.S. House Republican seats in the process.

The result of this cynical politicking was Proposition 6.

Proposition 6 will repeal SB1, costing the state $2.4 billion in this fiscal year and $5.1 billion two years from now. The funding will affect highway and road maintenance, repair projects and transit programs. Some of these improvements are already in motion.

But pulling the plug on billions of dollars' worth of transportation improvements' isn't all Proposition 6 will do, either.

It also changes California law, requiring the Legislature to put any future fuel and vehicle taxes up for the approval of the voters.

As a result of this change, the state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office wrote in its statement about the measure: "There could be even less revenue than would otherwise be the case."

Voters must also keep in mind the fact that Proposition 6 does nothing to ensure a reduction in gas prices.

Most commuters care about gas prices far more than gas taxes. But there's nothing in Proposition 6 that would force oil companies to lower the price of gasoline in California, and the matter is not of interest to Prop. 6's proponents.

"I would give oil companies a smidge of an edge (of trust) over Sacramento politicians," said Proposition 6 chairman Carl DeMaio, told our editorial board.

DeMaio also said he would shortly be introducing a new, budget-busting ballot measure to re-direct weight fees and car sales taxes into road and highway projects. The proceeds of those two resources now go into the state's general fund, where they fund education, health and human services, and other critical programs.

California's plan to improve the state's roads, highways, and transit infrastructure is supported by major business groups, first responders, environmental groups, and nearly every public policy outfit with an interest in good governance.

Proposition 6 is a cynical political ploy that will starve California's already-crumbling transportation networks, and it may not save drivers any money. Vote no.


Aug. 24

The San Diego Union-Tribune on Verizon throttling firefighters during state's largest blaze:

Verizon officials sound contrite now, but the telecommunications giant's decision to "throttle" service this summer to Santa Clara County firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex blaze in Northern California — the largest in state history — is unconscionable. On Friday, they promised to never again slow wireless data speeds of first responders trying to keep the public safe, and a company executive formally apologized to a state Assembly committee.

But the events of recent weeks leave a stain that will be difficult to remove. Verizon insists that it already had a rule that first responders should get unlimited access during public safety emergencies and that this was a simple "mistake" by customer service representatives. Some mistake.

The evidence provided by Santa Clara fire officials showed that they repeatedly made clear to Verizon that the "throttling" was impeding the response to a giant blaze only to be told they had no option but to pay for a more expensive data plan.

This is corporate avarice at its worst. Lives were at stake. Verizon's apology didn't go far enough.


Aug. 24

The Fresno Bee on a state water bond having real money intended to benefit the Valley:

Four years ago California voters considered a $7.5 billion water bond that Valley supporters hoped would provide money to build a new dam on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat.

That $2.83 billion dam was to provide a critical new supply of water to the Valley, both for farmers as well as cities. The water bond, Proposition 1, was on the ballot in the midst of a crushing drought, and voters passed it handily. Valley officials hoped to get $1 billion for their project.

But four years later, nothing more than a trickle of money — $171 million — has been allocated by state officials for the Temperance Flat dam. Despite strenuous lobbying by Valley officials, the state Water Resources Control Board said the dam did not offer enough public benefit to justify more bond funding. Today its future is murky.

Now voters in November will consider yet another water bond — Proposition 3, also known as the Water Supply and Water Quality Act. It has an even bigger price: $8.8 billion. Stung by the experience of Proposition 1, Valley voters would be justifiably skeptical of this new one. But there are key benefits that make Proposition 3 worth supporting.

For one thing, the author of Proposition 3, Gerald Meral of the Natural Heritage Institute, says no other previous water bond has had a focus on the Valley like this one.

To start, $750 million would be devoted to repairing and restoring the Friant-Kern and Madera canals, key parts of the federal system that delivers water from Millerton Lake to Kern and Madera counties. Along the way, the canal provides supplies to Fresno, Orange Cove and Lindsay, as well as irrigation districts that serve much of the farmers on the Valley's eastside.

Last year the Friant Water Authority discovered that land had fallen by as much as two feet along the canal near Corcoran. That subsidence means only 40 percent of the water that some farmers have contracted for can actually be delivered. Money from Proposition 3 will allow the authority to repair subsidence damage and restore the canal's gravity flow so deliveries can be made as designed. If the canal is not fixed? Farmers will fallow more acreage, meaning less production, reduced hiring and fewer purchases in communities whose economies depend on agriculture.

Friant water is used by 17,000 growers in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties, which are among the top areas in the nation for agricultural production. In 2015, crops grown in those three counties were worth $19.7 billion; growers taking water from the canal account for $10 billion of that.

Another $750 million would be devoted to safe drinking water and wastewater treatment programs for small towns whose residents are mostly low income. While the funding would be allocated statewide, the Valley is home to a number of communities that cannot deliver drinking water that meets state standards. A McClatchy investigation this year found that about 360,000 Californians are customers of water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

About $50 million would go to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to clear out dead trees and brush and rehabilitate forest land where wildfires had burned. Another $200 million would be used by the conservancy for projects to restore watersheds. That is key to the Valley because the Sierra functions as the region's main watershed.

The bond would allocate $640 million toward helping local water agencies implement plans to meet the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That state law requires underground aquifers to be in balance between pumping and recharge. Communities where underground basins are badly overdrafted, have water quality problems, or where subsidence is happening would get priority for funding. Many communities with overdrafts are located in the Valley.

There is opposition to the proposition. The Sierra Club believes money raised by the bond could be used to build new dams, something it has long opposed.

The Oakland-based environmental group also dislikes the allocation to fix the Friant-Kern Canal, saying a statewide bond measure should not be used to benefit users of a federal water system. The club points out that funding would be continuous for decades to come (and would ultimately cost $17 billion once interest is factored in), that legislators were not involved in drafting the proposition, and that the public does not have enough oversight going forward.

But Meral says no money is set aside for dam construction, and the Friant-Kern Canal needs repairs with or without a new dam on the San Joaquin. As for oversight, the proposition requires the state's Natural Resources Agency to get an independent audit of spending every three years, and every six months regular updates would be posted on the agency's website to let the public know how the projects are proceeding.

Whiskey may be for drinking and water for fighting over, as Mark Twain is famously reputed to have said. Certainly there is no more complicated topic in California than water. Prudent voters should take time to study the proposition.

The Bee strongly recommends approval because of how Proposition 3 would directly benefit the Valley. Fixing the Friant-Kern Canal, improving Sierra watersheds and getting clean water to Valley communities in a broad sweep, as this measure would do, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.