Metro

Driving while stoned? State officials urge you to reconsider

With marijuana now legal in Massachusetts, federal, and state officials are launching a new campaign to remind users that driving while high remains illegal.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With marijuana now legal in Massachusetts, federal, and state officials are launching a new campaign to remind users that driving while high remains illegal.

While getting high is now legal in Massachusetts, driving stoned is still banned.

That’s the message of a new campaign, with the motto of “Drive high? The crash is on you.” The advertising initiative was unveiled by state and federal officials Tuesday and will feature billboards, radio, and TV ads targeting drivers between the ages of 18 and 49, but is particularly aimed at younger people.

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The goal is to remind drivers that not only is driving under the influence of marijuana illegal, but dangerous, too, officials said, as it can also impair judgment and reaction time on the road.

The ads contrast driving while under the influence of marijuana with activities that can be done legally while high: One of the TV ads shows a young man at a backyard barbecue fruitlessly trying to light a grill that doesn’t have any fuel. While grilling high is legal, the ad says, driving to get the propane you forgot is not.

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The ads, based on campaigns in Washington and Colorado, which also legalized recreational marijuana, aren’t intended to “demonize cannabis users,” said Arthur Kinsman, the Region 1 administrator of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“But in the same way that if you have a couple beers you should think twice about driving... we’re trying to start a positive conversation to get cannabis users to think, ‘I may not be able to judge how impaired I am,’” he said.

Colorado launched a similar ad campaign in 2014 that focused on the illegality of driving under the influence. But officials quickly realized that users did not see that driving while impaired was also unsafe, so they shifted the emphasis of the ad campaign accordingly.

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After recreational marijuana use was legalized in 2012, Colorado saw more drivers involved in fatal crashes test positive for the active chemical in marijuana, THC. But it’s unclear if those drivers were high at the time of the crashes, or the drug had been in their systems for a while, former Colorado director of marijuana coordination Andrew Freedman said.

Also, Freedman said Colorado did not have good data to compare whether the number of accidents among marijuana users increased after legalization.

“There really is no baseline data on how much of a problem [driving under the influence] was before legislation and how much of a problem it was after legislation,” he said.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that half of respondents think that legalizing marijuana will not make much of a difference in road safety. There is some research to support that driving under the influence of alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana. One analysis of the current research suggested stoned drivers compensate for their impairment by driving more slowly, for example, or leaving more space between themselves and other drivers. But when these drivers throw alcohol into the mix, those strategies no longer work.

Still, driving while sober is certainly the safest option. One 2016 study found that even drivers with a relatively small amount of THC in their systems can be just as impaired as if they were highly intoxicated.

Prosecuting drivers who appear under the influence of marijuana will likely remain difficult. A 2014 Supreme Judicial Court ruling said the smell of weed alone is not enough to warrant a search of someone’s car. With no marijuana equivalent of the breathalyzer test yet available, Massachusetts officials said they will rely on an officer’s evaluation of a driver’s physical and behavioral signs.

State officials said they are also increasing the number of police officers who receive special training to recognize these signs. There are already 141 Drug Recognition Experts in the state and about 1,000 officers trained in a similar but less intensive program called Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement. The state plans to train an additional 60 DREs and 700 ARIDE officers by 2018.

Government officials aren’t the only ones encouraging residents to drive sober. Michael Dundas, chief executive of Sage Naturals, Inc., a medical marijuana dispensary in Massachusetts, also spoke in support of education around stoned driving.

“An impaired driving initiative like this is just common sense,” Dundas said. “Cannabis organizations are particularly well suited to deliver this message, in part because we have such personal transactions with our customers.”

He plans to increase education for his customers about driving under the influence of marijuana and is hopeful that legalization will make Massachusetts roads safer.

“We haven’t seen this kind of public messaging for cannabis,” Dundas said. “Just because it’s been an illicit substance, people just assume you’re not going to use it. It’s not super realistic. At least nowadays people know, it’s legal in the Commonwealth, let’s get this messaging out as well. High time.”

Massachusetts Department of Transportation

A new ad campaign warns Massachusetts marijuana users that driving under the influence is still illegal—and dangerous.

Lauren Feiner can be reached at lauren.feiner@globe.com.
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