Driving Under The Influence Of Marijuana In California


Here’s the headline: “Legalizing Marijuana for Recreational Use Results in Increased Crashes.” So says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety(IIHS). Based on a recent Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) study that studied crash data since 2014 in the first three states to legalize marijuana, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, as compared to data in control states without legalized recreational marijuana, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. According to the study, the collision claim frequencies in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington are approximately three percent higher than would be indicated if the states had not legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Three percent does not sound like a lot but is still considered significant.

Even though the study tried to account for variables such as weather, driver demographics, and so on, the astute reader might wonder how the study could account for one important variable: stoned drivers in the control states. The study could not possibly account for how many drivers in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming were under the influence of marijuana at the time of the claim. Although the recreational use of marijuana in those states is still illegal, people in those states use marijuana, and drive under its influence.

This study may actually tell us very little. It is based on a small sample of states and over a limited period of time. But you can be pretty sure that state law makers will glum onto these studies and others like it to develop strict laws enforcing a prohibition against driving under the influence of marijuana. Roadside testing for driving under the influence of marijuana is still in its developmental phase and per se THC limits have yet to be determined in most states, including California, where recreational use of marijuana is now legal. But the legislatures will look to stricter standards, rather than more lenient (and perhaps more reasonable) standards, as they develop a body of law regulating this new concern.

There is no question that it is safer for everyone when drivers are not under the influence of anything, but objectively speaking, driving under the influence of marijuana may be safer drivers than those driving under the influence of alcohol. Studies on marijuana-influenced driver impairment have shown varied results. Some studies have indicated an increased risk of a crash when driving under the influence or marijuana while others have been able to find no correlation between marijuana use and vehicle crashes. Interestingly, when regular marijuana users are tested, they show almost no driving impairment when tested on an outside driving course.

One study found that participants who were given 7mg of THC (equivalent to 1/3 of a joint), overestimated their impairment as compared to their actual driving impairment when tested on a driving simulator. Another group in that study was tested with a 0.04% BAC. The alcohol participants underestimated their impairment when tested on a driving simulator. Researchers speculate that the two drugs (marijuana and alcohol) affect the brain differently, causing those under the influence of marijuana to overestimate their impairment and thus try to compensate for their perceived impairment when driving. Compare that to being under the influence of alcohol, which typically causes a person to feel overconfident, which often translates into their belief that they are okay to drive.

Whether our California road are now more dangerous with the legalization of recreational marijuana will become more evident as time passes. But you can bet on the increased regulation of its use for those who get behind the wheel under its influence.

William Weinberg has been defending drivers charged with driving under the influence in Orange County for almost 25 years. You may contact him to discuss your DUI matter at (949) 474-8008 or emailing him at Bill@williamweinberg.com

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