Legalizing pot raises road safety concerns

By Noah Zucker
Posted 4/18/21

As state lawmakers consider legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use, some Delawareans are thinking about the implications for impaired driving in the First State.

“There is the …

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Legalizing pot raises road safety concerns


As state lawmakers consider legalizing marijuana for recreational adult use, some Delawareans are thinking about the implications for impaired driving in the First State.

“There is the potential for legalizing marijuana to make the roads less safe for a couple reasons,” said Tammy Anderson, a University of Delaware sociology professor focused on alcohol, drugs and crime.

“There is an emergent problem developing called drugged driving. In some respects, drugged driving is approaching rates of drunk driving,” Ms. Anderson said. “We sort of have an awareness right now of drunk driving. There’s been this development of an ethic that I should not drive after I’ve been drinking.”

She said fewer people have developed that same sensibility when it comes to driving after smoking weed.

“That’s a concern, especially for non-consumers (of marijuana),” said Brandon McFadden, a UD economics professor focused in part on cannabis. “That’s an externality they have to deal with that they would likely not want to deal with.”

Richard Klepner, the deputy director of the Delaware Office of Highway Safety, said driving under the influence is already a big problem in Delaware, like it is in the rest of the nation.

“About half of Delaware’s roadway fatalities involve impairment with either alcohol and/or drugs,” he said. “Delaware is seeing a shift in impairment from alcohol to drugs in fatal crashes, which is similar to national trends.”

Perspectives from out west

Master Trooper Gary Cutler, a public information officer with the Colorado State Patrol, which primarily monitors the state’s highways, said impaired driving is a problem in his state, too. Colorado legalized adult recreational use in 2012.

“I felt we were starting to get a little foothold on drinking and driving, and I think we’ve gone backwards now,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that just don’t believe that if they’ve been smoking, they can’t drive. They feel fine.”

Sgt. Darren Wright, a public information officer with the Washington State Patrol, said that although DUI incidents are down in aggregate, drugged-driving incidents are up. Washington legalized adult recreational use in 2015.

“We had 2,000 more impaired-driving arrests total, all DUIs (including drugged driving), in 2015 than we had in 2020. But we had twice as many drug-impaired drivers out of that (in 2020),” Sgt. Wright said. “There were 1,233 drug-impaired drivers arrested in 2015. There were 2,000 arrested in 2020.”

He said those drugged-driving offenses “wouldn’t be just marijuana, but it is a large portion of it.”

Trooper Cutler said his department is “going back to square one on trying to train people that this is still bad. It’s just like drinking and driving.”

He said that identifying drivers under the influence of marijuana isn’t a different process than identifying drunk drivers.

“Usually, we’re stopping them for the same type of thing,” Trooper Cutler said, “weaving, driving too slow, driving too fast.”

Marijuana’s effects and evidence

But Ms. Anderson said alcohol, a depressant, impacts people in a very different way from marijuana.

“Marijuana is an interesting drug to classify in terms of how it affects the brain, the type of feeling it gives to users,” she said.

Ms. Anderson said it’s hard for experts to classify marijuana in the same way as other drugs like heroin or cocaine. While those are straightforward narcotics and stimulants, respectively, marijuana straddles several categories.

“It has both sedative and dissociative qualities to it,” the professor said. “Technically, it’s classified as a mild hallucinogen, but it, of course, has sedative qualities to it. That’s what makes it a hybrid in terms of its effects on the brain.”

This is part of the reason some don’t see driving high on marijuana as dangerous.

“The feeling that I’ve been told that people get from being high doesn’t feel like an impairment,” Sgt. Wright said. “It doesn’t make you staggering drunk like alcohol does.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to drive high.

“Marijuana can impair judgment, motor coordination and reaction time,” Mr. Klepner said. This is a big problem when doing what Trooper Cutler called a “divided attention task” like driving.

Mr. Klepner said that the existing research on driving under the influence of marijuana is limited, but he did know that “driving under the influence of marijuana can also be a lot more nuanced than driving under the influence of alcohol.”

Still, in Delaware he said the penalty for driving while high on any substance is not different from the penalty for driving drunk.

For law enforcement, gathering definitive evidence of marijuana impairment can be a challenge. Trooper Cutler said that in Colorado, the legal limit for marijuana is 5 nanograms of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, per millimeter in the bloodstream.

“If we do a breath test for the alcohol, we’re not going to see any information for the marijuana, so it would have to be a blood test,” he said.

There are other forms of evidence that can be used in drugged-driving cases, but they’re not as straightforward as they are with drunk driving.

“When we go to court and we write tickets and take people to jail for this, it’s all under our articulation. What is the totality of everything?” Trooper Cutler said. “We don’t base it on any one thing or two things. We’re looking at multiple things to decide whether this person is impaired.”

But Ms. Anderson thinks the task of identifying drivers high on marijuana could become easier soon.

“Some states and some countries have started to test for drugged driving out in the field with pullovers,” she said. “We will see police officers test for drugged driving rather than just drunk driving.”

Trooper Cutler also mentioned these technologies but said his department has not begun using them yet. Both he and Sgt. Wright noted that impaired drivers often mix substances.

“If people are mixing alcohol and marijuana, it’s much easier for us to go with an alcohol conviction than it is to try and get into the courts with the marijuana,” he said. “A lot of times, we don’t even waste our time on that.”

Mr. Wright said his department takes a similar approach.


Impaired drivers make the roads more dangerous, but thoroughfares are already risky places, even when drivers are completely sober. Ms. Anderson said that dispensaries will lead to more traffic in general, which also decreases driver safety.

“What we’ve learned with the pandemic is that (traffic) fatalities initially went down … because everyone was staying home and the leading cause of accidents is highway accidents,” she said. Delaware’s Department of Transportation statistics showed a decrease of 60 to 70 in traffic statewide in April last year compared to prior year’s data and in May, there was a 30 to 50 percent reduction for weekdays and 20 to 50 percent for weekends compared to that time in 2019.

“Now, people are going to be driving more because there will be retail outlets for people to purchase marijuana,” Ms. Anderson said.

“It’s just normal traffic. Any time normal traffic patterns increase, the risk of death increases,” she said. “That doesn’t have to do with the effects of marijuana, but that just has to do with commerce.”

Professor McFadden said he imagines that once legal marijuana becomes more common in the Northeast, people might drive across state borders to get better deals when replenishing their stashes.

“At some point, especially given how concentrated borders are in this region, you could imagine a lot of interstate commerce occurring depending on the competitive offering of each state,” he said.

Moving across state borders with marijuana is illegal, even when traveling between states where the substance is legal, because the substance is prohibited federally. But Mr. McFadden said he thinks the reward of lower prices might outweigh the risk.

“It’s hard to imagine taxes might have a huge impact, … but you see shopping behavior a lot of the time where people travel outside of arbitrary lines to avoid higher prices,” he said. “For instance, with the soda tax in Philly, there’s evidence that, after a tax is implemented, people know about that and factor it into decisions to do things like buy soda if they’re traveling outside the city.”

Advice from marijuana-legal states

In addition to driving stoned or drunk, Trooper Cutler said convictions for driving under the influence of more serious drugs are on the rise.

“We’re seeing a lot of things. It’s not just marijuana. Drug use in itself — and I’m not just talking illegal drugs, but prescription drugs” — is increasing, he said. “When I was (patrolling) on the road, I started seeing a lot more prescription-drug use. We also see a lot of other harder drugs.”

Sgt. Wright, a law enforcement veteran of nearly three decades, said that it wasn’t a problem for his department to make changes when recreational cannibis was legalized in Washington.

“We’ll always comply with whatever the law changes are,” he said.

“Walking up to a car and smelling marijuana (had) always been an automatic arrest,” he said. “Now, the only thing you have to worry about is whether they’re impaired or not. And if they’re not driving, then we have nothing to worry about.”

He did have some advice for law enforcement in states considering legalizing recreational use.

“Build up your DRE, which is your drug-recognition expert program, or your ARIDE, which is roadside-impairment detection,” he said. Trooper Cutler said that when weed was legalized for recreational use in Colorado, his whole department had to go through an ARIDE (Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement) program, which he found helpful.

“Make sure your DUI protocols for drug-impaired driving are on point because it’s going to be increased,” Sgt. Wright said.