In Our View: Don't Toke and Drive

Determining pot-smoking drivers' impairment tricky, but safety first -deck 16 pt subhed goes herg

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The advice is painfully simple: Don’t drive if you have been smoking marijuana. But, humans being humans, simplistic advice often is lost on many of us.

In November 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative 502, legalizing recreational marijuana use in the state. Since then, one of the overriding concerns regarding legalization has been the issue of impaired driving. While marijuana use might be legal for those over 21, driving impaired remains against the law, and marijuana poses different challenges for law enforcement than does alcohol. As The New York Times reported recently: The “so-called standard field sobriety test has been shown to catch 88 percent of drivers under the influence of alcohol. But it is nowhere near as good at spotting a stoned driver.”

For example, drunk is drunk, but the impairment level caused by marijuana can vary greatly depending upon whether the user is accustomed to being stoned. Impairment will manifest itself differently in different users. “We’ve done phone surveys, and we’re hearing that a lot of people think DUI laws don’t apply to marijuana,” Glenn Davis, highway safety manager in Colorado, which is the only other state to legalize recreational use, told The New York Times. “And there’s always somebody who says, ‘I drive better while high.’ ”

Again, painfully simple: Yes, DUI laws do apply to marijuana use; and, no, you don’t drive better while high. In Washington, as reported by The Columbian’s Paris Achen, there was a slight drop during 2013 in misdemeanor driving-under-the-influence cases in Clark County. Officials, however, do not keep track of how many of those cases are related specifically to marijuana use. “You might think that number would have spiked in the year marijuana was legalized, but it isn’t sold recreationally yet, so it’s too soon to tell if there will be an increase,” said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Jason Hicks.

Yet law enforcement is faced with a dilemma in determining what constitutes impairment when it comes to marijuana. A review of various studies suggests that the risk of an accident doubles if there is any measurable amount of THC — the active ingredient in the drug — in the bloodstream while attempting to drive. This isn’t as drastic as the impact of alcohol, but it is enough to endanger other drivers. Plus, studies have shown that marijuana use diminishes a driver’s capacity to handle more than one task at a time or adjust to unexpected occurrences, which tends to be a valuable skill when operating a motor vehicle.

Law enforcement officials also note that, over the years, alcohol has presented a greater danger on the roads, in part because people often drink away from home — then they get in their cars. Marijuana users tend to smoke at home and then not go anywhere.

Over the past three decades or so, great societal strides have been made in combating drunken driving. What once was greeted with a wink and a nod or a “I only had a couple drinks” now is widely recognized for its inherent danger. Laws have been toughened to reduce drunken driving (although it’s inconceivable that DUIs in Washington do not become a felony until the fifth offense), and public-information campaigns have raised awareness of the danger.

Similar campaigns likely will be necessary when it comes to smoking and driving. The fact is that driving, even if you’re “just a little buzzed,” endangers not only yourself but passengers in your car and others on the road. That conclusion is painfully simple, but sometimes the obvious needs to be hammered home.