Pot Holes: California’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Would Be a Road Safety Nightmare


For Californians contemplating a “yes” vote on Proposition 64—the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)—it’s not too late for a thoughtful re-evaluation the measure. While many in the press have urged a “no” vote on Prop. 64, too many others have shrugged their shoulders calling it “no big deal,”casually dismissing the many documented hazards associated with making cannabis legal for recreational use, and suggesting that it is time to remove the stigma that accompanies the use of pot. I beg to differ.

The University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) prepared an exhaustive analysis of AUMA which demonstrates in no uncertain terms that the negative consequences of the measure would far outweigh any perceived benefits. And the most troublesome negative? That AUMA would create a huge new business fraught with health hazards yet provide the barest “minimal public health protections that are unlikely to prevent public health harms.”

The report warns that “a wealthy and powerful marijuana industry will use its political clout to manipulate regulatory frameworks” all of which means their interests will be protected over and against the public interest. By the marijuana industry’s own estimates, sales in California currently top $2.8 billion, and they intend to push that figure to $6.5 billion by 2020 if Prop. 64 passes, giving UCSF’s warning undeniable credibility. A $6.5 billion industry would create a powerful interest lobby and one that works at cross purposes with the health and welfare of Californians.

A full reading of the UCSF report offers compelling reasons to vote “no” on Prop. 64. But although the study addresses several public health issues generally, it brings almost no scrutiny to the area of focus where the effects of increased drug use will be the most troubling to me, highway safety. The potential traffic safety consequences are deeply alarming as we begin to accumulate evidence as a result of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012. During the ensuing three years (2013-15) marijuana-related traffic deaths erupted 48 percent over the previous three years, when the drug was illegal. Ten percent of drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for marijuana in 2009; the figure jumped to 21 percent in 2015. Considering that California’s population of almost 40 million is more than seven times that of Colorado, the impact on the Centennial State will pale in comparison to what will happen in the Golden State if Prop. 64 becomes law.

California’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) already identifies a growing drugged driver problem in California, unquestionably fueled by our existing medical marijuana law. In 2012, 30.3 percent of California drivers involved in fatal accidents tested positive for drugs; 28 percent were under the influence of alcohol. Two years later, 38.4 percent of fatal drivers tested positive for drugs, while alcohol involvement moved up a percentage point to 29 percent. And there’s ample evidence that marijuana is the major contributor to the problem since usage of alcohol does not decrease with the availability of recreational marijuana; indeed the usage of both substances increases.

Roadside surveys conducted in California during 2010 and 2012 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and California OTS clearly identify cannabis as the predominant drug of choice by those who use drugs and drive. NHTSA figures showed 59 percent of drugged drivers tested positive for marijuana, while the OTS study found 54 percent testing positive. Further, the NHTSA study found that—depending where one lives—the chances of encountering a driver testing positive for THC (the mind altering ingredient in marijuana) on a weekend night range from 1-in-5 to 1-in-10; a frightening reality.

The problem of widespread marijuana use by California drivers is amplified by another disturbing finding highlighted in both the NHTSA and OTS studies: Overwhelmingly, those who use marijuana do not believe it affects their ability to operate a vehicle. That myth has been nurtured in great part by the marijuana industry, which marginalizes the issue by claiming there is no empirical data showing the use of marijuana affects the ability to drive, nor is there a scientific standard for determining marijuana intoxication, based upon the level of THC in the blood, as there is with alcohol.

Numerous studies convincingly demonstrate marijuana’s negative impact on driving ability, based on scientific findings that show THC “affects areas of the brain that control the body’s movement, balance, coordination, sensations, and judgment.” (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2010). NHTSA studies leave little doubt that “the presence of THC in the blood is associated with an increased risk for crash compared to drug-free controls.” Studies aside, common sense dictates that the growing presence of drugs, especially marijuana, requires unrelenting action to rein in marijuana use by drivers, not approval of an act that will in fact feed and significantly enlarge the problem. If Proposition 64’s passage were to more than double marijuana use, as projected by the marijuana industry, there can be no doubt the resulting highway carnage will be unconscionable.

The marijuana industry correctly states that no standard exists defining a particular THC blood level as a determinant for impaired driving. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is an outspoken opponent of Proposition 64, with this particular issue being but one aspect of her opposition. She has emphasized that the legalization of marijuana would be detrimental to public health and safety, but should not even be considered until a THC blood-level standard is in place.

THC’s influence upon individuals can vary greatly, depending on any number of factors, and the drug can remain in one’s system for weeks after intake. That fact only amplifies the danger, however, because absent the evidentiary value of an established intoxicating level of THC, marijuana’s detrimental effect on driving ability can be subverted in the judicial process. The result: THC-impaired drivers often escape criminal responsibility for their actions, and perhaps even evade the consequences of civil filings.

As an aside, the driving force behind Prop. 64 is an alliance of business people whose goal is a wide-open market that can be exploited at will. Regardless of their self-designated respectability, their business is pushing illicit drugs, so one must ask: How will these enterprises differ from the drug cartels operating in South America and Mexico? They feign concern about the consequences, be it access by youth or traffic fatalities, but their only real interest is their profits. Proposition 64’s passage would give them virtual carte blanche, through wealth and political influence, leaving the public’s welfare in their wake.

You thought things couldn’t get any worse? If Prop. 64 passes, be assured things will get a lot worse; especially on California’s highways.

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About Maury Hannigan

Maury Hannigan is a retired commissioner of the California Highway Patrol, and served as general chairman of the State and Provincial Division of the International Chiefs of Police, as well as president of the California Peace Officers Association and the former host of “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.” His law enforcement experience has put him in close contact over several decades with drug users and drug purveyors.