Pot Smokers Think Driving While Stoned Is No Big Deal. Colorado Wants to Change That.

An Associated Press reporter asks Sam Cole, a CDOT spokesperson, a question
An Associated Press reporter asks Sam Cole, a CDOT spokesperson, a question at the Lightshade Dispensary in Denver. Also pictured: Glenn Davis of CDOT and State Trooper Gary Cutler.

Many marijuana users think it’s okay to drive while high. As more people get caught behind the wheel while stoned, the State of Colorado wants to improve the ad campaigns it uses to persuade them to stop.

Ads that demonize pot smokers don’t work. Humor is good, but it’s tough to get right. And whatever the approach, how do you figure out the one message will get through to people the most?

These are some of the things officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation are trying to navigate for the agency’s “Cannabis Conversations” campaign, which will start running next year. To find the right answers, officials surveyed 15,000 Coloradans about driving while stoned. It revealed that many people don’t think it’s a big deal.

“I pay more attention when I drive high,” said an unidentified man in a video produced by CDOT. “I definitely believe I’m not as impaired as if I were to drive drunk.”

In the video, two other drivers admit to driving stoned, one saying he drives high more often than not.

CDOT officials and Gary Cutler, a trooper with the Colorado State Patrol, gathered this morning at a Denver dispensary with marijuana industry representatives to update reporters on the state’s campaign. Colorado’s marijuana tax will fund the ads with $950,000 per year. The relaxed attitude around driving while high is typical, they agreed, but it’s wrong.

“This is just like alcohol,” said Cutler. “It is impairment.”

Colorado marijuana fatalities 2011-2017

According to the CSP, stoned drivers killed 87 people on Colorado roads in 2016 and 2017, the first two years it tracked crashes where drivers tested over the legal limit of five nanograms per mL of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But drivers are deadly even at lower levels of THC — especially when drivers combine marijuana with alcohol or other drugs.

Drivers with some level of cannabinoid in their blood killed 139 people in 2017, according to the CSP. Of those fatalities, 67 percent involved a driver who also had alcohol or other drugs in their system. And while there is no breathalyzer test for marijuana, officials want the public to know that law enforcement officers are trained to spot all impaired drivers.

Last year, Colorado officers cited 421 people for marijuana-only DUIs, a 25 percent increase over 2017, according to the CSP. Officers cited a more significant number of people for driving under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol, 461, a 112 percent increase. Meanwhile, the number of alcohol-only citations decreased by 8.5 percent, to 3,548.

But the number of people getting caught may not reflect how pervasive marijuana use is among drivers. Among nighttime and weekend drivers in the U.S., 13 percent have marijuana in their system, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Colorado voters approved  marijuana for medical use in 2000 and for recreational use in 2014.

With so many people vaping, puffing and popping edibles and an industry that’s growing fast, Colorado wants to keep marijuana-impaired driving from becoming an an even more deadly problem.  

“It took us such a long time to really get serious about the alcohol issue,” said Sam Cole, a spokesperson for CDOT. “Half of the deaths in Colorado involved alcohol 20 years ago. We don’t want to wait another 20 years to address marijuana.”

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