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The Weed Watershed


Lost in the drama of the presidential election was the fact that five states had an issue on their ballots that may be a game-changer in those states and in the country. The fact that the issue received so little attention says much about the shift in attitudes and culture that has already taken place in the country. On November 8, 2016, citizens in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Maine and Arizona voted on whether to legalize recreational marijuana; the use, sale, consumption and cultivation of marijuana became legal in all of those states except Arizona. With four more states voting to allow the use of medical marijuana, the recent election means that marijuana is legal in some form, and for some use, in over half of the country. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation legalizing medical marijuana use in December of 2015 for certain illnesses.


What does this mean for the safety of the country’s roads? To get some idea of the impact of legalized recreational marijuana on the safety of transportation, experts turn to Colorado, where marijuana was legalized for medical use in 2009 and recreational use in 2012. Colorado has seen a spike in driving fatalities in which marijuana alone was involved starting in 2009 when Colorado legalized medical marijuana dispensaries. On a national level, of 24,000 driving fatalities in 2010, marijuana contributed to 12%--a three-fold increase from 2000. Even more disturbing is the emerging body of data showing that drugged driving is more common among young people. For example, one in eight high school seniors who responded to a 2010 survey admitted to driving after smoking marijuana. In addition, nearly one-fourth of drivers killed in drug-related car crashes are under twenty-five, and nearly half of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for marijuana were under twenty-five. Age aside, a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study found 4% of daytime drivers high and 6% of nighttime drivers high, with the nighttime number doubling on weekends.


To combat the growing problem of drugged driving, the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy has set a goal of reducing drugged driving by 10%. The idea is to make the prevention of drugged driving a national priority on par with the prevention of drunk driving, which has declined by an estimated one-half since 1980 and the campaign by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. The strategy against drugged-driving is as follows: (1) encouraging states to adopt "per se" laws prohibiting any trace of a drug in a driver's system while in control of a vehicle, even absent other evidence of impairment; (2) collecting further data on drugged driving; (3) increasing public education regarding drugged driving and its consequences; (4) training of law enforcement to identify drugged drivers; and (5) developing standardized screening methods for labs to use in detecting the presence of drugs.


The problem with any strategy that relies on data linking marijuana with accident fatalities is that unlike alcohol, marijuana's active ingredient, THC, can linger in someone's system for days and even weeks after inhalation or ingestion. This makes it very difficult to analyze data of so-called "drugged-drivers" in terms of cause and effect, since the presence of THC in a driver's system alone cannot determine impairment and causation of an accident. The reason that adoption of "per se" laws is encouraged is because to date there is no THC limit or amount at which experts agree a person will be impaired while driving. A three-year study by the NHTSA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse was completed in November of 2016. The study used a sophisticated simulator at The University of Iowa to determine the impact of inhaled marijuana on all aspects of driving performance--decision making, motor control and risk taking behavior. People driving with blood concentrations of 13.1 ug/L THC showed increased weaving within the lane, similar to those with 0.08 breath alcohol, the threshold for impaired driving in many states. However, THC concentrations drop rapidly during the time required to collect a blood specimen in the U.S. , which is generally within two to four hours. (Oral tests, while able to be performed roadside, are not a precise measure of impairment.) The concern with implementing any concentration-based drugged driving legislation is that it will not accurately target those truly impaired, since THC can be detected in blood for up to a month after use in chronic frequent smokers, even after abstinence. Therefore, the study failed to arrive at a recommended level for legislation.


If you have been involved in a car accident where marijuana was involved, or if you would like more information on drugged driving dangers and laws, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation.

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Thomas Law Firm
Located at 945 East Paces Ferry Road, Resurgens Plaza, GA 30326.

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