With the debut of recreational marijuana sales imminent, Massachusetts safety officials on Wednesday unveiled a new television ad warning consumers against driving under the drug’s influence.
The 30-second spot, dubbed “The Roads You Take,” is meant to discourage driving while stoned, drunk, or impaired by other drugs.
It features a diverse group of people walking toward the camera and solemnly intoning fragmentary phrases: “There are roads — the ones you take, the ones you don’t. There are laws. There are rules. And there’s you — you driving; you drunk driving; you driving high; you stoned and driving; you spinning, crashing; you arrested; you killing,” before concluding, “there are roads, and then there are just dead ends.”
The campaign’s slogan: “Drunk? Stoned? Driving? Don’t.”
The ad by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security will appear online and on NESN and other cable stations beginning this weekend and continuing through early September. In total, the agency spent $280,000 on television time, good for about 1,400 airings.
At a press conference announcing the new public awareness campaign, officials decried what they said was a too-casual attitude among marijuana users about driving while stoned.
“Now, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, ‘I drive better when I’m high,’ ” said Jennifer Queally, the agency’s undersecretary. “It wasn’t true about alcohol, and make no mistake about it: It is absolutely false for marijuana and other drugs.”
“We’re not here to demonize marijuana use or users,” Queally added. “It is legal in the Commonwealth for people to use marijuana if they are over 21. What’s not legal, however, is driving while using marijuana or driving while you’re impaired by marijuana. When you’re high or stoned, you are not a safe driver, and you are a danger to everyone on the road.”
Queally was joined by a host of officials from state and local law enforcement agencies and the Cannabis Control Commission, plus local executives from Lyft and Uber, who encouraged consumers to use the ride-hailing services instead of driving impaired. Lyft also announced it would soon offer $50,000 worth of free rides to Massachusetts users who pledge to drive only when sober.
Sira Naturals, a company that operates medical dispensaries in Cambridge, Needham, and Somerville and is also seeking recreational licenses, joined the press conference to announce its own anti-stoned-driving ad. In it, a woman implores viewers to never drive stoned, saying Massachusetts should set an example for other states considering marijuana legalization.
“America’s watching how we handle this change, so it’s up to us to be smart about it,” the ad, which is available online, says. “Let’s do this right.”
Mike Dundas, the company’s chief executive, praised Massachusetts for taking progressive stances on everything from marriage equality to drug policy, but said, “with added rights comes additional responsibility.”
Jennifer Flanagan, a commissioner at the Cannabis Control Commission, said the agency’s strict packaging, portioning, and advertising regulations on marijuana companies should help ensure safety by discouraging over-consumption.
But like other officials, she acknowledged the complexities of policing stoned driving in the absence of a Breathalyzer-style roadside test for marijuana impairment. Instead, Massachusetts police are being trained as “drug recognition experts.”
“It’s not as easy as blowing a BAC,” or blood alcohol content, Flanagan told reporters after the press conference. “If you’re using THC every day at a certain level, you’re very different than someone who’s just trying this.”
Still, she added, “consumers have a responsibility. They have to understand their own body, the laws, and determine whether they’re a risk to others. No one is trying to say people shouldn’t use this product — what we’re trying to say today is you need to use it responsibly.”
One problem is that THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, can remain in one’s blood long after any high has faded. And the relationship between subjective impairment and the amount of marijuana someone has consumed is far from linear, especially for regular users.
Other states where the drug is legal have drawn fierce pushback from civil liberties advocates over laws limiting the concentration of THC metabolites drivers can have in their blood. Massachusetts has no such limit, though a state task force studying drugged driving is debating whether to recommend one.
While research has consistently found that marijuana impairs driving ability and probably increases the risk of fender-benders, there is fierce debate about the extent and impact of that impairment. Some researchers have said that driving stoned is more like driving while distracted by a cellphone than driving drunk. And while the number of drivers in fatal crashes who test positive for pot in Colorado has gone up, it remains unclear whether they were impaired at the time of the crash or whether marijuana was the cause.
One recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found no correlation between marijuana consumption and the risk of fatal collisions after adjusting for age and gender.