Driving stoned must be higher on state’s radar screen

The News TribuneMarch 12, 2014 

Legal sales of recreational marijuana will begin in Washington state later this year.

TED S. WARREN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Washington, 25 percent more drivers tested positive for marijuana in their system in 2013 than in 2012. And legal sales haven’t even started yet.

In Colorado, where voters approved legalization of pot for recreational use on the same day as Washington’s voters, a $1 million ad campaign is under way called “Drive High, Get a DUI.” The money comes from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grant.

So far Washington has no firm plans or funding for a similar public education campaign informing drivers that it’s illegal — and risky — to drive impaired by pot. That’s unfortunate. Although driving stoned isn’t as dangerous as driving drunk, marijuana does affect motor skills, experts say. In particular, it can reduce a driver’s reaction time in unexpected situations.

Pot smokers who get behind the wheel tend to overcompensate by driving slower than the speed limit — hence the recent “Saturday Night Live” gag showing a billboard urging them to “Speed up.” Drivers impaired by alcohol, by contrast, often drive too fast and erratically.

There’s no question that alcohol is the greater threat to highway safety. While a driver on marijuana is about twice as likely as an unimpaired driver to have an accident, adults under 35 and over the legal limit for alcohol are about nine times as likely to have an accident; those under 21 are about 20 times more at risk for having an accident.

The really dangerous driving scenario is the person who has had both alcohol and marijuana — a combination that is riskier than alcohol alone — and it’s expected to be a bigger problem after legal sales go into effect. Even before legalization, one study found that among drivers under age 35 who were involved in accidents and tested positive for marijuana, 21 percent also were over the legal limit for alcohol.

If Colorado’s tax revenues from pot are any indication — it raked in more than $2 million in January from recreational sales and another $1.5 million from medical marijuana — Washington will make a lot of money when the pot shops open. It should be more than able to finance an ongoing public education campaign on the dangers of driving high.

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