California Forum

What California drivers should remember on 4/20, now that cannabis is legalized

San Diego Police Officer Emilio Rodriguez uses a portable drug analyzer in March 2018 to test impaired drivers. Authorities warn that roads may be riskier next week on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20, now that recreational marijuana has been legalized. (David Brooks/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
San Diego Police Officer Emilio Rodriguez uses a portable drug analyzer in March 2018 to test impaired drivers. Authorities warn that roads may be riskier next week on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20, now that recreational marijuana has been legalized. (David Brooks/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS) TNS

In November 2016, California voted in favor of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis for those above the age of 21. The legislation passed with 57 percent in favor, but the impact of cannabis use on those with brains yet to fully develop – and the associated risks it may pose on the roadways – should remain valid concerns for all of us.

The fight for legalization and the focus on the positive medicinal aspects of cannabis use obscured, in some ways, the issue of impairment. That doesn’t mean that it went away.

A 2013 study showed 34 percent of teenagers believe it is safe to use cannabis and drive.

In fact, over the last decade, awareness has increased around risks such as cannabis-induced psychosis (CIP), a substance-induced disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association that strikes at greater rate among people in late adolescence. Indeed, some studies suggest that cannabis can create subtle lasting neurobiological changes and accelerate mental illness, which often goes undiagnosed prior to age 25.

More concerning is the too-common misperception that cannabis does not cause impairment, and that it is safe to drive after using. One 2013 study showed that 34 percent of American teenagers hold this belief.

Obviously, not everyone will be impaired by a single puff or even a single joint, just as a single sip of alcohol or single drink won’t necessarily impair a driver. Cannabis impairment depends heavily upon dose amount, tolerance, and THC levels (the primary psycho-active ingredient).

But over the years, THC levels in cannabis have increased significantly. In the 1970s, the average joint contained less than 1 percent THC; today it is 15 percent. Colorado’s average recreational retail level is around 18 percent. Cannabis concentrates are even more concerning, ranging between 50-80 percent THC. Concentrates are often found in edibles such as cookies, candy, energy drinks, and ice-cream, a development that has been complicated by perceived youth-targeted advertising.

So it should come as no surprise that between 2007 and 2016, DUIs involving THC nearly doubled. Young people between 21 and 23 are considered to be most at risk both for substance abuse and involvement in a DUI fatality. This is an area where the unrealized dangers of driving under the influence of cannabis become critical.

While cannabis may have many outward signs of impairment (poor balance, poor coordination, dilated pupils, body tremors) the major effects are not necessarily identifiable just by looking. Cannabis can significantly impair a person’s mental faculties.

Altered time and distance perception, inability to divide attention, relaxed inhibitions, disorientation, lack of concentration, impaired memory, anxiety, and paranoia – these are all signs of mental impairment, and they typically last 2-3 hours.

Many of us take driving for granted as a learned habit. However, the reality is that we are in control of a 2,800 pound object hurtling at high speeds alongside commuters and families and even responsible cannabis users. Everyone on the roadways deserves to feel safe and to be safe on 4/20 and every other day of the year.

In this new era of cannabis, a simple message for all should be: If you must drive then don’t smoke. And if you must smoke don’t drive.

Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig helps oversee Yolo County’s legal cannabis cultivation markets. He can be reached at district.attorney@yolocounty.org.

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