Health experts fear more stoned drivers are taking the wheel following pot legalization

DENVER — More Americans are getting high before driving, a new study shows, and public health officials say it’s a worrying trend that could lead to more deadly crashes on the nation’s roads.

In Washington state, the number of THC-positive drivers involved in fatal crashes more than doubled, to 18%, in the five years after voters approved recreational marijuana use for adults, according to the report published Thursday by the AAA Foundation, which was based on state-collected data.

The study didn’t examine whether the drivers were at fault for the crashes, but the data confirms long-held fears among public health officials that drivers think it’s OK to get behind the wheel while high.

“The problem here is that people don’t think they’re going to get caught,” said Jake Nelson, AAA’s director for traffic safety advocacy and research. “What we found is that drivers are more likely to use and get behind the wheel after the law passed.”

Simulated marijuana smoke billows from a specially equipped car being used by Colorado traffic-safety officials to draw attention to state laws prohibiting marijuana users from getting behind the wheel while stoned.

The study found that in the five years before Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, an average of 56 drivers annually tested positive for marijuana after having been involved in a fatal crash. That rose to an average of 130 drivers in the following five years. The federal government lacks equivalent national statistics about fatal crashes involving marijuana.

Overall, alcohol-related crashes remain a far larger problem than stoned drivers. According to the federal government, alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities accounted for 29 percent of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the United States in 2018. Federal statistics say drivers are four times as likely to get behind the wheel after drinking than they are after consuming marijuana.

While marijuana intoxication can have similar effects to alcohol — from delayed reaction times to an inability to judge speed correctly and impaired spatial awareness — people who are stoned don’t seem drunk, Nelson said. That might leave drivers and their friends thinking that getting high comes without impairment.

“Because somebody who is high on marijuana isn’t stumbling or slurring their speech, because they don’t fit our mental models of what an impaired driver looks like, we tend to think they are less impaired or not impaired at all,” he said, “even when they are.”

Jars of dried marijuana flowers sit inside a display cabinet at the Denver-based Medicine Man marijuana store. Each jar contains about 2 ounces of marijuana, which sells for about $160 per ounce, depending on quality. This marijuana is legal to sell to adults under Colorado law, but remains illegal at the federal level.

The AAA study focused on a specific component of marijuana, known as Delta 9-THC, which indicates the presence of active cannabis intoxicants in a person’s body. Most drug tests check for other compounds, which can linger for days or weeks, but aren’t a good indicator of actual intoxication. The study also factored in the increased enforcement and testing conducted by police officers after Washington state’s legalization.

But Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he remains deeply skeptical that any study can adequately account for the change in enforcement. Armentano used a fishing analogy: If you fish with one rod today, and then three rods and a fish finder tomorrow, you’ll catch more fish the second time, but only because you’re trying harder to find them.

Further, he said, there’s no consensus about whether fatal crashes have even risen significantly, if at all, in states with legal marijuana.

Traffic-safety experts say answering these questions requires better data collection from multiple states that have legalized cannabis, while collecting similar data in states where it remains illegal. Some smaller studies have show traffic deaths increased in states with lega l cannabis, while others have shown a decrease. 

Eleven states have legalized recreational or adult-use cannabis, and 33 states permit some form of medical marijuana use. Public-health officials across the country, from California to Vermont, Illinois to Alaska, have warned that legalization must be accompanied by education campaigns telling people that consuming marijuana before driving is dangerous.

In Colorado, for instance, public-health officials launched a multi-million-dollar education campaign, and overhead message boards along the state’s highways remind drivers of the consequences: “Drive High, Get a DUI.”

Marijuana products and plants on display at The Green Solution dispensary in Denver, Colorado.

And in California, state officials have launched a “Go Safely, California” campaign to highlight the dangers and consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The federal government has largely remained silent about the dangers of stoned driving in part because the issue is so touchy since marijuana is still illegal nationwide, said Kevin Sabet, executive director of the national anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“The reality is that this has become a political hot potato on either side, so it’s become safer to ignore it, and states have been left holding the bag, largely. There have been people in this administration who have been very strategically talking about marijuana, but there hasn’t been someone standing with a megaphone talking about it,” said Sabet, a former official with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Clinton, George. W. Bush and Obama administrations. “They are just scared to talk about the issue — both the Obama and the Trump administrations are guilty of that.”

T-shirts for sale highlighting Colorado's legal marijuana.

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