If you ask anyone who is against legal marijuana what their concerns are, one topic that comes quite often is DUI. Many anti-MMJ folks are worried that marijuana users are going to medicate and then get behind the wheel and endanger lives. Many question whether or not those concerns are well-founded.
The obvious comparison to this topic is driving under the influence of alcohol. DUIs with alcohol involved are the cause of thousands of tragic deaths each year. We’d all like to avoid a similar situation with weed. But does weed actually cause impairment on the same level as alcohol? And if so, can the level of impairment be determined? And if impairment can be determined, what should the punishment be for marijuana DUI?
To answer these questions, let’s take a look at some serious studies.
Over the past few decades, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) has published multiple studies showing that cannabis users are far less dangerous behind the wheel than alcohol users. For example, in 1993, NHTSA published a study about the effects of marijuana on driving. After looking at a mountain of data on car accidents, here’s the conclusion they came to: the magnitude of impairment from marijuana “is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol. Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate where they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort. As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”
Much more recently, in 2015, the NHTSA again conducted a study—this time, the largest and most controlled study of marijuana’s effects on driving. The results of the modern study were nearly identical to the 1993 study. When all other factors were accounted for, the increased risk of accidents due to marijuana alone turned out to be miniscule.
Even so, it would be irresponsible to claim that marijuana has no effect whatsoever on driving. States that have implemented legal marijuana laws have to deal with this issue one way or another. It can’t be ignored. To come up with some solutions, let’s take a look at the issues that come up as lawmakers develop DUI laws as they pertain to weed.
The first thing they learn is that it’s practically impossible to determine whether or not someone who tests positive for THC is impaired. First of all, different strains have different effects on different people. And different strains have different amounts of each of the various cannabinoids, such as the two most common, THC and CBD. Although a driver might test positive for THC, they may have in their system even larger amounts of CBD, or even THCV, both of which counteract some of THC’s effects. Right away you can see how complex this gets.
Nevertheless, as stated above, states can’t just do nothing about DUI. So what’s a state to do?
Let’s look at Colorado, which has been dealing with legal marijuana since 2012. Colorado uses a device that measure THC levels by nanogram. Under the law, five nano-grams of THC is the equivalent of a 0.08 BAC. Using this measure, according to the state, 17% of DUIs can be attributed to marijuana. The system does not take account for blood levels of the other cannabinoids.
Another flaw in the system is that THC stays in the bloodstream for 10 to 60 times longer than most other illegal drugs. The NHTSA even states in a report to congress that blood THC content bears no weight in determining impairment.
Another method that Colorado uses to determine impairment from drug use is observation. Colorado has what they call “Drug Recognition Experts,” who are supposedly trained to determine whether or not a driver is impaired by drug use. These “experts” sometimes have as little as eight hours of training under their belt—certainly not enough training to make anyone an expert on a topic.
Let’s imagine for a second that there actually is a test that can determine how impaired a driver is. What should be done to drivers who test positive?
Using data from one of the largest drugged driving studies in the European Union to date, the NHTSA found that drunk drivers with a BAC over .08 were 5-200 times more likely to be involved in an accident. Increase in likelihood of an accident due to marijuana use on the other hand came in at just 1-3 times more likely. That’s about a 1-to-50 ratio of the percentage of accidents caused by stoned drivers to drunk drivers. It’s not zero, but obviously, stoned drivers are far less dangerous than drunk drivers.
While stoned drivers are likely to become paranoid about whether they are driving safely and hence slow down and focus harder. Alcohol, on the other hand, impairs judgement. Drunk drivers believe they are able to drive safely and often have no idea they are driving erratically.
So, now that we know that there’s no way to prove someone is driving while stoned, and that that person is about 2% as likely as a drunk driver to cause an accident, let’s get back to the question of what should be done to punish stoned drivers.
If you’re down with the facts discussed above, then you can see, in order to truly determine impairment and culpability and hence a proper punishment, police would have to take into account actual driving performance. Is the operator driving erratically, swerving, running through red light and stop signs, driving too fast or too slow? If this is actually the case with a stoned driver, then they are more likely doing it on purpose. And since their level of impairment cannot be determined, they should simply be charged with driving to endanger.
But if a driver is pulled over for a reason unrelated to performance—such as expired plates—they should not be charged with driving to endanger and certainly should not be levied the penalties of a DUI, no matter what any DUI experts or blood tests say.
Because it involves potential injury and/or death/loss of innocent life, this issue is going to persist for a very long time. But there are a lot of “experiments” going on around the country. Every state with legal marijuana, whether medical or recreational, has its own unique laws concerning driving while high. Eventually some systems will rise to the top as they prove able to provide reasonable assessments of impairment, and others will be destroyed by savvy DUI lawyers as they poke massive holes in the prosecution’s arguments, rendering a state’s DUI laws useless.
A DUI can literally destroy a livelihood. Having a DUI or even DWAI can legitimately ruin career prospects, and, at least in the short term, cripple someone financially. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, a DUI can cost up to $13,500 in addition to jail time. And for something less harmful than drinking one beer.
What’s your opinion on this topic? We’d love to hear what you think. Let us know in the comments below.
And, by the way…. We deliver. No need to drive anywhere. 🙂