A panel of experts from the cannabis, public safety and transportation industries gathered at Colorado State University-Pueblo Thursday to discuss misconceptions and discuss the dangers of cannabis-impaired driving.
The discussion was the first public happening of the Colorado Department of Transportation’s new public safety campaign called The Cannabis Conversation, which is seeking the input of Coloradans to identify solutions to a problem that contributed to 77 fatal car wrecks in 2016 alone.
According to CDOT Communications Manager Sam Cole, the department previously orchestrated ad campaigns to get the word out about cannabis-impaired driving, which he said were successful in notifying the public of the dangers and legal repercussions of driving under the influence of marijuana but seemingly did little to curb citizens’ behavior.
Some of the primary topics discussed at the meeting included how marijuana consumption effects drivers, current law enforcement methods for detecting drugged driving, and ongoing research into tools that measure impairment.
All of the panelists agreed that marijuana consumption can cause impairment that makes it dangerous to operate a motor vehicle, but noted that because marijuana has not been researched as extensively as other impairment-causing drugs, such as alcohol, it is unclear to what extent.
The lack of research is attributable to the relatively new status of legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, and panelist Kristi Kelly, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, said a number of research studies on marijuana impairment are being conducted in the Centennial State.
Cole expressed that though research has not yet identified the extent to which marijuana causes driving impairment, studies have shown that being under the influence of marijuana does impact perceptions of distance, speed and time.
“We would all agree that at a certain level, yes, marijuana does impair your ability to drive,” Cole said.
“I think where everything gets squishy is in the research addressing at what level. Does somebody have to smoke a whole joint? Eat a whole edible? Or would they be fine just having a hit or two off a joint and they can still drive?
“Science just really hasn’t met us there, so we’re still having this discussion, both in the scientific and research community. Meanwhile, CDOT is really digging deep into this data to understand a lot more about these crashes that involved somebody who was high.”
A variety of factors play into how impaired each individual driver may be after consuming marijuana, including the amount consumed, time elapsed since consumption and the individual’s tolerance.
Because marijuana can be detected in a person’s blood long after they’ve consumed it, panelist Jack Reed, a statistical analyst for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, detailed that the state enforces existing driving laws by first identifying impairment through behavioral cues and later testing for a specific type of THC called Delta-9.
Colorado law dictates a person cannot legally drive if any more than 5 nanograms of Delta-9 THC is detected in his or her blood and Reed said Delta-9 is different from other types of THC in that it is usually only detectable in significant quantities when marijuana has been consumed within a short time of being tested, typically around two hours.
While research surrounding marijuana impairment and its effect on a citizen’s ability to drive continues to progress, panelist Matt Herrera, manager at the Pueblo Starbuds Dispensary, said he advises his customers to simply treat marijuana consumption the same way they do other impairment-causing drugs.
“There’s a misconception when it comes to alcohol and marijuana that a lot of people think marijuana is way less of a problem and it’s not,” he said.
“Even if the number is one marijuana-impaired driving fatality, that is one too many,” Kelly said.
“So compared to alcohol for example, the numbers are significantly lower than alcohol. But in our opinion, one is still too many. So our goal, and why we work with CDOT … is because we are fully committed to educating folks on the road so that they can make the right choices beforehand.”