Marijuana Pot

While many were enjoying the Memorial Day weekend, West Virginia media reported that Gov. Jim Justice and first lady Cathy Justice were involved in a car crash. The driver of the vehicle that hit Justice was arrested on the scene and charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

Thankfully, there were no injuries in this collision, but the same cannot be said in many similar cases that are popping up around the country.

Two recent examples, both occurring in May, further illustrate this point.

Three people lost their lives in a five-car crash in California caused by a 21-year-old male who was driving high on marijuana. Prior to this crash, local police received calls reporting the same car involved in the crash for driving at reckless speeds.

Another man lost his life while assisting his wife, who was having her car towed from the side of the highway. A car smashed into the parked car and pinned the victim to the guardrail, killing him. The offending driver proceeded to get out of his car and run, but was quickly apprehended. He admitted to authorities that he had consumed an edible product containing marijuana prior to getting behind the wheel.

While several states are moving toward legalizing marijuana in recent years, driving impaired is still illegal in all 50 states. In other states — like Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan and Rhode Island — medical marijuana is legal, but they have adopted a strict zero-tolerance law that makes it illegal for anyone to drive with any level of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, in their system. Six other states have laws that set limits on the amount of THC that can be present in the blood — ranging from one nanogram to five nanograms per milliliter of blood.

A recent study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission found that almost 17 percent of marijuana users admit to using the substance every day and that more than half of daily users ages 15 to 20 believe that marijuana made them better drivers.

In reality, marijuana intoxication makes it impossible to drive safely. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can impair a driver’s reaction time and ability to judge time and distance.

Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that marijuana use can make it difficult for drivers to stay in their lanes and pay proper attention to the road. These studies also noted that when marijuana was used in conjunction with alcohol, which is becoming more common, impairment levels are further increased.

Not only is marijuana-impaired driving becoming more common as states liberalize their marijuana laws, it is also becoming more fatal.

In Colorado, the first state to legalize the drug, the number of drivers intoxicated with marijuana and involved in fatal traffic crashes increased almost 90 percent from 2013 to 2015. Further, driving under the influence of drugs (DUIDs) have risen in the state, with over 76 percent of statewide DUIDs involving marijuana.

According to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, among fatally injured drivers tested for drugs, about 40 percent tested positive for some form of marijuana. And, about three-quarters of these drivers tested positive for active THC.

Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that fatal crashes involving drivers who had recently used marijuana more than doubled following legalization of the drug in Washington state, and one in five drivers were under the influence of marijuana, up from one in 10 prior to legalization.

Law enforcement is finding it difficult to enforce drugged driving laws. Unlike alcohol, higher THC levels do not always coincide with higher levels of impairment and vice versa. A person can be under the influence of marijuana and clearly show signs of impairment, yet only have a low amount of THC in their blood, particularly after ingesting pot candies or other edibles.

There is a definite need for a better system to allow police departments to be able to keep marijuana-impaired drivers off our roads, but one of the easiest ways to keep from exacerbating this problem would be to slow down the rush to legalize marijuana in our country.

The crash involving Justice is unfortunate but will hopefully encourage state policymakers to think twice before legalizing marijuana for fun, and focus first on addressing the issue of drug-impaired driving.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is the founder and president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and former Senior Drug Policy Advisor to President Obama. Jacob Nelson serves as the Director for Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research for AAA.