Why ‘stoned driving’ hype makes no sense

San Bruno police officers stop cars at a DUI checkpoint on November 27, 2006 in San Bruno, California. SOURCE: Justin Sullivan | Getty
San Bruno police officers stop cars at a DUI checkpoint on November 27, 2006 in San Bruno, California. SOURCE: Justin Sullivan | Getty

I read a story at The Denver Post that presented three interesting stats about Colorado:

  1. “The number of citations for driving while under the influence of marijuana dropped by 33.2 percent…”
  2. “Fifty percent of marijuana users say they have driven high.”
  3. “55 percent of marijuana users said they believed it was safe to drive while under the influence.”

These facts lead a Department of Transportation spokesman to remark, “We’re still troubled by the fact that marijuana users are still telling us they routinely drive high.”

Why? Aren’t fewer citations for marijuana DUI a good thing?

Consider that if #2 is true, then if #1 is also true, doesn’t that argue that #3 might be truer than presumed?

A spokesman for the state patrol even inadvertently underscored this point. The Denver Post reported him explaining that troopers have “great experience” busting stoned drivers, through “personal contact” and “driving behavior.”

OK, so police are great at busting stoned drivers, but they’re busting fewer of them. If tokers are driving high and cops are catching fewer of them, again, what is the problem?

This scaremongering about marijuana and driving seems to be based on the idea that legalization invents stoned drivers. Don’t you think if stoned driving were a real problem, we’d have seen a huge spike in traffic fatalities around 1979, when we recorded the greatest rate of lifetime teenage marijuana use? Or maybe 1996, when California passed the Compassionate Use Act? Or perhaps 2012, when Washington and Colorado legalized adult use?

Instead, we’ve seen traffic fatality rates decline by 38 percent in the past two decades. Yes, much of that decline owes to safer cars, roads, and laws, but marijuana doesn’t seem to be making the roads more dangerous.

Critics of legalization will try to gin up some danger by reeling off trumped-up statisticsabout “marijuana-related” crashes or fatalities. But “marijuana-related” means “we found evidence proving the driver was a marijuana user,” not that the driver had recently used marijuana or that impairment from marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, was in any way to blame for the crash.

Inactive THC metabolites proving marijuana use remain detectable for days or weeks, so if you legalize marijuana and more adults use it more often, you’re going to find more dead drivers with metabolites in their systems. That’s as relevant as noting how many more married gay people are dying in car crashes these days since the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision.

This isn’t to argue that people should do bong rips down the freeway. Marijuana use can and does impair important driving skills in infrequent users. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms that, controlling for age and gender, THC-positive drivers are no more statistically likely to crash than sober drivers.

Even the FDA’s approved synthetic THC medicine, MARINOL® (dronabinol), comes with a label warning that its users “should be specifically warned not to drive… until it is established that they are able to tolerate the drug…”

Frequent marijuana consumers do develop this tolerance. Take Addy Norton, profiled ina Washington local TV news story about marijuana and driving. She showed up and aced the driving test at three times the legal limit for active THC. She reached eleven times the limit before the state trooper observing the test said she was driving “borderline.”

At eleven times the legal limit for alcohol, she’d be dead.

Troopers want some sort of breathalyzer for marijuana, but that won’t work. The same amount of THC that doesn’t faze a frequent consumer would leave a newbie drooling on a couch. Cops only want the breathalyzer because, obviously, tokers aren’t driving and acting erratically enough to catch them without it.


[‘Radical’ Russ Belville is a radio and talk show host, and a leading cultural commentator on all things cannabis. His works appears in High Times, Marijuana Politics and elsewhere. He lives in Portland.]