Driving High and Pot Breathalyzers—Consequences of Marijuana Legalization

Driver is smoking pot while driving.

Marijuana legalization has increased across the nation throughout the last twenty-some-odd years. We are now seeing the side effects of that legalization and the harm it has had on American communities. More people are using the drug in the states that legalized them, in spite of some who believed usage would not go up once legalization went through.

It is one thing for people to choose for themselves to harm their bodies and minds by using drugs. One could argue that it is their decision to make. However, even if we were to assume that viewpoint, it is another thing entirely when people who use marijuana also then harm the lives of others.

That is precisely what happens when people use marijuana then get behind the wheel of a car. And that’s exactly why new prototype drug-testing devices are being put through the final stages of analysis. In the foreseeable future, police officers will finally have a reliable way of testing for marijuana-impaired driving. That is something that law enforcement has until now been more or less unable to do.

A New Prototype on Testing for Marijuana-Impaired Driving

U.S. News has the story. According to a report published in September 2019, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh are working hard to develop a breathalyzer device that can measure the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Marijuana testing thus far has been performed using blood samples, urine, or hair follicles. None of those testing methods are convenient for roadside tests but by using carbon nanotubes [a carbon molecule used as a type of biosensor] and advanced molecular testing, University of Pittsburgh scientists may have created a device that operates almost exactly like an alcohol breathalyzer which checks for marijuana impairment with an accuracy that rivals mass spectrometry testing, the current gold standard in marijuana detection.

There Is Much to Consider

In a lot of ways, the states which legalized marijuana rushed to do so for political reasons and to satiate public demand for marijuana legalization. But there was much that was left by the wayside. For example, even when the marijuana testing prototype is completed and given to police departments, how will police officers know how much marijuana is too much?

Police trafic control.

In several states’ rush to legalize, not one state created reliable or easily enforceable rules as to what degree of marijuana intoxication was considered “too much.” So, while police officers might get a neat gadget with which to test impaired drivers, until state governments and law-making bodies reconvene to decide how much marijuana-impairment is too much, those police officers will be more or less unable to enforce the law. Unlike with alcohol laws where a specific blood alcohol content is easily measurable and an exact content level is definitively illegal, no such regulations have yet been drafted for marijuana-impaired driving.

Clearly, there is much to be done to reclaim road safety in states which have legalized marijuana.

Marijuana-Related Driving Accidents—the Proof in This Danger

There is much to be done to make the roads safer. There is a fair amount of work that has to be done to draft laws and regulations on marijuana-impaired driving. All of this will probably take a great deal of time. But in the meantime, people are dying on the roads because of marijuana-impaired driving. Just a cursory glance at the statistics reveals how serious this problem really is.

Let’s take a look at Washington State. Jumping back to the U.S. News article mentioned earlier, Washington State was one of the first states to legalize marijuana fully. That occurred in 2012. Within the first few years of legalization, Washington State experienced a noticeable change in marijuana-impaired traffic fatalities. In 2013, eight percent of fatal car accidents in Washington State also had marijuana impairment as a factor in the crash. But by the end of 2014, that percentage had more than doubled to 17 percent.

Looking to a report from NBC News, marijuana-impaired traffic fatalities have gone up by at least five percent in four different states which all legalized marijuana for medicinal and recreational use. These states were Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada.

“Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana.”

A group called Impact DWI records statistics and publishes facts on marijuana-impaired driving and other issues. According to their data, “Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana.”

There is also the factor of marijuana users who consume alcohol in tandem. When those individuals get behind the wheel, their risks of being in a fatal accident increase dramatically. In fact, their chances of being in a crash go up to 24 times that of a sober driver.

Much still needs to be learned about marijuana impairment, the effect that has on driving, and what level of marijuana use makes one incapable of driving a car safely. But the evidence is clear. Marijuana impairment is dangerous, and one should not get behind the wheel of a car if they are under the influence of marijuana (or anything for that matter).

Getting Help for a Drug-Using Loved One

Help loved one.

If you know someone who is using drugs and who cannot stop, you should do your best to get them help at a residential drug treatment center. Drug use and alcohol misuse carry with it countless harms and dangers to a person’s health. That is more than evident. Even just getting behind the wheel of a car puts that person and everyone else on the road in danger.

Furthermore, drug use and alcohol misuse starts a person on a dwindling spiral. The longer they misuse substances, the worse their condition becomes and the more likely they are to suffer an accident, injury, legal trouble, or even an overdose.

If one of your family members or loved ones is using drugs, get them help as soon as possible. Don’t take no for an answer. Drug use is a life or death matter.





Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.