After two years, thousands of surveys and a stakeholder meeting in Eagle, the Colorado Department of Transportation has gained insight into who is driving under the influence of marijuana and possibly why.
“This two-year project gave us a lot of insight into how to reach and connect with marijuana users across the state to help them make better decisions when it comes to driving,” said Sam Cole, a spokesman for CDOT. “Far too many marijuana users have told us they drive after using, and that’s unacceptable.”
He said that year after year, surveys have shown that as many as 20% of marijuana users drive after using.
“We haven’t been able to move the needle toward safety fast enough,” Cole said.
The study was meant to serve as a way for transportation officials, law enforcement and marijuana users to understand and share their values and beliefs when it comes to impaired driving. With the information learned, CDOT plans to run an ad campaign in September targeted at marijuana users in the state.
“We wanted something straightforward, with an honest tone,” Cole said.
Most drivers — 94% — say driving after drinking is very or extremely dangerous, however, almost 10% admit to doing so in the past 30 days, according to a study released from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety this month. The study showed nearly 70% of respondents consider driving within an hour after using marijuana to be very or extremely dangerous and 91% of drivers socially disapprove of driving shortly after using.
Colorado State Patrol spokesperson Master Trooper Gary Cutler said the same roadside maneuver tools are used to identify drunk drivers as they are to identify drivers under the influence of marijuana.
“One of the problems we seem to have is that they don’t take it as seriously as drinking,” he said. “When you stop someone for drinking they will say ‘yeah I’ve had one or two’ and when I ask if they should be driving they will say no.”
Drivers impaired from marijuana do not share the same level of shame in Cutler’s experience.
“When I stop people (who have been) smoking marijuana they don’t feel that it is impairing their driving. They don’t have the same reaction and think they’re OK to drive,” Cutler said. “Nine out of 10 times I stop them, it’s because of a driving issue like weaving or something that would similarly arise from a drunk driver.”
In 2018, 13.5% of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for cannabis, according to CDOT.
Transportation officials reached out to more than 18,000 Coloradans through in-depth surveys, public meetings and focus groups for the study and ended with several key takeaways, including that people who consumed cannabis more often considered driving under the influence of marijuana to be less dangerous.
It also showed many cannabis users are highly skeptical of the laws, policies and enforcement regarding driving impaired and want credible nuanced information.
Respondents expressed that they wanted more research or detection methods and guidelines on dosage-based limits and how long to wait before driving.
The study also showed that most cannabis users were sensitive to any messages or advertisements they perceived as overstating the dangers of driving high, stereotyping cannabis users, or that were unrealistic.
“Law enforcement wanted people to understand how well prepared it is to identify people impaired by marijuana and not just alcohol in roadside maneuvers,” Cole said.