Drug Law

If Marijuana is Legal, Will Drivers be Stoned?

| by NORML


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.