During this month’s midterm elections, voters in Maryland and Missouri legalized the recreational use of marijuana. In October, the Biden administration announced historic federal action on cannabis reform, reigniting the debate on cannabis’s value in health and wellness and its impact on our culture.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, as our federal and state governments take steps to decriminalize cannabis consumption, public officials need to send a clear message that it remains dangerous and illegal to drive under the influence of any substance.
The number of impaired driving crashes and deaths across the country is increasing at an alarming rate. Fatalities on our roads are worsened by drivers engaging in risky behaviors that include speeding, texting, or driving while high or drunk. Those of us working on this deadly and growing public safety threat strongly urge America’s leaders to communicate these dangers, especially the danger of driving impaired.
Thanks to public education and policy initiatives, awareness of the serious risks of driving under the influence of alcohol are well known. Yet, as more states legalize cannabis, a new public safety problem is on the rise. There are rampant misconceptions about the effects of driving under the influence of cannabis, and the absence of an awareness campaign alongside reform creates a false impression that consuming cannabis is the same as smoking a cigarette, and that is simply not true.
Experts are rightly worried that we have and will continue to see a significant rise in injuries and fatalities because of impaired driving. Impaired driving policy is critical but has been largely missing in the discussions around reform. This danger must not be treated as an afterthought.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, 39 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Recreational or adult use of cannabis has been legalized in 19 states and the District. The reality of nationwide legalization may be closer than ever, and it is important that we keep an eye on our roads.
In the past decade, car crash fatalities have increased alongside the rise of the recreational use of cannabis. What’s more, people combine substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and other legal and illegal drugs, which has a multiplicative effect on impairment. Those who drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs are up to 200 times more likely to be involved in a crash.
Data from Washington show that multisubstance impairment has been the most common type of impairment found among drivers involved in fatal crashes. Almost half of the drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for two or more substances, with alcohol and THC being the most common combination.
Deaths from car crashes rose from 2019 to 2020, despite less road traffic from nationwide stay-at-home orders brought on by the pandemic. Since then, the death toll has continued to rise. During the first quarter of 2022, it was projected to increase again, hitting a 20-year high.
To put it in stark terms, this projection equals nearly 10,000 people. That’s 9,560 parents, daughters, sons, and friends’ lives lost in preventable motor vehicle crashes.
Car crashes resulting from impaired driving are deadly but are also, heartbreakingly, preventable. Not one group, organization, or leader can stop impaired driving alone. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of cannabis consumption or drinking alcohol, we can all agree that making sure our roads and highways are safe must remain a priority.
Our communities need to recognize the dangers of driving impaired, and we need to ensure that when local leaders reform laws around cannabis, they are also taking steps not to put people in danger on our roadways.
We are in the exciting stages of creating new cultural norms, but the silence from politicians is deafening. While eager to score points with young voters, our elected leaders are failing to warn about cannabis’s full dangers appropriately.
We have decades of experience addressing drunk driving, which we can now use to implement education and policy initiatives that prioritize saving lives on our roadways. There needs to be an investment into public education, research, and resources so that we’re not creating a generation that is uninformed about the true and full impact of cannabis.
Darrin Grondel is the vice president of traffic safety and government relations at Responsibility.org. He previously served as an officer and leader in the Washington State Patrol for nearly 25 years.