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Driving High: New Marijuana Laws Continue to Get It Wrong About Cannabis and Driving

A view of a road at night from the interior of a vehicle where the driver is high.

Joint Opinions

Driving High: New Marijuana Laws Continue to Get It Wrong About Cannabis and Driving

As more and more states adopt medical and recreational marijuana policies, it seems the most feared outcome of legalization is that with the passage of laws that permit any sort of marijuana use, more impaired drivers will end up on the roads.

In fact, during the Denver 4/20 celebrations last weekend, tourists learned just how easy it was to get a ticket for smoking cannabis in public because of these concerns. Under Amendment 64, establishments designed for cannabis consumption (akin to a bar or lounge where alcohol is served) are prohibited.

Although loopholes have allowed some such clubs to exist (by charging a cover fee but not actually selling cannabis to guests) it’s hard to find a place to get high in Denver legally as a tourist unless you just do it on the street, where you risk getting a citation.

The primary concern with opening cannabis bars and lounges is that people will ingest marijuana on-site and then drive high.

I am here to tell you that there are already people “driving high” all over this country and it’s not a big deal.

There are also people speeding and racing, doing their makeup, eating, texting, talking on the phone, using their laptops or iPads, fighting with their children, drinking alcohol, popping pills, smoking meth, ghost riding, falling asleep, shooting guns at road signs or engaging in some sort of sexual behavior — all while operating a moving vehicle. These things are a big deal, they distract drivers and put the lives of the irresponsible driver and all others around them at risk.

Legislation cannot prevent bad behavior, but it can wrongfully send medical marijuana patients and recreational users all over the country to jail or prevent them from holding jobs they need to drive to get to just for exercising the newly-won human right of safe access to cannabis.

The problem is that the laws surrounding stoned driving are attempting to compare apples to oranges by assuming marijuana impairment can be measured or even should be measured the way alcohol is.

Alcohol is tolerated differently in every body, but generally we can look at someone’s physical height, weight and body mass index compared with the amount of drinks a driver has had over time to accurately determine impairment.

Convenient charts are handed out at DMVs all over this country so that people understand the law considers them impaired after a certain number of drinks, and impairment is distinguishable by a person’s blood alcohol content at the time the peace officer encounters the driver.

Photo BAC Chart:

The science lines up, and although we do our best to prevent it, people still drive drunk. In fact, drunk driving is still the leading cause for traffic fatalities in the nation.

In 1957, nearly 53,000 Americans died in a car accident. By 2012, that number dropped to less than half that—about 25,000 nationwide. Half of those were from drunk driving. Not only have traffic accidents been going down over time (regardless of alcohol’s legality) states which have passed medical cannabis laws have actually seen a reduction in traffic fatalities.

The human body does not process cannabis the way it processes alcohol, nor can a person’s tolerance level to the substance be measured similarly with accuracy towards actual impairment.

Human bodies all come equipped with an endocannabinoid system — a network of receptors found throughout the body (brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells) that have the explicit purpose of binding with the cannabinoids found in whole-plant cannabis to perform a variety of tasks where they are found.

When patients use medical cannabis, their ultimate goal is “homeostasis” a stable internal environment despite external influences, or in other words, patients are trying to consume as much cannabis as often as they can so they can saturate their endocannabinoid system with all the cannabinoids found in whole-plant cannabis.

People who use cannabis regularly have certain levels of cannabinoids present in their bodies even when they don’t feel the effects of the use any more.

A patient or recreational user who uses cannabis frequently can tolerate higher levels of cannabinoids without being or feeling impaired in any way. Persons who have never used cannabis can become impaired drivers from just one hit.

Some users even say they drive better after using cannabis, mostly because they either feel relief from the symptoms of a chronic illness or because they are more focused. In fact, auto insurance provider says their studies say cannabis users are better drivers.

There is no magic number or metric that can be used to adequately determine cannabis impairment and trying to do so without understanding the poor comparison with alcohol is setting the precedent for terribly written laws in places where cannabis is legal for medical and/or recreational use.

Some states, such as Washington, have set the legal limit of active THC in a driver’s bloodstream at 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Many activists, industry leaders and medical marijuana patients decried this regulation doesn’t reflect actual impairment and local news station KIRO TV even tested the limits with an actual Washington state highway patrol officer and driving instructor and found that the drivers could consume up to four times that legal limit without their driving becoming impaired.

Watch KIRO-TV tests Washington State marijuana impairment law:

So what is the solution? Maybe we already have one.

According to California attorney Lauren Vazquez, states like California already have broad impaired driving laws on the books that cover impairment from marijuana intoxication to every other possible impairment.

“In California we have an impaired driver law, If you are driving with cannabis in your system, it doesn’t have to be a certain amount to cause a violation, they have to actually show that you are driving impaired– that you are swerving, that you didn’t stop at a stop sign, those types of things,” says Vazquez. “[Under the impaired driving law] all kinds of things can get you in trouble: if you didn’t sleep enough, if you are driving on prescription medications, if you are driving distracted because you are playing with your iPad in the front seat. Our law in California, by not specifically deciding what is an impairment, is actually broader and covers more misconduct, more reckless driving.”

As we move into the era of legalized cannabis, it would be wise to look to the available research and legislation in regulating drivers impaired by cannabis consumption.

Does your state have a law about marijuana impairment? Do you think they are accurate? Tell us in the comments below!

Learn more about medical cannabis laws from Attorney Lauren Vazquez in Issue 11 of Cannabis Now Magazine, on stands May 2014.



  1. katie

    May 4, 2014 at 5:51 am

    In CO its 5 nano… I believe that is bull, I have that in my system when I wake up in the morning before I even smoke but at the same time I drive better when I’m high and get pulled over more when I’m sober

  2. [email protected]

    May 3, 2014 at 6:09 am

    gena isus 6evik mak1sim

  3. hily

    April 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

    hav just been pulled over,becauce I hav smoking record,the coppa said I looked stoned,so he took me to hospital an took boold,3 months on I get court notice to front court on matter,a doctor stated I was impaired to drive(I was off my face only had 2 bongs at 4am that moring,an got pulled over at 6pm,how the fuk im I off my face,now I hav to prove it,HOW FUKED

  4. Marcus J

    April 29, 2014 at 6:06 pm

    I smoke on a daily basis and I also drive on a daily basis….I do not make mistakes driving while I’m high…..if anything I am more relaxed and driving slower….if I had a drink that is a different story…..I drive more faster and I become more reckless…..and I only went up the street to the store….so really I would rather smoke then drink anyway….wit weed….i can keep smoking and smoking and never drive in an illegal manner… I agree with

    • Marcus J

      April 29, 2014 at 6:12 pm

      Also it depends on the person….if they are dumb to begin with and or childish behind the wheel then yea it don’t matter if they sober, drunk , or even high…’s going to b the same result….people need to get their head out of their asses and really look and put ppl to the test…….WEED DONT KILL JUST DRUNKS, PPL TEXTING ON PHONES, AND TOTAL ASS HOLES KILL PPL WHILE DRIVING…..

  5. Darren Spillane

    April 29, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Sydney Australia I have just been suppened from work for last two weeks because off random urine test at work here if it’s in your system they don’t allow you drive a heavy machinery such as trucks wich if ya are impaired does not matter too the laws but as you mentioned how many different things are people doing when driving I have driven impaired for years without incident but have stopped since swab test came in then work do utibe test and say we don’t know when you used but swab test would off showed I had not used befor work can’t till they bring idiot asshole don’t care I’m on hurry test for the rest off road user there will be no driving at all then cause most will fail that and yes I agree that we don’t want people dieing on roads I beilieve of they put me up against any one doing there thing like male up or elerictric gadgets I will prove to them I can drive better then most who without any drugs just have abad attunide while they driving you just don’t need drugs in system too drive reckless it’s just takes a selfish attitude nothing can be dun about them clowns till they kill sum one then they mite get 3 too 5years maybe if victim is lucky ohh but bet victim is dead arogent drive can get out n drive again go figure

  6. richard perkinson

    April 29, 2014 at 9:03 am

    To check THC levels doesn’t it have to be a blood test? You don’t have to submit to a blood test unless involved in an accident in Tn.

  7. JoAnna

    April 29, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I don’t really agree the driving while high is better than driving drunk. Driving under any influence can be dangerous. People shouldn’t risk it. I once ran off the road from driving after smoking pot. Luckily it was an open parking lot that we swerved into but we were just feet away from the trees and had it been the other side of the street it would of been the highway. I’m just saying, you never know what affect it can have on you. What happens if the marijuana was laced with other, more dangerous drugs.. People need to take into concern every possibility and the consequences, for their safety and the safety of others.

    • Jon

      April 29, 2014 at 4:16 pm

      u crashed because of another force, u just don’t want to admit it on here, i have never had a problem with pot, ever, besides it being illegal of course, my back has gotten progressively worse over the past 5 years and the only option to fix it is surgery, but thanks to americas health care system, i can’t afford surgery, therefore, in order to get to sleep each night and wake up the next morning for work 7am to 7pm, if i don’t smoke, the pain keeps me awake for hours and i wake the next morning barely able to stand up, the only bad thing about pot is the government, i am a human on the planet Earth and i believe it is within my natural rights to live life how i see fit, and if thats not enough for all you republicans out there, this is supposed to be the land of the FREE and home of the BRAVE in case u forgot, and considering that we are lead by a group of cowards, i guess we must be under a dictatorship as well

  8. Vona Fitchhorn

    April 29, 2014 at 7:47 am

    I live in WA and I smoke daily. It doesn’t impair me at all. If anything I drive better(calms me and I’m more aware). If I mix alcohol with marijuana I’m not in no way able to drive and have my wits about me.

  9. Michael Anderson

    April 29, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I dig it, well said friend! I have never been in an accident while stoned, only once sober on my way to get medicated! 😉

  10. shawn summers

    April 29, 2014 at 7:02 am

    I’m add ADHD ocd and odd smoking weed helps me b off all of these prescribed drugs I been smoking since age 11 I’m noe 25 the I got in trouble with the law the moment I started quoting Cruz laws well I want of legal and I’ll for it to b legal it helps so much that we need something other then pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol I’d rather weed b legal over liquor or bwer

  11. Yaboi

    April 29, 2014 at 3:26 am


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