Risk of stoned drivers minimal with Prop. 19

  • by Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator August 9, 2010

    Our California NORML Coordinator, Dale Gieringer, has penned an informative viewpoint for the Sacramento Bee, addressing the one of the only two arguments against legalization of marijuana that still have any traction with the people: “Marijuana Mayhem on the Freeways!” (the other being: “My God! What About the Children!?!”)

    As usual, the prohibitionists’ stark warnings about the peril of stoned drivers after legalization only makes sense if you believe nobody is smoking pot now.

    Studies on marijuana and driving safety are remarkably consistent, though greatly under-publicized because they fail to support the government’s anti-pot line. Eleven different studies of more than 50,000 fatal accidents have found that drivers with marijuana-only in their system are on average no more likely to cause accidents than those with low, legal levels of alcohol below the threshold for DUI.

    The major exception is when marijuana is combined with alcohol, which tends to be highly dangerous.

    Several studies have failed to detect any increased accident risk from marijuana at all. The reason for pot’s relative safety appears to be that it tends to make users drive more slowly, while alcohol makes them speed up.

    Thus legalization could actually reduce accidents if more drivers used marijuana instead of alcohol, but it could also increase them if there were more combined use of the two.

    Nobody is saying “toke up and get behind the wheel”; our Principles of Responsible Use firmly states “The responsible cannabis consumer does not operate a motor vehicle or other dangerous machinery while impaired by cannabis”. However, it would be naive to think every cannabis consumer uses responsibly.

    Geiringer addresses this by pointing out that California, the state with the easiest access to medical marijuana, has only the 14th-highest rating of states with marijuana-related accidents, while states like Indiana and South Carolina, some of the most hostile states with respect to marijuana, have far more marijuana-related accidents.  Within California, two of the most liberal cities for pot access, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, had zero marijuana-related accidents in the past year of record.

    US accident rates in general have been declining steadily since the 1960s, even as marijuana use reached its greatest rates in the late 1970s.  Even in the 1980s when marijuana legalization was at its lowest levels of support and throughout the 1990s and 2000s as medical marijuana spread from state to state, the highway accident rates have continued their steady decline.  It seems that whether marijuana is popular and legal or not, it makes no difference in roadway safety.

    Besides, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in California now and Prop 19 does nothing to undo that.  Californians can and have been arrested for drugged driving over the past fourteen years, even with legal medical marijuana.  Whatever cops are doing now to arrest pot-smoking drivers for DUID will still be done after Prop 19 passes.

    48 responses to “Risk of stoned drivers minimal with Prop. 19”

    1. Trev says:

      I smoke every day in my car on the way home. It keeps me from killing other drivers in traffic.

      [Russ responds: The car is the worst place to smoke weed. More pot smokers are busted in cars than anywhere else.

      But I understand.]

    2. Jabaroo says:

      I have to say that as a smoker that third paragraph in the sacremento really struck true.

    3. Bill O'Brien says:

      I don’t think this piece seriously addresses the political problem that cannabis and driving presents. We can all state that we think driving stoned is bad, and we can point out that it is not nearly as dangerous as driving drunk. The problem is that
      1- There is no way (to my knowledge) to readily test whether a driver IS stoned, only whether he HAS BEEN stoned some time in the previous 60 days or so.
      2- Thus, IF legalization would increase MJ use, and increased MJ use will lead to more stoned driving, then legalization would increase the incidence of stoned driving.
      3- Yet, even though it would remain illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis, that law would be much more difficult to enforce than the laws against drunk driving.

      So, the prospects for legalization would probably be better if either
      a- there could be more convincing evidence that driving while stoned is not particularly hazardous; or,
      b- someone could develop a test to determine whether a driver IS stoned.

      [Russ responds: Such testing devices are on the way. One I read about used armpit sweat on a pad to determine recent marijuana use accurately.

      Personally, I prefer that the standard of impairment in driving should be demonstrated impairment. You weaved in and out of lanes. You slowed and accelerated oddly. You endangered other drivers. You got pulled over and flunked a coordination test. I even feel that way about alcohol. Trying to determine someone’s impairment by their body chemistry is an imperfect measure because we all have different bodies and metabolisms and tolerances and dexterity.

      Am I, after smoking a joint an hour ago, a worse driver than an 82-year-old on arthritis medications? Where is the outrage over drivers eating fast food while driving? We got in a snit over drivers on cell phones, so here in Oregon we banned handhelds. Now everyone uses hands-free cells, which are shown to be just as dangerous because it is the distraction, not the hardware, that is the danger. We all seem to be fine with that (well, except maybe Oprah.)

      I prefer your (a) model – showing that driving while stoned is not of particular danger to the public compared to driving behavior we openly tolerate.]

    4. linda moorhead says:

      No mention was made of the many people who go for a drive to smoke because of room mates or neighbors and the legal risks. If it is finally legal to smoke in the comfort of home, there should be fewer stoned motorists!

    5. Joe says:

      I have a question, do the police have anyway of testing if you’re high or not when they pull you over? If not I don’t get how anyone would get charged with a drug DUI

    6. James says:

      I would like to see the studies cited. Slipping potentially invalid information is tricky but not uncommon.

    7. cjd says:

      The “stoned drivers” have been out there forever! I have’nt heard of a problem. It’s those dam drunks you have to watch out for.

    8. Brandan B. says:

      This argument is as good as when Paul Armentano made it in Marijuana is Safer. If only people with brains calcified by intolerance and drug war rhetoric would listen to reason.

    9. Of all of the vehicular accidents
      I’ve ever been at fault for…
      caffeine, (not cannabis). was the main
      contributing factor, (“coffee-nerves”).

    10. That was very interesting and very well said. Okay the drug driving issue is pretty much taken care of and we all know that marijuana helps slow cancer growth. Now why would the people vote no on prop 19? Unless they are out creeping around at night peeking in their neighbors windows why would they even care what someone is doing in their OWN home?