A 2014 study unveiled a disturbing fact in Colorado: Approximately 43 percent of the state’s drivers didn’t know it was illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana. In response, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) launched the “Drive High, Get a DUI” advertising campaign to educate the public and make sure state law enforcement officers are specially trained to recognize drug impairment.

Colorado and Marijuana

Colorado law approved pot for medical use in 2000 and, as medical marijuana use became more widespread in the state, voted to allow recreational sale in 2014. The legislation has resulted in an increase in the number of motorists caught using the drug while driving, and has forced the state to educate people that driving under the influence is still against the law just like drunk driving.

How Law Enforcement Detects Pot-Impaired Drivers

Colorado used the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program, which trains law enforcement officers to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than or in addition to, alcohol. The program began in 1987, and as of 2015, 575 Colorado law enforcement officers have completed the training, according to CDOT statistics.

The full-time, two-week course focuses on fieldwork and a series of tests to assess a driver’s impairment, which includes taking their pulse and making eye contact to observe their general attitude, coordination, facial color, and other signs of impairment. If an officer believes that a driver may have used pot, he asks the driver to take a blood test at a local fire station or hospital that will determine whether the person has a level of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in the bloodstream that is only found in those who have recently consumed marijuana.

Drivers who refuse the test automatically lose their license for 60 days have to use an interlock device on their car for two years, although experts say that drunken drivers are much more likely to refuse to be tested than marijuana users, who are generally cooperative.

Studies Find Marijuana Significantly Impairs Driving Performance

According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, marijuana use impairs driving performance for up to approximately three hours after it’s been consumed, and generally increases reaction times, impairs coordination and time and distance estimation, and induces sleepiness and distraction. Mixing alcohol with marijuana is thought to intensify the effects that either drug may have on their own.

A 2012 Canadian study published in the British Medical Journal found that driving under the influence of marijuana nearly doubles the risk for car accidents, especially fatal ones. In Colorado, a federally funded anti-drug trafficking organization conducted its own study and found that in 2007, 7.04 percent of the drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents in Colorado had marijuana in their bodies, but by 2012, that number had more than doubled to 16.53 percent, according to Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area data compiled from law enforcement agencies and coroners’ offices.

So Is the Colorado Program Actually Working?

In some ways yes; in others, maybe not.

Colorado police still arrest far more drunk drivers than ones who are impaired by marijuana use, but a follow-up study revealed that the “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign has had some effect, with the number of recreational marijuana users who still didn’t realize they could get cited for DUI after using marijuana dropping by half to 21 percent, according to a Cleveland.com report. However, around 57 percent of marijuana users reported driving vehicles within two hours of consumption, likely still feeling the effects — and driving impairment — of cannabis.

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