Opinion: Driving under influence dangerous with pot

Jeff Junkas
View Comments

On Election Day, Michigan joined nine other states, along with Washington D.C. that have voted to legalize recreational marijuana since 2012. While campaigns to liberalize marijuana laws usually include arguments that recreational use will be a boon to state tax coffers, an important element is too often left out of debate—road safety. Now that Proposal 1 has passed in Michigan, there’s an urgent need for more focused public awareness campaigns to ensure that everyone in the state understands that driving under the influence of marijuana can be just as dangerous as driving drunk.

There is now a viable option to test suspected drugged drivers just like we do with suspected drunk drivers.

The latest statistics are sobering and should serve as a wakeup call for states like Michigan as the new rules for recreational marijuana use are being implemented.

In Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational pot, a recent study by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area found marijuana-impaired driving deaths more than doubled from 55 in 2013 before recreational marijuana was legalized to 138 drivers killed last year. And marijuana-related traffic deaths in the state have increased 151 percent while all traffic deaths in the state increased 35 percent.

A separate study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that among the first states to legalize recreational marijuana traffic crashes are increasing. Vehicle damage claims in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington are up by as much as six percent compared with neighboring states that haven’t legalized recreational marijuana use.

Across the U.S. we are seeing a trend toward marijuana legalization. But public awareness of the danger of “driving high” is lagging. Earlier this year, a poll found that 20 percent of Americans say they have driven a car under the influence of marijuana, with more than 80 percent of those admitting they drove either immediately or within two hours of using the drug.

Not appreciating the time it takes for the effect of a minimal amount marijuana to wear off is particularly dangerous.  In fact, a McGill University study released last month found driving performance can be impaired for as much as five hours after smoking one joint. Other research has shown marijuana can slow reaction time, impair judgment of time and distance, and decrease coordination – impairments that can lead to vehicle crashes.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that after alcohol, marijuana is the drug most often found in the blood of drivers involved in crashes and according to a new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), among the fatally-injured drivers who tested positive for drugs in 2016, 38 percent tested positive for some form of marijuana.

Too often we hear of deadly traffic accidents in states that have loosened recreational marijuana laws and children, teens and adults have all been victims. In order to save lives not just in Michigan but across the country, increased investment is needed in the research that will improve our knowledge of marijuana impairment and provide law enforcement with the best tools available to detect stoned drivers.

If Michigan wants to avoid some of its residents from becoming another statistic, law enforcement and elected officials must take the wheel and introduce a sustained public awareness campaign that doesn’t downplay the dangers of driving high.

Jeff Junkas is the Assistant Vice President of State Government Relations in Michigan for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America

View Comments