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Why It's So Hard to Figure Out the Real Dangers of Stoned Driving

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Photo by Anthony Camera
Recent Colorado Department of Transportation figures show that stoned-driving fatalities went down from 2016 to 2017 for those over the legal intoxication limit but up in fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for any marijuana in their system, whether above the line or under it. Such mixed results are typical according to a new report, which acknowledges that getting firm answers about the risks involved with driving high remains an enormous challenge.

And there are plenty of reasons why.

The study in question, "Driving Under the Influence of Drugs and Alcohol," was issued by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice and is accessible below in its entirety. Created in conjunction with House Bill 17-1315, which ordered the division "to report annually to the general assembly certain data relating to substance-affected driving citations that occurred in the previous year," it's filled with fascinating information, as indicated by our recent post headlined "In 15 Colorado Counties, DUI Totals Are More Than 1 Percent of the Population."

Among the most intriguing passages are frank admissions about the difficulties of reaching definitive conclusions in regard to stoned driving. Continue for examples grouped in four main categories and illustrated by graphics from the report.

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Colorado Division of Criminal Justice
Challenges in Marijuana Research

Despite many legislative and political attempts, cannabis remains a federal Schedule I drug — meaning that it has no officially recognized medical value. As such, the report notes, researchers wishing to study marijuana must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration "by submitting protocols detailing the substances involved, including the amount of each substance, and providing detailed security arrangements intended to prevent diversion of the drug to outside parties."

That's only the beginning of the complications.

Since 1968, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has contracted with the University of Mississippi, which grows the only marijuana available for federally sanctioned research use. However, the report reveals that "this Mississippi marijuana is of lower Delta-9 THC potency than what is being sold in the legal market, with 'High THC' defined as 5-10 percent and 'Very High THC' as above 10 percent."

In truth, most of the marijuana currently being sold in Colorado's recreational market tends to hover around 20 percent potency. "This discrepancy makes it difficult to generalize the study findings from impaired driving experimental protocols to real-world situations," the study's authors concede.

Local approval for research is no snap, either. The study depicts the registration process at the University of Colorado Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus as "lengthy (4-8 weeks) and elaborate, with a visit or phone interview to review security measures" — and once permission is granted, "there is extensive record-keeping required, and researchers are subject to annual audits by the Environmental Health and Safety Office of the University. Furthermore, there are potentially significant fiscal consequences for researchers and universities involved in marijuana research if there are deviations or mistakes in following the guidelines set forth."

More issues arise when it comes to the consistency of research, or a lack thereof. The study points out that some researchers focus on Delta-9 THC, "the psychoactive component of marijuana" that tends to indicate recent use when present at high levels. But "many people cite research or statistics that describe the presence of other cannabinoids," including ones that "can be detected many days later and are not necessarily indicative of recent use. A person can have cannabis metabolites present in their system while having none of the psychoactive effects of cannabis."

What's left unstated in this paragraph is that anti-marijuana advocates have long attempted to blur the distinctions between these types of cannabinoids as part of their efforts to demonize the substance. Plenty of studies have agendas, and figuring out what they are can require vigorous detective work.

In addition, the report argues that the "multiple methods of consumption" make marijuana a tough research topic. For instance, "cannabis can be smoked or vaped in its flower form, vaped or dabbed and inhaled in its concentrate form (wax, shatter, oil, resin), ingested in its edible form and even puffed through an inhaler. The onset of effects from edible cannabis can take 45 minutes to two hours, while the onset of smoked or vaped cannabis is within the first ten minutes."