There’s no such thing as a pot breathalyzer. No national consensus about how much THC (the active compound in marijuana) drivers can safely tolerate in their bloodstreams. No definitive study pinpointing the degree to which marijuana raises a driver’s crash risk.
So, with Washington, Oregon, and Alaska now the second, third, and fourth states to legalize recreational marijuana, the Northwest is emerging as a real-life test lab when it comes to understanding legalization’s impact on our highways. What we learn may determine how “green” the rest of the nation goes.
Asphalt and intoxicants don’t mix
Whatever your position on legalized marijuana, there’s one point on which we all can agree: Any impairment behind the wheel – whether it comes from recreational drugs, prescription medication, or even over-the-counter cold remedies – isn’t worth the risk.
And that’s a great starting point for conversations with family members (young and not-so-young) about the choices they make regarding marijuana and driving.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana impacts some key physical and cognitive abilities needed for driving. Movement slows, peripheral vision decreases, and drivers’ ability to focus on more than one thing at a time slips.
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tested high drivers using a simulator and open and closed driving courses, it noted that drivers’ impairment continued for three hours after using marijuana. Their performance suffered in car handling, estimates of distance, and reaction time. NHTSA also noted that impairment may worsen considerably when drivers combine marijuana with alcohol.
Helping teens make responsible choices
Although Oregon’s new law (which takes effect in July 2015) doesn’t include a provision specifying an acceptable limit for drivers, Washington law considers drivers over 21 too high to get behind the wheel if their blood levels of THC measure 5 nanograms per milliliter. There’s no acceptable limit for drivers under age 21, for whom marijuana consumption is illegal.
That’s an important reminder for teens. They’re keenly aware that marijuana is “legal,” but can easily gloss over the fact that it’s still off limits for them.
Let teens know their well-being is your first priority. Just as you wouldn’t want them to drive after drinking alcohol or ride with a tipsy driver, make sure they know they can call you for a safe ride home to avoid a possible drugged-driving disaster. Save questions for the morning when everyone is clear-headed.
Washington and the NHTSA team up to learn more
With what could be the beginnings of a nationwide groundswell toward legalized marijuana, the NHTSA has launched new research efforts to learn more about how marijuana affects driving. It’s also teamed with Washington officials to see if drivers’ patterns of marijuana use have changed since retail stores opened their doors last year.
Stay tuned. We’ll pass along the results as soon as they’re published.