Along with legalizing cannabis comes the need to legislate its use, and one potential safety issue that lawmakers grapple with is the effect of cannabis on drivers. But is criminalizing cannabis use while driving worth the effort?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can produce mind-altering effects on its consumers which some say presents safety concerns for those on the road. To date, eleven states plus Washington D.C. have legalized recreational cannabis, with other states contemplating their own legislation.
According to data acquired by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) from surveying cannabis users in Colorado and Washington – two states where recreational cannabis is legal – THC levels increased in drivers on the road and among drivers involved in collisions since its legalization. Fatal crashes involving cannabis use also increased in both Washington and Colorado.
These results reflect a correlation but not a causation. If more people were using cannabis, other statistics would likely increase as well. Or, if more people migrated to a cannabis legal state like Colorado, in general.
The study highlighted that while THC presence increased, drivers may not have been impaired. The researchers could not conclude that auto collision rates changed in Colorado or Washington as a direct result of cannabis use. Many regular cannabis users believe that cannabis does not influence their driving. The surveyed drivers believed that it was safer to drive after using cannabis compared to alcohol, and that they could “compensate for any effects [of cannabis] … by driving more slowly or by allowing greater headways.”
Other studies have indicated that the number of automobile crashes reported to insurance companies and police increased among the first states in the US to legalize recreational cannabis compared to adjacent states where cannabis is still illegal. Again, adjusting for population increases is necessary to assess correlation versus causation.
Further, reports from the Insurance Institute and the Highway Loss Data Institute also could not solidly link cannabis use and its effect on collision rates.
These conclusions are not new. In 1993, the US Department of Transportation conducted a study assessing the driving performance of cannabis users. Relative to other drugs – whether legal or illicit – cannabis is likely among the least harmful. The study concluded that “drivers under the influence of [cannabis] retain insight in their performance and will compensate where they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort. As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving
performance appear relatively small.”
Of course, the use of cannabis with levels of THC that can induce intoxicating effects while operating a vehicle should not be encouraged, but the safety issue surrounding cannabis use while driving may not be enough of an issue to warrant campaigns that focus directly on cannabis alone.
Currently, no evidence exists that cannabis alone increases the risk of automobile collisions causing injury or death.
Unlike drivers who are impaired by alcohol, those who are under the influence of cannabis have been shown to be more cautious on the road. When a response on the road is necessary, they will focus their attention accordingly.
Regardless, it’s helpful for authorities to consider any potential impacts of driving under the influence of cannabis on road safety.
Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/hemp-plant-cannabis-nature-5375748/