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Are California roadways ready if recreational marijuana is legalized?

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UCSD Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research staffer Kevin McShea at the wheel of a simulator that will be used for driving-while-impaired studies.
UCSD Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research
UCSD Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research staffer Kevin McShea at the wheel of a simulator that will be used for driving-while-impaired studies.

The Auto Club of Southern California's Drugged Driving Summit attempts to determine legalized marijuana's impacts on drugged driving

Will legal weed create a thicket of problems on the Golden State's roadways?

Next month, Californians will vote on Prop 64 — the statewide measure to legalize recreational marijuana.

Polls show the initiative has the support of some 60 percent of expected voters. But a number of traffic safety groups have raised concerns about the impact of legalizing marijuana, including the Automobile Club of Southern California. It held a summit Wednesday to weigh the impacts and challenges if Prop 64 passes.

"Marijuana use and getting behind the wheel of a car is a growing, contributing factor to highway crashes that kill people," said AAA Director of Traffic Safety, Advocacy and Research, Jake Nelson.

Nelson cited a recent AAA study that found the proportion of fatal crashes involving drivers who had recently used marijuana more than doubled in Washington after the state legalized it in 2012. It rose from 8 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2014.

California is also experiencing an increase in drugged driving, according to the Auto Club, which opposes Prop 64. The 2012 California Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers found that one in five fatal collisions in California involve at least one drugged driver — an upward trend that is mirrored at the national level.

"Marijuana affects reflexes and reaction times and the ability to judge distance," said Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a former senior advisor to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and an opponent of Prop 64. 

"We hear a lot about drunk driving, and we have reduced drunk driving fatalities through a massive public awareness campaign driven through all sectors of society, and we have not done the same thing with stoned driving," Sabet said. "A lot of times people don’t think marijuana affects driving."

Drivers' belief that marijuana actually improved their driving surprised Glenn Davis, Highway Safety Manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012.

"The Highway Safety Office has learned that the attitudes of people that use marijuana is very different," Davis said. "We found out that some people weren’t even aware they could get a DUI for marijuana. That told us that we need to do more outreach, more awareness, and we also found it’s best to do it at point of sale."

Created in partnership with the marijuana industry, Colorado's "Drive High, Get a DUI" campaign even extends to rental car agencies, Davis said, and is funded in part with taxes from marijuana sales.

Colorado, like California, does not have a per-se legal limit on THC in the blood to determine driver impairment. It's a Driving Under the Influence law for impairment, regardless of substance.

Should Prop 64 pass in California, Davis — who supports Colorado's legalized marijuana amendment — advises state traffic safety agencies: "Be ready to get new partnerships. Train law enforcement that it's not about a level, a nanogram level, or a device. It's about articulating impairment and detecting impairment. 

"Don’t let traffic safety get lost," he added. "When legalized marijuana comes in,  a lot of different people get concerned. Can it look like a candy? How much can it weigh? Can it be within 100 feet of a school? That’s fine, but traffic safety has to be considered."

Do you have your voter game plan? Use our Voter's Edge election guide to find your personalized ballot.

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