A Denver Police Traffic Operations Bureau scanner in the DUI Room in downtown Denver Aug. 10, 2017.

Is it safer to drive high than drunk? Efforts to curtail marijuana-impaired driving collide with attitudes, medicinal use

Promoting cannabis as a safer alternative to alcohol was a tenet of the marijuana legalization movements in Colorado and other states.

Early data indicate that attitude continues when people get behind the wheel.

A recent Colorado Department of Transportation survey found that 72 percent of Colorado cannabis consumers thought it was safer to drive under the influence of marijuana than under the influence of alcohol.

That same survey also found that more than half of the 92 cannabis-using respondents drove within two hours of consuming marijuana. An equal percentage believed they could safely drive under the influence of marijuana.

Related: Traffic fatalities linked to marijuana are up sharply in Colorado. Is legalization to blame?

The Colorado Department of Transportation hopes a nearly $1 million education effort — a doubling of funding spent last year — can steer the driving behaviors of Colorado cannabis consumers in a different direction.

The state’s safety officials know they are running up against more than just data. Efforts to stem drugged driving are colliding with cultural convictions, the role of medical marijuana in everyday lives and skepticism surroundingĀ unproven detection technologies.

Data reveal attitudes

In the early months of legalization, state officials hoped to get a gauge on motorists’ knowledge of DUI laws and safety concerns as they related to marijuana and driving.

They got an early win: 91 percent of 114 cannabis consumers surveyed in 2014 were aware that a person could receive a DUI for driving after using marijuana recreationally.

“But then we thought that people, perhaps, would not drive high,” said Sam Cole, CDOT’s safety communications manager.

That appears to have been wishful thinking.

Related: Are you high? The science of testing for marijuana impairment still evolving

That same 2014 survey showed 56 percent of cannabis consumers said they drove two hours after consuming cannabis at least once a month. And while that percentage held steady in 2015 and 2016, the frequency of those users driving within hours of consumption increased sharply.

The percentage of marijuana-using consumers who drove 11 days or more in a month after recently consuming cannabis grew from 10 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in 2016, CDOT data show.

While the vast majority of the cannabis-using respondents were aware they could get a DUI for driving high — up to 93 percent by 2016 — they appeared skeptical of getting caught. In the 2016 survey, 73 percent of the 95 marijuana-using respondents said it would be somewhat or very unlikely that they would get pulled over by law enforcement for being over the legal limit.

The agency is aware that the data come with caveats, Cole said. The “under the influence” phrase used in survey questions isn’t defined, leaving the respondent to assume the level of influence. Other caveats include the fact that a positive test or the presence of a substance does not necessarily equate to impairment. Also, extended data sets are still being accumulated.

The marijuana-consuming survey respondents also represent a small sample size — in the realm of 95 to 130 respondents of overall respondents totaling close to 900. When considering the overall percentages, motorists were less favorable of driving high.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies are still seeking robust detection technologies for cannabis inebriation — critical given the fact that cannabinoids can remain present in the body’s system for weeks, Cole said. The development of a roadside test and a handheld personal detection kit would also help improve awareness immensely among cannabis consumers.

Until those technologies and definitions are finalized, however, officials have to act on the existing evidence and data.

The CDOT data show that those drivers surveyed don’t take the dangers (of marijuana) seriously, said Cole.

Those attitudes are understandable, he added. Drunk driving prevention campaigns have at least a three-decade head start on the fledgling efforts around cannabis.

“It should be taken just as seriously as alcohol,” he said.

Medication v. intoxication

Marijuana is medicine to some 91,000-plus Colorado residents, according to state data.

Those patients are the impetus behind planned lobbying efforts by Colorado NORML, the state’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, to modify existing marijuana-related driving laws.

Campaigns to raise the blood tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) limit of 5 nanograms and/or requesting exemptions for medical marijuana patients are positions currently under consideration, said Ashley Weber, the Colorado chapter’s executive director.

“We feel there needs to be responsible driving,” she said. “In some cases, responsible driving for medical patients includes smoking cannabis.”

It’s a concept Weber can speak to personally.

She was paralyzed in a 2002 car accident while a passenger to a “suicidal, drunk joyride.” In the 15 years since, she has found that cannabis managed her spasms more effectively and with fewer side effects than the slew of narcotics she was prescribed.

Getting her driver’s license is a goal, Weber said. However, if she suffered spasticity while driving, she would need cannabis to stop the tremors.

“Some people don’t understand that (medical patients) need it to drive,” she said, adding that she believes there is a stark difference between alcohol and marijuana’s effects on people’s bodies, abilities and minds.

“I’ve never seen anybody on cannabis act any way, shape or form the way alcohol has on people,” she said.

Mark Tulk, 47, of Boulder, became a medical marijuana patient after surviving the Amtrak 188 train derailment in May 2015 in Philadelphia. The musician and producer’s hand was crushed; he still suffers from pain and sleep-depriving nightmares.

Seeking an alternative to pain pills, he found that taking cannabis at night helped him with the pain, stiffness and bad dreams.

He doesn’t drive high after taking his nightly dose, he said. However, if he had to drive in an emergency, he would feel safe doing so.

In general driving with anything in your system — prescription opioids to marijuana — isn’t a good idea, he emphasized.

“How many people are driving around under the impression that (they’re) safe,” he asked. “My advice to anyone is, don’t go driving if you’re not in a state where you’re able to do it safely.”

Medical marijuana companies are also taking a more active role in understanding their medicines’ effects on patients and helping define impairment, said Dustin Mahon, founder of Endocanna, a firm that develops medical cannabis concentrates.

Government and academic research into medical marijuana’s full effects on patients has been hobbled by marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance, he said. That leaves private industry and other groups to piece together their own studies on marijuana and driving.

For instance, his company was recently approached by Cannabis Clinicians Colorado, an organization leading an observational study on cannabis and driving, he said.

“The problem is, we don’t have a whole lot of research on this,” he said.

Mahon, whose company extracts specific cannabinoids to tailor medical concentrates to treat a variety of ailments, bristled at the mention of Colorado’s 5 nanogram limit.

In Colorado and other states where marijuana can be recommended as medicine — and where those medicinal products can have various, even non-intoxicating, effects and linger in the bloodstream for weeks — greater thought and research should be put toward determining levels of impairment, he said.

“Five nanograms is kind of picked out of the sky,” he said. “On (pill) bottles, there are labels that say, don’t operate heavy machinery until you know how this affects you. That should be applied to this medication as well.”

Users reveal attitudes

With 29 states having legalized medical marijuana and eight of those states going a step further to allow recreational use, THC’s effects on drivers has become an open question extending beyond Colorado’s borders.

Not all cannabis consumers think it’s acceptable to drive high, but a sampling of those who have driven high and were willing to discuss it on the record provides a glimpse at logic behind their internal debate.

Krystel Kaijou, 31, of Montgomery, Ala., hasn’t consumed cannabis in recent years. But when did, she microdosed in the morning to help with symptoms of ADHD, PTSD, and joint pain. She said when she took medical marijuana, she would give herself three to five hours before she left the house in a car.

Other consumers might not take the same approach, she said.

“With cannabis users, we tend to be a tad bit cockier because there aren’t things quite yet available to gauge just how much THC is in your body,” she said.

Ray Bassett, of Rumford, R.I., has “been puffing for 48 of his 62 years.” He said he has felt comfortable getting behind the wheel after smoking marijuana.

An individual’s faculties are diminished exponentially by the amount of alcohol they drink versus the amount of pot they smoke, he said. “The fact of the matter is: I know personally what I can do and what I can’t do (after smoking marijuana). I don’t know what I can and can’t do if I drink.”

Dr. David Spilker, 72, of Pebble Beach, Calif., said that during his four decades as an emergency room doctor in California, he saw the aftereffects of plenty of drunk-driving incidents.

“Professionally, I never thought (driving under the influence of marijuana) was much of a problem,” he said, adding that he opposes the comparison of marijuana to alcohol. They’re “as different as Penicillin is from heroin,” he said.

In his personal life, Spilker said he thinks he’s a better driver with marijuana.

“I’m generally a pretty impatient guy,” he said. “But when I’m stoned, I’m more tolerant, I’m more patient. I’m not in that big of a hurry, I don’t speed.”

He said he’s curious to see how the driving laws evolve to adapt to something that is far from black-and-white.

“Unlike alcohol, everyone is different, the strains have different chemical effects,” he said. “We know (how alcohol is absorbed in the system), but what is the level of (cannabis) intoxication, and how long does it last?”

Dispelling myths

Driving safety advocates have heard those stories – and then some.

“It’s a myth,” CDOT’s Cole said of the idea that driving high is safer than driving drunk.

Reaction times, motor skills, and the general perception of speed, time and distance are all impaired by marijuana use, he said, adding, “One thing you do not have when you’re impaired by alcohol and marijuana, is good judgment.”

CDOT’s efforts to educate cannabis consumers about the dangers of drugged driving represent an unprecedented investment, he said, a sentiment echoed by marijuana policy experts.

Effective public information campaigns are critical to efforts to end impaired driving, said John Hudak, drug policy expert and senior fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization.

“It starts with young people and continues throughout age ranges to ensure they are learning from other vices,” he said.

A key for CDOT’s campaign is its continuing partnerships with the marijuana industry, Cole said.

“Dispensaries are great messengers,” he said. “(Consumers) may not listen to us as closely as they would their budtender.”

The agency will also have the full force of the state behind it.

“In the coming year, we will fund CDOT’s impaired driving education campaigns and pursue additional resources to support our enforcement efforts,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman wrote inĀ a letter sent Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Hickenlooper and Coffman rattled off a slew of data points to illustrate those efforts made since legalization:

  • 5,000 peace officers trained on marijuana-related laws.
  • 68 percent increase of the number of trained drug recognition experts (now 227).
  • 1,155 trained peace officers in advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement.
  • $2.3 million appropriated to CDOT’s impaired driving education campaigns.

“In the first six months of 2017, the number of drivers the Colorado State Patrol considered impaired by marijuana dropped 21 percent compared to the first six months of 2016,” Hickenlooper and Coffman wrote. “While this is an encouraging finding, we will continue our efforts to educate the public on drug-impaired driving and actively police it on our roadways.”

Among the pioneers in those efforts to eliminate drunken driving was Mothers Against Drunk Driving — and the group has jumped in on the efforts to end marijuana-impaired driving, too.

MADD’s initial efforts in Colorado included an April campaign in partnership with the State Patrol, Uber and dispensary Native Roots that encouraged marijuana consumers celebrating 4/20 to use ride-sharing services.

MADD’s leadership is optimistic they can extend their successes curbing drunken driving to marijuana-impaired driving.

“We changed the perception with alcohol, that it’s not acceptable and drunk driving is dangerous,” said Fran Lanzer, executive director of the Colorado chapter of MADD. “But when I look at where we are with marijuana, it’s like what I heard about alcohol in the 1980s. … The big part of it is that some of the research now couldn’t be done prior to legalization, since it wasn’t legal to possess or even use in the lab.”

Cole hopes the additional funding could help stamp out the myths that “spread like wildfire” and assist in bolstering efforts to change hearts and minds.

“I think things will only get better,” he said, “and I hope it doesn’t take 20 or 30 years — the way it has with alcohol.”

Denver Post staff writer David Migoya contributed to this report.