Evolving Attitudes on Marijuana Usage in Impaired Driving Claims

Evolving Attitudes on Marijuana

This is the third and final segment of the series Impaired Driving Marijuana, which will discuss public awareness regarding the potential dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana. During the period when the marijuana industry was seeking legalization in Colorado, cannabis was often promoted as a safer option than alcohol. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) conducted a survey that indicated 72% of Colorado marijuana users felt it was safer to drive after using marijuana compared to alcohol. Roughly 50% of respondents claimed to have driven within two hours of usage and that they are able to drive safely after using. In efforts to combat this, CDOT launched a $1 million educational campaign to help reverse these public perceptions.

Perceived Lack of Enforceability

Sam Cole, CDOT’s safety communications manager, reported that over 90% of marijuana users were aware that they could be arrested for DUI after marijuana usage. During 2015 and 2016 studies suggested that users were increasingly getting behind the wheel after usage. The percentage of users who drove 11 or more times in the period of a month went from 10% to 21%. It seems that although most marijuana users were aware of the potential for a marijuana-related DUI, they felt it was unlikely that they could be caught. This is based on a rate of 73% who felt that it was somewhat or very unlikely to be stopped by an officer for suspicion of DUI after using. Campaigns geared toward drunk driving have been in existence for over 30 years; therefore, it is likely that marijuana-related awareness will continue to evolve. There are 91,000 residents of the state who use medicinal marijuana and many have lobbied for exemptions to allow driving, yet this seems unlikely.

Oregon Study on Adult Perceptions of Marijuana Usage

The Oregon Health Authority issued a very detailed Marijuana Report that provided insight regarding the attitude of the public about driving after using marijuana. They found that 75% of adults felt that marijuana increased the likelihood of a traffic accident. Roughly 63% of adult respondents were unsure about the specific state laws on what constitutes driving under the influence of marijuana. Among this group, 19% felt that it was only legal to drive when there is “no measurable marijuana in your system”.

Limitations of Research & Testing

Dustin Mahon, of Endocanna, a company that creates cannabis concentrates, says organizations involved in medical marijuana are attempting to better determine how impairment is defined. A key problem is that marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug. Therefore, testing by government-funded researchers, such as academic institutions, is limited. Studies to assess the effects of driving after using marijuana have been limited, despite the increase in state legalization. Ray Bassett, a Rhode Island resident, who has been using marijuana for over 40 years, says he is capable of safely driving a vehicle after usage. Cole contends the belief that marijuana use is safer than alcohol when driving is essentially a “myth”. He noted that motor skills, reactionary timing, and the ability to gauge speed and distance are all hindered by usage.

Efforts Underway

CDOT views partnerships with those in the marijuana industry as a key component of educating users about the dangers of operating under the influence. Governor Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman wrote a letter to former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions summarizing their funding of educational programs and to request potential federal funding for them. Some of the key advances they cited were:

  • The training of 5,000 peace officer on laws associated with marijuana;
  • A 68% rise in trained drug recognition experts within Colorado;
  • Over 1,100 trained officers in roadside testing for impairment; and
  • An allocation of $2.3 million directed to education programs.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) along with the Colorado State Patrol, Uber, and other organizations are also combining efforts to prevent impaired driving and encourage alternatives such as using ride-share services. This represents a true partnership between public and private entities in pursuit of solutions. MADD says they are optimistic about their efforts to apply successful programs used over the years for drunk driving.

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