Over half of marijuana users think it’s OK to drive high, CDOT says. Changing that could be an uphill battle

Jack Queen
Summit Daily News
CDOT and Lyft are offering discounted rides in a push to reduce driving while high.
Getty Images / iStockphoto | iStockphoto

On Thursday, The Cannabist reported that Colorado marijuana sales notched $136 million for the third month in a row in September, bringing total revenues to $1.16 billion over the first nine months of the year.

Along with the industry’s healthy growth, however, come concerns about stoned driving, which public safety officials worry is prevalent and deemed acceptable by more than half of marijuana users.

“There’s definitely more of a stigma against driving drunk than driving high, and that’s something we do need to change,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Sam Cole said.

To that end, CDOT is ramping up its efforts to keep people from driving high, including an advertising campaign, partnerships with ride-sharing companies to provide discounts and a grassroots education campaign set to begin next year.

Among marijuana users surveyed by CDOT last November, 55 percent said they believed it was safe to drive under the influence of marijuana. Within that group, the same percentage said they had driven high in the past 30 days, on average 12 times.

“They really don’t understand the dangers of driving high,” Cole said. “Your reaction time is impaired, your perception of distance and speed is impaired, and that can lead to a crash.”

CDOT’s findings are partially backed up by data from Instamotor, a car sales app that found 39 percent of surveyed marijuana users felt comfortable driving high in the nine states where the drug is legal. Another 42 percent said they didn’t feel comfortable driving high, and 19 percent said it varied depending on the situation.

The public safety impacts of marijuana legalization in Colorado are still unclear, as most researchers say it is simply to early too draw conclusions.

But a recent analysis of federal traffic fatality data by the Denver Post found that the number of Colorado drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana has doubled since 2013. Many of those also had alcohol in their systems, but the number of drivers who tested positive for only marijuana increased as well, albeit by a slimmer margin.

Complicating matters, however, is that the psychoactive THC in marijuana can stay detectable in a user’s bloodstream long after the effects wear off.

“So all those numbers really tell us is that, since legal adult-use sales began, a larger number of people are consuming cannabis and then, at some point … (are) driving a car,” a marijuana industry advocate told the Post.

Some academic and public health research indicates that drunk driving is more dangerous than driving high, in part because people under the influence of marijuana tend to be aware and alert, in contrast to people who are drunk.

“Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk,” one study published in the American Journal on Addiction notes.

But Cole said that just because drunk driving is more dangerous, it doesn’t mean that stoned driving is safe.

“I think (comparing the two) is a dangerous road to go down, because driving impaired is driving impaired,” he said. “There’s some research that says that your chances of being in a crash are higher after drinking than your chances of being in a crash after getting high. But your chances (while stoned) are still high — very high.”

Earlier this year, CDOT teamed up with the Marijuana Industry Group and ride-sharing company Lyft for the 320 Movement, which provided discount codes to encourage marijuana users to get a sober ride after getting high.

Over a six-week period, around 3,700 people accessed the 32 percent Lyft discount codes, and more than 1,200 ended up using them, Cole said.

“Anecdotally, we also got a lot of good feedback from marijuana users that they appreciated the effort that we’re making to help get them a safe, sober ride when they get high,” Cole said.

CDOT recently announced it would be renewing the partnership and continue it into next April. The program also includes handing out toolkits to 125 Colorado dispensaries that encourage them to promote marijuana safety and provide information about the ride discounts.

“Our ask is simple — if you choose to legally consume cannabis, plan ahead and don’t get behind the wheel,” MIG executive director Kristi Kelly said in a prepared statement. “The reduction of impaired driving is a shared priority, and state government and Colorado’s cannabis industry are united in their ongoing commitment to raising awareness of, and reducing the incidence of, any impairment while driving.”

Starting next year, CDOT will de doubling the money it spends on drugged driving prevention to about $1 million from marijuana tax revenues. The funds will be used on a community engagement effort to “elevate the conversation” among the public and “better understand why people drive high,” Cole said.

But bringing the stigma of stoned driving on par with drunk driving is in many ways an uphill battle, he acknowledged.

While the state has invested heavily to train more law enforcement officers in drug-detection techniques, it’s still more difficult to catch people driving high — especially if they’re frequent users with high tolerance levels.

Under state law, anyone driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC in their system can be arrested for a DUI. But detecting marijuana intoxication isn’t as simple as using an alcohol breathalyzer.

Stoned drivers now account for 17 percent of all DUIs, according to CDOT. But catching up with efforts to combat drunk driving will take even more high-visibility enforcement and public awareness, Cole said.

“It took 10 to 20 years for us to change behaviors for people who drink … and we just don’t have that amount when it comes to people who use marijuana,” Cole said. “So that’s why we’re trying to accelerate behavior change so we don’t have to wait 10 or 20 years before we really see the stigma against driving high build to the level where it is with alcohol.”