Thursday, May 15, 2014
Yesterday, Westword reported on the results of a weekend DUI checkpoint in Colorado. The police caught 21 people driving under the influence of alcohol and none driving while high (or on other drugs.) The cops did make one marijuana possession arrest, however: a minor in possession.
Since these figures are from a single checkpoint, they can't be more broadly extrapolated; they qualify as anecdotal. But in this case, alcohol arrests led marijuana busts 21 to one -- and the single exception involved underage possession, not driving under the influence of cannabis.
As Westword notes, data from a single checkpoint means very little. But it did get me to thinking more about the connection between marijuana legalization and driving under the influence.
It's always struck me as a bit odd that anytime a marijuana legalization law is proposed, driving under the influence is one of the first areas of concern. This isn't because I think people should be driving while high. Far from it.
What is odd to me about the connection is that it seems to imply that drug imparied driving isn't a big problem already. And I'm not just talking about marijuana. I'm talking about all drugs.
Breathalyzers test for only one mind-altering substance: alcohol. But Americans use a range of other substances--legal and illegal--that could impair driving. From prescription medications to cocaine to marijuana.
Regardless of whether marijuana is legalized, we should be thinking a lot more about how to prevent impaired driving. We should make sure more officers are trained in conducting road-side testing for impairment (which is currently the only way to catch people who are driving while high on anything other than alcohol.) We should be putting more research dollars into developing impairment testing devices for prescription drugs, marijuana, etc.
It shouldn't take a marijuana legalization ballot measure to get people concerned about drug impaired driving.
The other thing I find odd about this part of the legalization debate is that it seems to assume legalization will result in a dramatic increase in marijuana-impaired driving. I'm not so sure that legalization is likely to lead to much of an increase in stoned driving, however. At least not the way it is currently being implemented.
One of the reasons we have so many DUIs is that alcohol is so often consumed outside the home, in settings like sporting events, restaurants, family gatherings, etc. We allow alcohol to be sold and publicly consumed in places that we know many people are driving to and from.
By contrast, Colorado doesn't license "marijuana bars." Users buy their marijuana to go.
So, even if marijuana legalization significantly increases the total amount of marijuana use (something that itself remains to be seen), that doesn't mean driving while high will necessarily increase at the same rate. If most new use incidents occur in the user's home--e.g., a person smoking a joint after work at home--then increases in use may not result in much of an increase in stoned driving at all.
If states were to start licensing marijuana bars or selling marijuana at suburban sports stadiums, then it would be a different story. But so long as marijuana is being sold exclusively on a "to go" basis, I'm not sure that legalization will result in noticeable increases in impaired driving.
Again, this doesn't mean stoned driving isn't an issue of concern. I think we should all be more concerned about the dangers of impaired driving (including alcohol, an area where we can certainly still do far more than we are doing.) But it shouldn't take a proposal to legalize marijuana to put drug impaired driving on the public policy agenda.