The most dangerous thing about marijuana-impaired drivers? Their lack of acknowledgement that what they're doing is dangerous. That's the major finding of an extensive series of surveys conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
The department used a number of survey techniques over a seven-week span in 2018, interviewing more than 12,600 people about marijuana-impaired driving. Given the lack of empirical studies and the abundance of institutions spreading faulty information about marijuana's effects, most marijuana users tune out authoritative messaging about the dangers of impairment, according to CDOT traffic safety communication manager Sam Cole.
Cole says that he and his colleagues at CDOT weren't surprised by the overall attitude of the marijuana users surveyed, who were critical of current laws and policies surrounding pot, and sometimes driving under the influence because of that. The majority of users and non-users alike disagreed with Colorado's current 5-nanogram THC limit for drivers (a measurement that's dubious, at best) and said they felt messaging in most government campaigns about marijuana use and impairment was either outdated or suspicious.
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"We've heard for years that marijuana users don't want to be demonized in our public-safety campaigns, so we really try not to make them feel that way," Cole says. "These new campaigns that we've developed for feedback...they're all pretty lighthearted, and they make people think about marijuana and driving in ways they haven't before."
New campaigns will move the impairment conversation slightly away from vehicle owners, Cole adds, instead asking Coloradans if they're okay with surgeons, bus drivers and mechanical operators working high on the job: "If one of these people were under the influence of marijuana, would you let them drive your kids to school or operate on you?"
Almost half of the regular marijuana users surveyed said they felt they weren't a danger on the road after consuming, relying on personal experience instead of government information to determine their impairment. According to CDOT, one daily user described April 20, 2018 (4/20), as "just another day," adding that he had "three dabs before going to work" and drove about thirty minutes after his last dab. "I also drank a few rum and cokes at home. Safe. No drinking and driving,” the respondent said.
The CDOT survey results recommend a more immersive approach toward marijuana users by strengthening partnerships with the marijuana industry, fellow consumers and entities that are trusted more by the pot community than is local government. Denver dispensary chain Lightshade and lobbying firm Marijuana Industry Group have already been working with CDOT to spread awareness and educational materials to pot consumers.
"When the message comes from the government or a budtender, the budtender is going to win every time in credibility," Cole explains. "In the future, I think we're going to feature marijuana users or budtenders in our campaigns more."
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CDOT and its pot-industry partners are likely to run a promotion as April 20 gets closer, Cole says. In previous years, they've worked with ride-sharing companies like Lyft to offer discounts for anyone celebrating the marijuana holiday. That same group, as well as AAA, will also partner in advance of St. Patrick's Day to raise awareness about poly-consumption, or using multiple substances, before getting behind the wheel.
"The heightened DUI enforcement period begins the Friday before St. Patrick's Day," Cole warns, noting that March 17 is a Sunday this year, which means a weekend of partying. "We're really focusing on training law enforcement to understand what a drug-impaired driver looks like compared to an alcohol-impaired driver, and so on."
See the full survey below: