A leading marijuana advocacy group had a hand in drafting a new congressional bill aimed at combating drug-impaired driving.
Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) and Troy Balderson (R-OH) filed the legislation on Friday. It would create an annual $5 million federal grant fund for states to promote public education around the issue.
Opponents of legalization frequently claim that allowing legal cannabis sales will increase instances of impaired driving, but that’s not backed up by solid evidence. What may come as a surprise to prohibitionists who feel that advocates are promoting a dangerous reform, however, is that those same activists are similarly invested in pushing evidence-based policies to mitigate the risk.
NORML helped the lawmakers draft the bill with an eye toward data-informed practices.
States that receive the grant money would have to “use evidence and strategies recommended by” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a 2019 report, as well as a separate National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2017 report and “other evidence-based, peer-reviewed strategies as determined by” the transportation secretary, text of the legislation states.
CRS determined last year that concerns expressed by lawmakers that cannabis legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded. The body found that evidence about marijuana’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” CRS said, adding that “studies have been unable to consistently correlate levels of marijuana consumption, or THC in a person’s body, and levels of impairment.”
Of course, driving under the influence of any intoxicating substance is not encouraged—neither by legalization advocates nor its staunchest opponents, and it’s an issue in states that have maintained criminalization as well as those that have legalized marijuana.
But in July, the House approved a separate bill that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis.
Rhetoric around the specific risks that state-level cannabis reform poses to the roadways doesn’t appear to be grounded in established science.
Take per se limits on THC in blood, for example. While several legal states have established limits such as 2-5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood for drivers, a recent study found that people who tested at those levels were statistically no more likely to cause a crash compared to those who haven’t used marijuana.
Several independent studies have also found that legalization isn’t associated with an increase in traffic fatalities.
“As cannabis continues to evolve from an illicit substance to a licit one, it is important that traffic safety laws and practices similarly evolve to comport with this new reality,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Tens of millions of Americans are now consuming cannabis and cannabis products at home in compliance with state law. The traffic safety laws must acknowledge this reality and better distinguish between those who present a legitimate public safety threat versus those who do not.”
“In some cases, this means educating law enforcement and providing them with better tools to more accurately differentiate between those who may be under the influence from those who may have simply consumed cannabis at some unspecified past point in time,” he said. “In other cases, it means better educating the public with respect to the ways cannabis may influence driving behavior, particularly when it is used in combination with alcohol, and promoting responsible use. In all cases, these efforts must be guided by evidence-based strategies—not by ideological rhetoric.”
Meanwhile, a NHTSA official said last year that federal research shows that marijuana consumers believe they drive better when they’re high.
“Despite common misconceptions, drug-impaired driving is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, and that’s why this bill to expand public education and awareness is so important,” Rice, the sponsor of the new Drug-Impaired Driving Education Act, said in a press release. “I’ve been working on these issues for my entire career, and I have seen the immense pain and tragedy that they can cause far too many times.”
Read the text of the impaired driving prevention bill below: