In January of 2014, my trailblazing home state of Colorado became the first in the U.S. to allow the retail sale of cannabis for recreational use. After the voters approved Amendment 64, we heard numerous theories about Colorado’s future. Would the roads become less safe to drive? Would children be more susceptible to drug use? Would Colorado become a mecca for marijuana tourism, sending the entire state into a cloud of green smoke?
It’s been over a year and a half now and it’s still too soon to answer some of those questions (although the green cloud has made a few appearances). We are, however, starting to see some of the impacts legalization has had on Colorado. With recreational marijuana also legal in Washington and Alaska, and with future ballot measures likely in California and Massachusetts, the learnings from Colorado will certainly be under scrutiny.
In its first legal year, recreational marijuana in Colorado grew into a nearly $700-million industry. Obviously, there’ll be many impacts of this rapid change, but since car insurance is our specialty, we’re going to focus on what it could mean for drivers.
How is driving while high being enforced?
While it’s legal to possess and consume certain amounts of cannabis in Colorado, it definitely isn’t legal to drive while high. After a lengthy debate about how to regulate drugged driving, Colorado lawmakers established a legal limit of 5 nanograms of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) per milliliter of blood.
Law enforcement officers in Colorado have been trained to recognize the signs of THC intoxication and have the authority to make arrests if someone is clearly impaired. In some cases, drivers suspected of being under the influence may be asked to take a blood test to measure their THC level. Exceeding the limit doesn’t mean an automatic DUI conviction — drivers have the right to argue their case and let a jury decide whether they’re guilty of impaired driving — but it will result in a drivers license being revoked. Add in the DMV fees to reinstate your license and the criminal defense costs associated with a DUI and drugged driving in Colorado will cost you big time.
The debate about the fairness of the 5-nanogram legal THC limit is ongoing (and passionate, to say the least). Colorado and Washington have passed the same limit, saying it’s essential to fighting an increase in drugged driving rates. But opponents say marijuana can’t be regulated like alcohol because THC stays in the system long after impairment wears off.
Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it’s likely to be an ongoing conversation in states considering legalization.
Has drugged-driving enforcement cost the taxpayers?
Yes, but only the taxpayers who frequent pot shops. The funding increase for drugged-driving enforcement has come from marijuana sales taxes, and Colorado has used this money to provide officers with advanced training to recognize impaired drivers. Other than that, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) hasn’t seen any major increases in its budget for enforcing impaired driving.
Will legalization affect car insurance rates?
If you’re convicted of drugged driving, yes. These convictions are typically treated like alcohol-related DUIs, so offenders will likely see increased rates. Though the correlation between recreational marijuana being legal and a higher accident risk is still uncertain, it’s unlikely that car insurance rates will rise statewide for those who haven’t been convicted of a marijuana-related DUI.
Has legalization increased DUI rates?
According to CDOT, it’s too soon to tell. More data will need to be collected in the months and years to come before we know for sure. Earlier this year, however, the Denver Post reported that 12 percent of DUI cases in 2014 involved suspected marijuana use. Findings on the risks and impacts of drugged driving have been hazy and sometimes contradictory, which is why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting ongoing national research on the subject.
Current studies show that drugged driving appears to be on the rise. But, even though cannabis users had a twenty-five percent greater chance of being in a crash than nonusers, the higher risk could be attributed to other factors, like age or gender. Future research is needed to get a clear answer. So, in other words, stay tuned.
Know the rules
If you live in a state where cannabis is legal, study up. The rules for driving with, possessing, and using marijuana vary widely from state to state and even city to city. There is one common denominator, though: drugged driving is illegal in every state, regardless of pot laws. So, if you’re convicted, you’ll face the consequences (including higher insurance rates). With apps like Canary, it’s easier than ever to gauge your impairment, so if you plan to partake, don’t get behind the wheel.