Our brains are easily affected by chemicals that enter our bloodstream. That’s why our bodies respond to caffeine when we’re tired, sugar when we’re hungry and nicotine when we’re dead set on quitting smoking. Even chemicals that are meant to help us, like pain killers, antihistamines and other medications can affect our ability for clear thinking. “WARNING: Do not operate heavy machinery while taking this medication” sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The United States Food and Drug Administration requires certain products to have warnings that tell us not to drive after we’ve consumed them. The U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warns us not consume certain things before we drive. Since the 1980’s, actually, we’ve been bombarded with warnings about drunk driving and, yet, alcohol is still a factor in a third of all auto accidents.
Chemicals may affect our brains quickly and easily, but apparently we are hard-headed when it comes to safe driving! With that in mind, Colorado legislators are currently advancing a bill to strengthen laws against driving under the influence… of medical marijuana.
NHTSA did a roadside survey back in 2007 and found that 16% of drivers during weekend nights tested positive for drugs–prescription, over the counter or illegal. More than 11% tested positive specifically for illegal drugs. That doesn’t seem too bad for the allergy- and pain-medicated masses, but that could change for the worse as marijuana laws continue to evolve. There are, as yet, no final numbers from a NHTSA study to determine exactly how many auto accidents are caused by drugged driving each year, but they are definitely on the rise.
Colorado legalized marijuana for medical use in 2000. Seven years later, though, medical marijuana dispensary laws changed and patients in Colorado with legal permission to use the drug grew from the thousands to the tens of thousands very quickly. Still, the ability to measure levels of THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana — lags behind our need to keep dangerously drugged drivers off the roads. If the blood alcohol level of a driver is measured at .08, that driver is legally drunk. Driver impairment at that limit has been proven time and again. Unfortunately, there is no tried and tested level that firmly establishes when a marijuana user is too high to drive.
Colorado House Bill 1261 currently sets the legal THC limit for an automobile driver at 5 nanograms per milliliter, and that is a point of contention amongst lawmakers, bill sponsors, medical marijuana users and the traffic safety community.
In the meantime, while we watch and wait for our lawmakers to come to a decision, all drivers should remember to err on the side of caution when it comes to drinking AND taking medication. It is just not worth the risk of property damage and personal injury. Stay home while you’re taking medication, or ask a clear-headed friend to do the driving.