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Trends in the Law: The Decriminalization of Marijuana

The Decriminalization of Marijuana: Trends in the Law Series


The origin of April 20, or 4/20, being celebrated as the pop cultural phenomenon “National Weed Day,” is thought to be related to the time 4:20; that time in the afternoon, designated 4:20, was a code among high school friends in California in the 1970s to meet to get high. The code eventually spread across California and beyond, even becoming the number of a California Senate bill that established the state’s medical marijuana program. The “code” became part of pop culture, ultimately rising to the level of the iconic status of “National Weed Day” every 4/20.

But the times they are a changin,’ and high school kids and people of all ages no longer need a code to discuss using marijuana. This is due in large part to the fact that 8 states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, and 29 states have legalized its use for medicinal purposes.

In addition to the movement toward decriminalization of marijuana, Americans’ attitudes toward the controversial plant have changed. Society has come to view marijuana use more comparable to alcohol use than other drug use, a shift that supports decriminalization as well as retail growth and sale.


This year, State Senator Curt Thompson (D-Norcross) sponsored SR 614 and SB 344, two legislative measures to decriminalize marijuana. He sponsored the same legislation last year, which failed, but this year shared sponsorship with 5 other Democratic senators. The legislation is not long on details, but would allow people 21 and over to purchase small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Thompson estimates that if the Colorado model of growth and sale is applied to Georgia, $340 million dollars in new tax revenue would be generated annually that could be split between education and transportation. Right now, SB 344 is in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. If the bill and resolution get out of committee and pass the full house, then they would appear on the general ballot in November for voters to decide the fate of marijuana.


In its consideration of whether to decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, Georgia legislators would do well to look west—since 6 out of 8 states that have done so lie west of the Mississippi. Certainly the states that were the first to legalize recreational use are solidly on the frontier—in history and now. Colorado and Washington, then Alaska and Oregon made recreational use of marijuana legal in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Since then, studies have been undertaken to determine if legalizing recreational use has had an impact on driving; put more specifically, has there been an increase in driving while impaired (DWI) or drugged driving?

A study conducted by the insurance industry, based on the number of claims made involving crashes during 2009-2015, found a small but nonetheless significant increase in motor vehicle crashes of 2.7% after adjustment for expected annual rates of increase. However, another study which looked at the same time interval but considered data from only fatal motor vehicle crashes rather than all crashes, found no increase. One possible way to reconcile these two seemingly inconsistent results is to hypothesize that marijuana use may lead to more but less serious motor vehicle crashes.


The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has found that since 2009, 18% of all fatal motor vehicle crashes involve some sort of drug. When the window of time is narrowed to weekend and nighttime, drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter medications 13% of the time in motor vehicle crashes according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In a survey conducted in 2013-2014 of weekend/nighttime drivers by the NHTSA, the percentage was even higher at 20%.

There is still no roadside test for determining whether someone is driving while “high” like there is for determining if someone is driving while intoxicated. For now, police officers are being trained to be “drug recognition experts” or DREs. This means using field sobriety tests and mental tests at the roadside, which are fundamentally subjective, and possibly biased. Even a urine or blood test cannot necessarily determine impairment, since marijuana stays in the body a lot longer than alcohol.


Just as the movement Mothers Against Drunk Driving caused a cultural shift in American society and created zero tolerance for drinking and driving, MADD can be relevant in the 21st century with respect to drugs and driving. Mothers Against Drugged Driving—also MADD—can and should once again change our cultural norms, this time to a zero tolerance for driving while under the influence of any drugs that cause impairment.


If you or someone you know has been injured in a motor vehicle crash, contact Dave Thomas at the Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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