Legalization of Marijuana in Some States Is Accompanied by Concern of Driving While High

Some states such as Colorado, Washington, and Washington, D.C. have legalized marijuana use. As such, these states have begun thinking about the possibility that their drivers may be driving under the influence of a now-legal drug. While alcohol is legal in all 50 states, driving while drunk is not. Therefore, lawmakers have begun defining intoxication / impairment thresholds for DUI liability due to marijuana use.

Lawmakers are worried that as more citizens begin consuming marijuana under lax legalization policies, more citizens will begin taking to the roads while high. Lawmakers fret that this will lead to increased traffic deaths. However, research is so far divided on whether marijuana will lead to more car accidents.

It is undisputed that some of the effects of marijuana use are a net negative for driving. Marijuana obstructs peripheral vision, slows reaction times, and hinders multitasking. Unlike alcohol, known as “liquid courage” for its ability to give drivers the power to speed and drive recklessly while under the influence, marijuana may have the opposite effect on drivers. Drivers who are high are aware they are high. They have no interest in reckless driving and instead drive very slow, avoid other cars by refusing to pass and keeping large distances between vehicles, and stop at yellow lights.

While this seems like a benefit for the streets, many individuals combine marijuana and alcohol, and when alcohol is introduced into the equation, all of the benefits of the cautious marijuana driver are wiped out. In fact, being under the influence of marijuana and alcohol leads to more reckless driving than just alcohol alone.

THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It is the presence of THC in marijuana that creates the high and therefore places it on the DEA’s controlled substances list.

Only Colorado, Washington, and Montana have set exact thresholds for marijuana use at 5 parts per billion THC. Interestingly enough, marijuana is not legalized in Montana. In addition, other states have set marijuana intoxication thresholds without defining specific levels. This makes it hard for law enforcement and prosecutors to enforce the law and keep the streets safe.

In the state of Washington, officers saw a spike of 25% in drivers under the influence of marijuana after the legalization of marijuana. However, there was no change in the number of car crashes or crash-related deaths.

Studies so far have been inconclusive about marijuana’s effect on driving. Some studies show that marijuana drivers are more cautious. Other studies show that there is no increased risk of accidents or deaths with marijuana use. And other studies show a 300% increase in accidents and deaths.

In addition, the most common user group of marijuana is young men. Young men are correlated with driving recklessly and getting into car accidents. Coupling young men with marijuana can prove to be a deadly combination.

A 2012 study found that 10% of high school students smoked marijuana before getting behind the wheel of the car. The vast majority of that 10% were males. Another study conducted on random drivers by the NHTSA found that 8.6% of drivers on the road tested positive for THC. However, because THC can stay in the system for days, it is unknown what percentage of those drivers were high at the time they were tested.

In addition, like other drugs and alcohol, marijuana users can also develop a tolerance to the drug, Therefore, more seasoned users are less likely to be affected by the drug, while inexperienced users have a higher likelihood of being impaired.

Following decriminalization and/or legalization of marijuana in many states, focus has grown on the effects of legalization on the community. One study conducted by Columbia University found that marijuana use increased the risk of a fatality while driving by 80%. However, a Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation study found that marijuana users were actually less likely to be involved in a crash than sober drivers. These studies show that more research, and certainly larger scale research, is needed on the issue.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, contact the experienced personal injury lawyers at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan, PLLC today to review your potential claims.

The Associated Press, Will Traffic Deaths Rise as States Legalize Marijuana?, NY Daily News,, Sept. 1, 2014.

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