It's never a good idea to smoke weed in front of a police officer, let alone get behind the wheel right after — but that's exactly what people were doing with the Adams County Sheriff's Office on Monday, July 16.
During this truly unique event, Adams County sheriff's deputies invited participants to drink beers, smoke joints and then test their driving skills in order to determine how impaired they really were. The challenge was the brainchild of cannabis consulting firm Dacorum Strategies, which partnered with the Adams County Sheriff's Office, Lyft and Colorado NORML to raise awareness about driving while impaired.
Drivers were split into three groups, with one designated for cannabis consumption, one for alcohol, and another for texting while driving. Each driver smoked a joint or drank a pot-infused soda with ten milligrams of THC, or had a beer, or texted while driving with a driving instructor, while observers counted the number of cones hit by their cars. After the cannabis and alcohol users were done with each round of driving, an Adams County sheriff's deputy conducted a roadside impairment test.
"I think there are a lot of myths about what marijuana impairment looks like and what it does behind the wheel," says Adams County Sheriff Michael McIntosh. "It's an education process, and it doesn't matter what side of the legalization argument you're on. For law enforcement, it's our job to ensure the safety of our community."
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The sale of recreational cannabis has been legal in Colorado for over four years, but state and local law enforcement agencies continue to struggle with how to identify drivers who are impaired from cannabis use. Because cannabis can't be measured through saliva or breath, as alcohol can be, cannabis DUI charges strongly depend on subjective roadside testing.
McIntosh considers alcohol and cannabis consumption major safety risks for Colorado drivers. While he says he believes that texting while driving is even more dangerous, the sheriff also thinks that new consumption methods and the potency of legal cannabis products have created big misconceptions about the safety of driving while stoned. Even worse, most of the drivers who are pulled over in Adams County for texting, drinking or consuming cannabis tend to be mixing one violation with another, according to McIntosh.
"It's all pretty fascinating to find out, as we're still in this experimental stage," McIntosh explains. "People are a little freaked out that the cops are hanging out with people as they smoke or drink beer and then drive — but they're not as afraid as they used to be. It's easier to talk about it now."
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Dacorum Strategies founder Todd Mitchem says he was motivated to organize an event like this after the Colorado Department of Transportation released a study in April that said nearly 70 percent of cannabis users admitted to driving while high in the past year. Mitchem enlisted the help of his friends at My 420 Tours — a cannabis tourism company that drives buses for social cannabis consumption — to enroll a handful of driving guinea pigs, while Lyft provided free rides home for the alcohol and cannabis users after the event was over.
According to Mitchem, the texting drivers performed the worst on the course, hitting the most cones while driving. They were followed by cannabis users, then alcohol drinkers. But Mitchem also points out that cannabis users passed most of their initial roadside impairment tests by sheriff deputies, while alcohol users routinely failed them despite having performing better on the driving course.
"People were a little bit more nervous while driving on the cannabis side. They were slower to respond to directions in the car from [the instructor]. They'd be confused about where exactly they were going. People didn't feel impaired, but they clearly were, even though most of them passed roadside tests," Mitchem says. "The alcohol drivers would pass the course part of the test, but when it was time for the field sobriety test, they'd be obliterated."
Alcohol users were more confident and tended to drive faster, he notes, while cannabis users were "overly focused" for much of the time. "People were either stoned or drunk. It was just ludicrous — as we expected," he concludes. "I think a lot of the marijuana folks were kind of in denial about how impaired they were. If you're a tourist or a brand-new consumer, that risk is just not worth it."