Risk of stoned drivers minimal with Prop. 19

Our California NORML Coordinator, Dale Gieringer, has penned an informative viewpoint for the Sacramento Bee, addressing the one of the only two arguments against legalization of marijuana that still have any traction with the people: “Marijuana Mayhem on the Freeways!” (the other being: “My God! What About the Children!?!”)

As usual, the prohibitionists’ stark warnings about the peril of stoned drivers after legalization only makes sense if you believe nobody is smoking pot now.

Studies on marijuana and driving safety are remarkably consistent, though greatly under-publicized because they fail to support the government’s anti-pot line. Eleven different studies of more than 50,000 fatal accidents have found that drivers with marijuana-only in their system are on average no more likely to cause accidents than those with low, legal levels of alcohol below the threshold for DUI.

The major exception is when marijuana is combined with alcohol, which tends to be highly dangerous.

Several studies have failed to detect any increased accident risk from marijuana at all. The reason for pot’s relative safety appears to be that it tends to make users drive more slowly, while alcohol makes them speed up.

Thus legalization could actually reduce accidents if more drivers used marijuana instead of alcohol, but it could also increase them if there were more combined use of the two.

Nobody is saying “toke up and get behind the wheel”; our Principles of Responsible Use firmly states “The responsible cannabis consumer does not operate a motor vehicle or other dangerous machinery while impaired by cannabis”. However, it would be naive to think every cannabis consumer uses responsibly.

Geiringer addresses this by pointing out that California, the state with the easiest access to medical marijuana, has only the 14th-highest rating of states with marijuana-related accidents, while states like Indiana and South Carolina, some of the most hostile states with respect to marijuana, have far more marijuana-related accidents.  Within California, two of the most liberal cities for pot access, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, had zero marijuana-related accidents in the past year of record.

US accident rates in general have been declining steadily since the 1960s, even as marijuana use reached its greatest rates in the late 1970s.  Even in the 1980s when marijuana legalization was at its lowest levels of support and throughout the 1990s and 2000s as medical marijuana spread from state to state, the highway accident rates have continued their steady decline.  It seems that whether marijuana is popular and legal or not, it makes no difference in roadway safety.

Besides, driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in California now and Prop 19 does nothing to undo that.  Californians can and have been arrested for drugged driving over the past fourteen years, even with legal medical marijuana.  Whatever cops are doing now to arrest pot-smoking drivers for DUID will still be done after Prop 19 passes.

48 thoughts

  1. I smoke every day in my car on the way home. It keeps me from killing other drivers in traffic.

    [Russ responds: The car is the worst place to smoke weed. More pot smokers are busted in cars than anywhere else.

    But I understand.]

  2. I don’t think this piece seriously addresses the political problem that cannabis and driving presents. We can all state that we think driving stoned is bad, and we can point out that it is not nearly as dangerous as driving drunk. The problem is that
    1- There is no way (to my knowledge) to readily test whether a driver IS stoned, only whether he HAS BEEN stoned some time in the previous 60 days or so.
    2- Thus, IF legalization would increase MJ use, and increased MJ use will lead to more stoned driving, then legalization would increase the incidence of stoned driving.
    3- Yet, even though it would remain illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis, that law would be much more difficult to enforce than the laws against drunk driving.

    So, the prospects for legalization would probably be better if either
    a- there could be more convincing evidence that driving while stoned is not particularly hazardous; or,
    b- someone could develop a test to determine whether a driver IS stoned.

    [Russ responds: Such testing devices are on the way. One I read about used armpit sweat on a pad to determine recent marijuana use accurately.

    Personally, I prefer that the standard of impairment in driving should be demonstrated impairment. You weaved in and out of lanes. You slowed and accelerated oddly. You endangered other drivers. You got pulled over and flunked a coordination test. I even feel that way about alcohol. Trying to determine someone’s impairment by their body chemistry is an imperfect measure because we all have different bodies and metabolisms and tolerances and dexterity.

    Am I, after smoking a joint an hour ago, a worse driver than an 82-year-old on arthritis medications? Where is the outrage over drivers eating fast food while driving? We got in a snit over drivers on cell phones, so here in Oregon we banned handhelds. Now everyone uses hands-free cells, which are shown to be just as dangerous because it is the distraction, not the hardware, that is the danger. We all seem to be fine with that (well, except maybe Oprah.)

    I prefer your (a) model – showing that driving while stoned is not of particular danger to the public compared to driving behavior we openly tolerate.]

  3. No mention was made of the many people who go for a drive to smoke because of room mates or neighbors and the legal risks. If it is finally legal to smoke in the comfort of home, there should be fewer stoned motorists!

  4. I have a question, do the police have anyway of testing if you’re high or not when they pull you over? If not I don’t get how anyone would get charged with a drug DUI

  5. I would like to see the studies cited. Slipping potentially invalid information is tricky but not uncommon.

  6. The “stoned drivers” have been out there forever! I have’nt heard of a problem. It’s those dam drunks you have to watch out for.

  7. This argument is as good as when Paul Armentano made it in Marijuana is Safer. If only people with brains calcified by intolerance and drug war rhetoric would listen to reason.

  8. That was very interesting and very well said. Okay the drug driving issue is pretty much taken care of and we all know that marijuana helps slow cancer growth. Now why would the people vote no on prop 19? Unless they are out creeping around at night peeking in their neighbors windows why would they even care what someone is doing in their OWN home?

  9. Russ, the main arguments I see out there against Prop 19 is how much space exactly is 5 x 5, squar feet, cubic, hi, lo, etc.

    Many lies are out there but there does not seem to be a clear understanding of 5 x 5.

    [Russ responds: 25 square feet. A 5′ x 5′ patch. Or a 2.5′ by 10′ patch. Or one very long 50′ patch six inches wide. That’s my interpretation. Some say it might mean canopy space. I hope not. I suppose your plants could be very tall, say ten or fifteen feet. But you couldn’t stack a bunch of 5’x5′ cubes on each other, because the base of each would be added square footage.

    I think. I will ask around some of the smart people I know…]

  10. It’s much like Doug Benson said about going out to do something after you’ve smoked pot. “Screw it! We got a T.V. right here!” And that’s not a joke. When I’ve gotten high before, I didn’t want to go anywhere.

    As far as I’ve seen, the law would permit places to sell it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Cali would have Coffee Shops like Amsterdam. People would be encouraged to go and purchase their pot from a local legal source, much like an ABC Liquors. Then, you would take the pot home and smoke it in the comfort of your own home.

  11. What’s the difference between a drunk and a stoner?
    A drunk runs right through a stop sign, a stoner stops and waits for it to turn green.

  12. I too wondered if stacking would be allowed. A 2.5x10ft. patch, doubled up, would present a much larger usable area. Seedlings and juveniles on the bottom shelf, mature plants on the top shelf… for example.

    Side note, Fans of NORML on facebook just broke 200,000 a few hours ago! 221 (at last glance) more fans between then and now. Incredible.

  13. oh please and like we aren’t scared for our lives with all the drunk drivers out there…I am not worried AT ALL about a stoner driving…I would see them driving at or under the speed limit…no worries there

  14. yeah doug benson is a bit of a poor example for medical marijuana though…maybe montel williams? someone who needs it and doesnt feed the stereotype of stoner nation 420 high times yo

  15. To the man that will become the face of our national cause I am thankful for your service. If this republic thinks a soldier in one state should be jailed for self medicating weed while a soldier in another state will continue to receive all his benefits after poppin a pee test we are all created equal.

    If I serve alongside someone from Cali why when I go back home to Kansas I am somehow different than the guy I went to bootcamp and war with? We are all created equal.

    Why can this house of representatives allow the District of Columbus to legalize weed for medicinal purposes on a class I narcotic drug with no medicinal purposes? If it was no big deal to allow them medicinal marijuana why is it a big deal to allow all of us medicinal marijuana? Send your representative a email asking if they want to vote on that at all or just allow it for all of us. Ask them if they want you to send them some stories of someone in your state that may need medical marijuana maybe someone that just got back from the war that cant use weed unlike the guy from washington that thanks to them can use weed when he gets back from the war. We are all created equal.

    I use to think this was a state issue but thanks to that ruling about immigration I think this is a federal issue. If this government allows some of its population to do somethings legally why not allow all of us the same right. We are all created equal. I should have the same rights as a person living in Cali that gets to vote on pot as someone that lives in MIssissippi where they just started pulling Spice because they are concerned about the health risks. Walk into a Beer and Tobacco store and think I gotta get rid of that terrible THC and keep that wonderful Beer and Tobacco????

    Will the federal government come to the aid of Beer and Tobacco if someone walked into a store and said they were pulling the product because of health risks?

  16. Why not get a recent veteran of one of our wars and ask him to do a commercial asking people to give him the right to smoke a dobbie after the stress of fightin for our rights. Life , Liberty , and The Pursuit of Happiness. If you can fight for someones Life and Liberty who are they to say what should be your Pursuit of Happiness you dont tell them how to enjoy their Life and Liberty.

  17. It is really quite simple. When a person is intoxicated on alcohol the have lost thier better judgement, and don’t realize just how intoxicated they are. When a person is relaxed on cannabis they know it, and adjust thier driving habits accordingly. I have said this many time, but saying it again can’t hurt. If I had my druthers everybody on the road would be sober, but lacking that if I had to choose between being on the road with ONE drunk, or ONE THOUSAND stoners, I’ll take the stoners every time.

  18. It amazes me when the prohibitionists rail about how legalization would mean that pilots, truck and bus drivers, and school bus drivers(remember the children!) would get behind the wheel stoned.

    How many airports have bars in them? Why aren’t these people getting drunk and driving or flying?
    And if they are, why aren’t the prohibitionists banging the gong about bringing back alcohol prohibition?

  19. About 6 weeks ago I was stopped at a road side check point. As soon as the cop started talking to me he says “I smell pot. Why do I smell pot?”. I had been smoking 20 mins. before I left.long story short, they checked my eyes, my pulse, and put me threw your garden variety tests commonly used for alcohol impairment. I passed all with flying colors except the eye test. Wasn’t that hard to do despite being rather stoned. After telling me I came this close to being arrested for drugged driving I was on my way with a rather relieved smile on my face.

  20. All drivers are always inpaired to some degree, for virtually countless reasons. Removal of all inpaired drivers would result in no driving anywhere, ever. This is one of the reasons one’s fitness to operate a vehicle should not be evaluated upon inpairment. This evaluation should logically be made based exclusively on the vehicle operator’s demonstrated driving performance. Prohibitionists continue to use the “Marijuana Mayhem on the Freeways” scare tactic because they are as they have always been, illogical hypocritical liers. And it works, particularly on ignorant stupid people, too lazy to even think for themselves.

  21. Drivers would be safe if they knew how the shit actually worked. Med patients need to get it…. it would save a lot of time if all of law enforcement did. Sometimes its easy to say when you see a story “I know they sent the wrong cop”

  22. Bill O of #3 raises some legitimate concerns that Russ addressed. Philips Electronics has such devices to detect cannabis use at the time of driving as opposed to not differentiating between 60 days past use. There are undoubtedly other manufacturers of devices with a similar purpose, as gas spec. testing on urine samples is outdated for our social and public purposes.

    I mean, revenue from cannabis legalization will have to be earmarked for these devices. How many are needed is another matter, Goldilocks, you know, not too many wasting money and not too few.

    Bill O’s item 2 about legalization allowing for more people who would use it leading to more people who would drive under the influence can be tempered with public education campaigns not to, as well as make such materials available in easy to use classroom form for people who take classes because of law enforcement or better yet in drivers education classes beforehand. That’s where those public ads’ funding can go…into public service ads not to drive under the influence of anything that impairs driving.

    As for Bill O’s item 3, the new devices that can differentiate between past and recent use give law enforcement a testing device just as they have for testing blood alcohol.

    These points sound like the prohibitionist talking points you get from politicians and their spindoctors and functionary surrogate radio and tv shows.

  23. It is more of a problem with alcohol drivers than pot smokers. The fatality rates that drunk drivers have is in no way comparable to pot smokers. And every time you about a wreck caused by the driver being impaired, it is never only pot. It is alcohol and pot, or some similar combination.

  24. there’s a huge driving/performance difference between inexperienced stoners and us old timers.

    my aliveness/awareness sense is more active when hi. driving is pleasurable.

    my longtime driving record is impeccable: no accidents, no speeding tickets and no busts.

    many stoners are awesome drivers and the rest are just fine going with the flowing.

  25. Most of the visitors to this site probably have an opinion about marijuana legalization. What they MIGHT not have done is register so that they can vote in November. Let’s take every opportunity to spread this recommendation to take a constructive ACTION:

    Californians: register to vote at
    https://www.sos.ca.gov/nvrc/fedform/ Just fill out the form and mail it in!

    Other states: Google your state name and “voter registration” to find out how to register!

    If you have access to a college newspaper (letter to the editor, for example), that would be a great place to post this link.

    Just sayin.

  26. Grow up, leave the toking until after you’re done driving. Sure, everyone’s a shitty driver but you, right?

  27. Seriously, I consider myself to be a very safe driver. Being 54 years old, driving since I was 16, and only having one accident (partially my fault when I was completely sober), I can say that with a lot of confidence. That being said, I can tell you that I have driven many times under the influence of both alcohol and marijuana. I can also say with a lot of confidence that I am a much safer driver under the influence of marijuana!!! It tends to slow me down and make me be more careful. Alcohol, on the other hand, tends to make me a bit more fearless and wreckless than usual. I absolutely believe that my driving skill, even under the influence of either, is still much better than that of the average driver and that is all that should matter. What I’m saying is – we shouldn’t be busted just for being under the influence, if we are to be busted, let it be because we are truly too impaired to drive but chose to anyway. For some, that might be one beer and for others it might be more than 6 of them…

  28. The more I smoke with people, the more I see people smoking while driving. It’s not a big deal to them and they drive fine. I still don’t think it’s a good idea, but driving after a few hits is no big deal. And even if you were actually too impaired to drive, you’d be aware of it, unlike with alcohol. So this is a stupid argument as usual.

  29. This mite be a little off topic but i just sighned a petition at Just Say Now to send to Obama. They want an additional donation but i dont know if they are legit. Are the part of your posse NORML?

    [Russ responds: That’s FireDogLake and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, they are legit. They are allies in ending adult marijuana prohibition.]

  30. Always a lame excuse -the thing is people can already get cannabis and drive -making it pot legal will not change a thing when it comes to this-driving on alcohol or some big pharma drugs is way worse then driving on weed!I know people that drive on weed all the time and never get in an accident -if any thing it makes them drive more carefully-It has to be some really strong stuff to affect your driving -and even then people will care enough not to drive!But when people are drunk on alcohol most do not care about any thing when there drunk -These idiots the prohibitionist have no clue about cannabis period !

  31. People need to be taught to better recognize fear mongering. Decisions made out of fear are seldom beneficial. People need to base their decisions here on experience. If the have none, they should leave the deciding to others.

    In the end, that’s always the problem: Most of the people who are afraid of marijuana have absolutely no practical experience with marijuana or its effects. It makes them easy to scare, vengeful Gods aside. The people with experience know there is no real danger here, but even responsible marijuana users are regarded less than human by the vocal majority of prohibitionists.

  32. I think that it makes no difference, with driving if you are not paying strict attention, you might be too fast and hit someone. I will not drive for example in heavy traffic if I have vaped. If there is light traffic, it’s not an issue at all. I have no problem with their being strict penalties if you are high of course how they can check is a diff issue, assuming there are legitimate tests.

    There has to be some laws about this. This is what amazes me about the opponents of Prop 19, giving them credit that they are not all dealers.

    THey seem to think that laws about weed are a problem and terrible thing.

    I have seen in Amsterdam that the local people respect the laws that are on the books there.

    For example, 18 months ago, I was in my first coffeeshop of the trip, the Doors and loved the weeb and asked if I can take a picture of the weed menu, the fellow said no sorry advertising is not allowed. So I am not a baby about it, they have laws that don’t make sense but the key point, is that I CAN go out and buy and smoke in a public place.

    It is a case of immature thinking to focus on the bad, if you will only to this extent,
    and then to wait 2 more years to a chance that the law they think will be passed, it may be too radical for some folks.

  33. If you look at those disinformation commercials where they show pictures of horrific car accidents and flashing emergency response lights you find that most of those accidents in question also involved alcohol. But they don’t tell you that. And that’s why they yanked that commercial, just like they did for that deceptive EEG “brain waves” of a stoned person commercial. Those were the brain waves of a comatose person, and so when the truth came out that commercial was pulled from the air too. Lying is bad. Nanny state is bad.

    Let’s allow all the people who who have so much “concern” over the activities of other free citizens to decide what freedoms are permitted. No wait, that’s a bad idea because these were all people who were socialized to be fearful regarding their beliefs about Cannabis.

    The most staunch, adamant Cannabis prohibitionists have never even tried it.

  34. Most driving is done on what I call “autopilot.” For instance, you don’t remember using your turn signal or can’t recall how many times you made a left turn signal the last time you drove.

    Cannabis, unlike say alcohol or mushrooms, is a “background” drug as Dave Chappelle says. Mushrooms, for example are not background drugs. Alcohol isn’t either.

    Cannabis seems to activate higher brain regions, the human brain regions involved in Alcohol seems to direct people to the lower, more “reptilian” brain regions, like anger. Is there a difference? Yes.

    To assume that “impairment” from alcohol and Cannabis are of the same nature, is misguided. It’s a false assumption that Cannabis adversely affects driving ability in the same way as alcohol, in the physical body. Alcohol is a depressant, and it shuts down the part of the brain responsible for suppressing emotions and rash behavior. Will that have an affect on a driver’s ability to maneuver the roads? Probably.
    Cannabis does not do that though.

    Liberty is freedom with personal responsibility. Personal responsibility involves a degree of maturity where consideration of others is paramount. This is a virtue from our common knowledge.

    We don’t let very immature (>16 years) people drive or people under 21 to consume ethanol, for example. Why is Cannabis so alien and so special a case? Because people think of Cannabis in strange, stressful, even impossible terms when they are socialized to be fearful of it.

  35. Russ, did you get any answers on this. There seems to be a consensus that this piece of the bill is ‘undefined’ and the opponents of prop 19 are using this to further their ’cause’.

    The questions I think are, how tall can you go?
    Anything you can do to clear this up.
    Thank you,

    “Russ, the main arguments I see out there against Prop 19 is how much space exactly is 5 x 5, squar feet, cubic, hi, lo, etc.

    Many lies are out there but there does not seem to be a clear understanding of 5 x 5.

    [Russ responds: 25 square feet. A 5′ x 5′ patch. Or a 2.5′ by 10′ patch. Or one very long 50′ patch six inches wide. That’s my interpretation. Some say it might mean canopy space. I hope not. I suppose your plants could be very tall, say ten or fifteen feet. But you couldn’t stack a bunch of 5’x5′ cubes on each other, because the base of each would be added square footage.

    I think. I will ask around some of the smart people I know…]

  36. Thankfully, Prop. 19 addresses the fears some have about marijuana users driving. Driving while intoxicated on marijuana is a crime under Prop. 19. Marijuana users want to be responsible and earn your trust and your vote. We would love to smoke legal cannabis and then take cabs. No problem, my friend. Please vote Yes! for Prop 19, to regulate, control and tax cannabis in California in 2010.

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