A report released by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association found that the number of American fatalities in car crashes in which drugs were present or detected in car eclipsed the number of fatalities in which only alcohol was present. These findings indicate that as marijuana (and potentially other drugs) become legalized and accepted it is likely that their use in combination with driving will increase.
History of Marijuana Legalization
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215 which legalized medical marijuana – the first state in the country to do so. Since then, 22 more states have legalized marijuana for medicinal uses. Medicinal cannabis is used to treat a variety of ailments from glaucoma to nausea (especially for patients undergoing chemotherapy) and anxiety.
In 2012, Colorado and Washington followed by legalizing all uses of marijuana. They were followed by Oregon, Nevada, California, Massachusetts, and Maine. Moreover, many more states “decriminalized” marijuana which, while not explicitly making marijuana legal, it was no longer sufficient grounds for prosecutors to charge felonies (or in some cases even misdemeanors).
Study Findings and Steady Increases
Unfortunately, despite these steady advances in criminal justice reform, the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana have also coincided with an increase in all types of drug use. The report found that drugs, both illegal and prescription, were present in 43 percent of crashes which exceeds the number of drivers who tested positive for alcohol by six percent.
However, these findings are also misleading. First, the Advancing Alcohol Responsibility Association is a nonprofit that is funded by alcohol distillers which creates an incentive for it to emphasize the risk of drugged driving while de-emphasizing the dangers of drunken driving. Furthermore, the report cites an increase in all types of drug use. It does not differentiate between the various types of illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens. Furthermore, it combines prescription drugs such as muscle relaxants and anxiety medications such as Xanax. Therefore, while there may be an increase in the number of car crashes in which drugs were present, that does not necessarily correlate with the legalization of marijuana.
Despite these issues in the report, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association updated its 2015 guidelines advising the states on the best ways to combat rising rates of drugged driving.
Issues in Enforcement
The primary problem law enforcement face in identifying and stopping drugged drivers is that there is no uniform test. Alcohol has the “breathalyzer” which comes in different models, but they all perform the same essential function, measure the blood-alcohol content using someone’s breath. Drugs have no uniform test, and it is incredibly difficult to design one.
Alcohol may come in many different drinks, but it is the same chemical compound. Drugs are all different, marijuana, cocaine, PCP, hallucinogens, and prescription drugs all affect the body and mind in different ways – there is no way that a single test can search for them all.
Additionally, training for law enforcement to identify the signs of a drugged driver is inconsistent and incomplete. Just like there is no uniform test to measure the various types of drugs, there is no uniform “field sobriety test” to ascertain if a person is impaired or under the influence. Each drug affects a person differently. Moreover, the more variations and exceptions to the “field sobriety test” to account for these discrepancies increases the likelihood that the officer will administer the test wrong and innocent people will face criminal charges.
Additionally, many officers report that even detecting the presence of drugs is difficult. Officers used to rely on the “smell” and “eye” test to determine if a driver had recently smoked marijuana. However, since legalization, marijuana users can consume marijuana in many different ways which undermine the traditional tells that officers relied on.
Finally, in the few states that are using field tests, there is no uniform legal definition of when someone is “high” and not permitted to drive. Alcohol enjoys the bright-line rule of 0.08 percent. However, the field tests can only tell if drugs are present in the body, it cannot measure the level of saturation. To get that, officers must detain the suspect and take them to a hospital for a blood test.
Smoking vs. Drinking: Cultural Misunderstandings
Finally, many drivers do not appreciate the effects that marijuana can have on the body. The report found that people assume that, since marijuana doesn’t affect the body in the same way as alcohol they can smoke and drive. The report emphasizes that driving while high is still too impaired to operate a vehicle. The report is cautious because legalized marijuana is too new for comprehensive studies to examine its effect on rates of drugged driving adequately.