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Safety Advocates Concerned About Marijuana and Driving

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Driving while smoking potAs marijuana laws continue to be liberalized, safety advocates and public officials worry that drivers who are high will cause a dramatic increase in traffic deaths, Joan Lowy writes in an Associated Press article appearing in The Kansas City Star.

Lowy quotes Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, as saying the association views the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state as a “wakeup call” for those working in highway safety. While admitting that not enough is known about the scope of marijuana-impaired driving to determine the size of the problem, Adkins says that “anytime a driver has their ability impaired, it is a problem.”

It is illegal in all states — including the 23 that have legalized medical marijuana — to drive while pot-impaired, Lowy notes. There are efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, Lowy writes.

It is not clear to what extent pot-impaired driving will contribute to more accidents on the roads, Lowy writes. While some studies have found that marijuana can double the risk of crashes, she quotes Dr. Mehmet Sofuoglu as saying that other studies have found “virtually no increase.” Testifying at a trial as an expert witness, Sofuoglu, a Yale Medical School drug abuse expert, said studies of marijuana and crash risk are “highly inconclusive.”

Colorado, Washington, and Montana have set an intoxication limit of 5 parts per billion of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), pot’s psychoactive ingredient, in a driver’s blood, Lowy writes. Other states have set intoxication thresholds, but most have not specified any. Washington state found almost 25% more drivers testing positive for marijuana in 2013; however, there was no corresponding increase in car accidents or deaths. Sofuoglu said the drivers most likely to smoke pot and get in car accidents — whether or not they are high — are teenage boys and young men, due to their general reckless behavior, Lowy writes.

Lowy reports that many states do not test drivers in fatal crashes for drugs unless they suspect impairment, and even when alcohol is found in the driver’s blood they are unlikely to test for drugs. She adds that testing procedures vary from state to state.

At least one official is calling for mandatory drug testing of drivers involved in crashes:

‘If states legalize marijuana, they must set clear limits for impairment behind the wheel and require mandatory drug testing following a crash,’ said Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. ‘Right now we have a patchwork system across the nation regarding mandatory drug testing following highway crashes.’

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that, after alcohol, marijuana is the second most common psychoactive substance found in the blood of drivers involved in accidents, according to epidemiology data from road traffic arrests and fatalities. People who were given marijuana and then tested on driving simulators and courses showed decreased car handling performance, increased reaction times, impaired time and distance estimation, an inability to “maintain headway,” sleepiness, lack of motor coordination, and impaired sustained vigilance, NHTSA writes. The agency adds:

Some drivers may actually be able to improve performance for brief periods by overcompensating for self-perceived impairment. The greater the demands placed on the driver, however, the more critical the likely impairment. Marijuana may particularly impair monotonous and prolonged driving. Decision times to evaluate situations and determine appropriate responses increase. Mixing alcohol and marijuana may dramatically produce effects greater than either drug on its own.

In a related news item, Deborah Hamilton writes for CharismaNews that a pot-infused drink called “Legal” was legalized this summer in Washington state. The manufacturer, Mirth Provisions, is marketing it to people who are curious about marijuana but leery of smoking a joint, Hamilton writes.

She quotes Karl Benzio, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Lighthouse Network, a helpline for addiction and mental health, who calls the beverages a dangerous experiment:

‘The risks of the cannabis chemical, as well as the terrible message given to teens that cannabis products are safe and helpful, will undoubtedly become a nightmare of future calamities on individuals, marriages, families, communities and societies.’

Benzio is concerned that it has not been stated how much THC is in the drink, or how potent the cannabis in it is.

Image by Samantha Cohen


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