Driver smoking a bong

As of 2014, 502 Colorado law enforcement officers have been trained as drug recognition experts (DREs) who are able to determine if a driver has been impaired by drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The state began its DRE program in 1987, and currently 64 agencies have DREs, with the Colorado State Patrol having the most at 51, CDOT writes. DREs are one of the most effective ways to combat impaired driving, writes Larry Copeland in Wednesday’s USA Today, in an article titled “Easing of marijuana laws worries road safety advocates.”

Virginia has only two DREs while California has 1,200, Copeland writes. He notes that 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana; Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use; and 16 states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized pot. In addition, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., have November ballot questions for recreational-pot legalization, and Florida has a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana. Copeland quotes Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety, advocacy, and research for AAA:

‘I’m very concerned, because I feel that we’re painting the plane as we’re flying it…. When we were at this stage of the game with alcohol, starting to pass laws, we knew a lot more about how alcohol affected driving performance, crash risks and how that changed with different concentrations of alcohol in a person’s body.’

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, said that although drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to drive more slowly and less aggressively, studies have found that pot can slow a driver’s decision-making ability and decrease peripheral vision, Copeland writes. In addition, it has a stimulative effect when mixed with alcohol, creating reckless drivers who take a lot of risks, Adkins pointed out, adding, “That’s the biggest concern.”

Copeland quotes Adkins further:

Adkins says the nation is putting the cart before the horse. ‘Traffic safety isn’t even being considered in the cities and states that are considering legalization,’ he says. ‘It isn’t even being considered until after the fact.’

Transportation officials in Colorado and Washington State say they have no data on whether stoned driving has caused an increase in car accidents, injuries, or fatalities, Copeland writes. He reports that a study published last January in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that in the last decade, the number of fatal crashes involving marijuana tripled. The study’s authors found that a driver under the influence of alcohol is 13 times more likely to be in a fatal crash than a sober driver; a driver who is under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana is 24 times more likely to be killed in a crash, Copeland writes.

Drivers in Colorado, Montana, and Washington can be charged with driving under the influence of marijuana if it is shown that they have more than 5 nanograms of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in pot) per milliliter of blood, according to Anne Tiegen, a transportation analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Copeland writes. He adds that Alabama, California, and New Mexico considered threshold statutes this year, but did not adopt any.

Image by Mike Kline

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