In a public awareness campaign on impaired driving, Massachusetts public safety officials sought to equate operating a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana with doing so under the influence of alcohol.
“It’s the same,” State Police Major Richard Ball said.
“You’re a danger to yourself and others and that’s what we’re trying to combat here,” he added, pointing to the possibility of someone who’s consumed marijuana having slower motor skills and experiencing changed depth perception as they get behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound vehicle.
The public awareness campaign comes as the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission sifts through applications and paperwork for retail marijuana licenses. Home-growing and gifting of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 has been legal since December 2016, and medical marijuana dispensaries have been open since June 2015.
The campaign’s 30-second ad will air on TV and online.
The campaign promotes alternative modes of transportation, including the MBTA, taxis and ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft.
At a press conference announcing the campaign, Jennifer Queally, undersecretary for law enforcement within Gov. Charlie Baker’s public safety secretariat, reiterated the dangers of drugged driving. Earlier, she pointed to numbers saying that an average of 125 drunk or high drivers die annually in Massachusetts.
“I just want everyone to recognize that impaired is impaired is impaired, okay? Regardless of whether it’s alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, other legal drugs, if you are impaired and you drive a car, it is illegal, it’s dangerous and it’s deadly, okay?” she said.
“So the effects you might feel may be different, whether you’re high or whether you’re drunk, but the impairment is no different and the law doesn’t look at it any differently,” Queally said.
Jim Borghesani, chief operating officer for Tudestr, a cannabis consulting company, called impaired driving “unacceptable, period.”
He added that it’s also “unacceptable” for state law enforcement officials for using statistics that don’t differentiate between impairment and the presence of marijuana in somebody’s system, which can last for weeks.
“True to their pattern, the Baker administration puts fear first, alarmism second and leadership third,” said Borghesani, who also sparred with Baker officials when he the spokesman for the ballot campaign legalizing marijuana in 2016.
“Massachusetts voters and drivers deserve a more deliberative approach in order to give the issue the intelligent, factual discussion it deserves,” he said in an email.
Jennifer Flanagan, a member of the Cannabis Control Commission, said consumers are responsible for understanding the effect of marijuana and alcohol on their bodies. Technology also hasn’t caught up with marijuana legalization, so something like the Breathalyzer, deployed in alleged drunk driving cases, is unavailable in drugged driving cases.
Alcohol and marijuana do have different effects, too, Flanagan said. And a person using marijuana every day will see a different level of impairment than someone trying for the first time, according to Flanagan.
“No one is trying to demonize the fact that marijuana is legal,” Flanagan said. “No one is trying to say people shouldn’t use this product. What we’re trying to say today is you need to use it responsibly.”
A former state senator from Central Massachusetts, she also acknowledged the limits of promoting the use public transit and ride-hailing apps in parts of the state that have little of either mode.
“I do recognize the fact that the further west you go, Uber is not as relevant there, they don’t have as many drivers, and that’s why planning for afterwards is so important,” she said. “Just as you would if you were going out with your friends for drinks or dinner.”