The rise of marijuana legalization has brought along with it concerns over substance use and driving impairment. While addressing the “driving while high” issue is important for traffic safety, lawmakers should be careful not to mix moderate alcohol consumption into the equation. Both dangerously high and legitimately drunk drivers pose a safety hazard, but they should each be addressed separately so that policies are as effective as possible and law abiding drivers are not targeted.
In the early 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act was signed into federal law. The legislation labeled drugs with a certain classification and made many illegal—most notably marijuana. While it remains an illicit substance under federal statute, states around the country have been altering the legality under state law—whether that be decriminalization, allowing use for medical purposes, or legalizing recreational use. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to officially legalize recreational marijuana—with many others following suit.
As marijuana use has become more common, a number of issues from a traffic safety perspective have bubbled up. Conclusive evidence does not yet exist, but traffic safety data seems to suggest a correlated rise in traffic deaths with the passage of marijuana legalization laws. The connection has induced traffic safety officials to begin addressing the “driving while high” issue—which was, for some reason, not considered before substance legalization was put in place.
While the concerns surrounding driving impairment and marijuana certainly need to be addressed, some states have illogically pursued policies that connect moderate alcohol consumption with the presence of marijuana in a driver’s system. States such as California and Vermont have proposed legislation in the past that basically lowers the blood-alcohol arrest level for driving from the nationally recognized standard of .08 to .04 on the condition that traces of marijuana are discovered.
The problem? There is no reliable roadside test for marijuana impairment, and THC (marijuana’s principal psychoactive compound) is known to stay in a person’s system long after its effects have subsided. Thus, arbitrarily linking moderate and responsible alcohol use with the largely unknown effects and impairment levels of a newly legal drug will only work to counter any efforts to protect people from dangerously high and legitimately drunk drivers. It will instead punish the moderate social drinkers by subjecting them to DUI charges when, in reality, they are not dangerously impaired.
Traffic deaths from both high and dangerous hardcore drunk drivers should be addressed, but separately. Tackling both of them under the same statute will only impede effectiveness and harm law abiding citizens.