The drive to legalize marijuana gets lots of mileage from the belief that its effects are safer than alcohol or other drugs. As far as long-term health effects, that jury is still out.
However, a recent study found that driving under the influence of pot is every bit as dangerous as getting behind the wheel after drinking.
The study, from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, found fatal crashes involving drivers being under the influence of marijuana have tripled during the past decade. The study looked at traffic fatalities in six states between 1999 and 2010. The states chosen for the study - which included West Virginia - routinely perform toxicology tests within an hour on drivers involved in fatal vehicle crashes. The results on approximately 23,000 car crash victims found that drugged driving played at least a part in 28 percent of all traffic deaths in 2010. This was up from 16 percent in 1999.
"Currently, one of nine drivers involved in fatal crashes would test positive for marijuana," said study co-author Dr. Guohua Li, director of Columbia's school of public health. "If this trend continues, in five or six years non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substance involved in deaths related to impaired driving."
The study was completed before last year's elections in Colorado and Washington state, in which voters approved legalizing marijuana for personal use. Twenty other states, and Washington, D.C, have legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes, and many other states, including West Virginia, have had discussions about possible legalization of pot. This means marijuana use certainly will not decrease in the next few years, and, most likely, more marijuana-impaired people will be behind the wheel.
Safety advocates are concerned that the widely held belief that marijuana is not as harmful as alcohol or other drugs is likely to hamper efforts to make people realize marijuana affects drivers in much the same way as alcohol. It impairs judgment, affects vision, and makes a person more likely to take dangerous risks while behind the wheel.
"The public knows about drunk driving, but I don't think they have awareness of drugged driving, so this is a huge issue," said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We need to alert the public that if you've used any type of substance, you should not get behind the wheel. We need to create that culture where, like drunk driving, it is not acceptable."
Whether living in a state where marijuana is legal or not, this is a message that drivers need to hear - and heed.