Pubdate: Tue, 02 Sep 2014
Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)
Copyright: 2014 Associated Press
Author: Joan Lowy, Associated Press
Page: A4
Bookmark: (Cannabis and Driving)


Safety Officials Worry That Legalized Pot Will Mean More Traffic Deaths.

WASHINGTON (AP) - As states liberalize their marijuana laws, public 
officials and safety advocates worry that more drivers high on pot 
will lead to a big increase in traffic deaths. Researchers, though, 
are divided on the question.

Studies of marijuana's effects show that the drug can slow 
decision-making, decrease peripheral vision and impede multi-tasking, 
all of which are critical driving skills. But unlike with alcohol, 
drivers high on pot tend to be aware that they are impaired and try 
to compensate by driving slowly, avoiding such risky actions as 
passing other cars, and allowing extra room between vehicles.

On the other hand, combining pot with alcohol appears to eliminate 
the pot smoker's exaggerated caution and seems to increase driving 
impairment beyond the effects of either substance alone.

"We see the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington as a 
wake-up call for all of us in highway safety," said Jonathan Adkins, 
executive director of Governors Highway Safety Association, which 
represents state highway safety offices.

"We don't know enough about the scope of marijuana impaired driving 
to call it a big or small problem. But anytime a driver has their 
ability impaired, it is a problem."

Colorado and Washington are the only states that allow retail sales 
of marijuana for recreational use. Efforts to legalize recreational 
marijuana are underway in Alaska, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and 
the District of Columbia. Twenty-three states and the nation's 
capital permit marijuana use for medical purposes.

It's illegal in all states to drive while impaired by pot.

Colorado, Washington and Montana have set an intoxication threshold 
of 5 parts per billion of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in pot, in 
the blood. A few other states have set intoxication thresholds, but 
most have not set a specific level. In Washington, there was a jump 
of nearly 25 percent in drivers testing positive for marijuana in 
2013 - the first full year after legalization - but no corresponding 
increase in car accidents or fatalities. 'Speed and weed'

What worries highway safety experts are cases like that of New York 
teenager Joseph Beer, who in October 2012 smoked marijuana, climbed 
into a car with four friends and drove more than 100 mph before 
losing control. The car crashed into trees with such force that the 
vehicle split in two, killing his friends.

Beer pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and was 
sentenced last week to five to 15 years in prison.

A prosecutor blamed the crash on "speed and weed," but a Yale 
University Medical School expert on drug abuse who testified at the 
trial said studies of marijuana and crash risk are "highly 
inconclusive." Some studies show a two-or three-fold increase, while 
others show none, said Dr. Mehmet Sofuoglu. Some studies even showed 
less risk if someone was marijuana-positive, he testified. Young men, 
reckless behavior

Teenage boys and young men are the most likely drivers to smoke pot 
and the most likely drivers to have an accident regardless of whether 
they're high, he said.

"Being a teenager, a male teenager, and being involved in reckless 
behavior could explain both at the same time - not necessarily 
marijuana causing getting into accidents, but a general reckless 
behavior leading to both conditions at the same time," he told jurors.

In 2012, just over 10 percent of high school seniors said they had 
smoked pot before driving at least once in the prior two weeks, 
according to Monitoring the Future, an annual University of Michigan 
survey of 50,000 middle and high school students. Nearly twice as 
many male students as female students said they had smoked marijuana 
before driving.

A roadside survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety 
Administration in 2007 found 8.6 percent of drivers tested positive 
for THC, but it's not possible to say how many were high at the time 
because drivers were tested only for the presence of drugs, not the amount.

A marijuana high generally peaks within a half-hour and dissipates 
within three hours, but THC can linger for days in the bodies of 
habitual smokers.

Inexperienced pot smokers are likely to be more impaired than 
habitual smokers, who develop a tolerance. Some studies show 
virtually no driving impairment in habitual smokers.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom