Beaulieu: Marijuana and alcohol DUI’s should not be treated equally

Mack Beaulieu

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

For a long time the U.S. government has conducted studies through the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association which show that marijuana use has little effect on a person’s driving ability. Yet, our government continues to prosecute people under antiquated and inadequate laws that equate marijuana to alcohol

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To say that marijuana has zero affect on your driving is inaccurate, but to even imply that it’s as dangerous as alcohol is scientifically disproven. Prosecuting it as such puts people in a precarious position.

Those who haven’t looked into it or had much experience with the drug might understandably be skeptical. Over 17% of Colorado DUIs are given for Marijuana. 

In 1993 the National Highway and Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation released a study about the actual effects of marijuana on driving. Its abstract closes like this:

“.. .its magnitude is not exceptional in comparison with changes produced by many medicinal drugs and alcohol. Drivers under the influence of marijuana retain insight in their performance and will compensate where they can, for example, by slowing down or increasing effort. As a consequence, THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”

Fast forward to 2015 when, following a few smaller studies, the NHTSA conducted the largest and most controlled study of marijuana effects on driving to date and found similar results. What it found was that when you control for all other factors, the increased risk of crashing from marijuana is almost none.

Media outlets often put out a juicy report about a big increase in Colorado drivers who have tested positive for marijuana in crashes. But they often leave out the part that marijuana stays in your blood-stream for 10 to 60 times longer than most illegal drugs. As the NHTSA alludes to in their report to congress, blood content bears no weight in the argument that marijuana seriously hinders driving.

“While alcohol concentration (BAC or BrAC) is an accurate measurement of alcohol impairment of driving, the presence of THC in the driver’s body has not been shown to be a reliable measure of marijuana impairment of driving,” reads the report.

It’s funny then, that to get a DUI in Colorado, there’s an established level of intoxication just like with alcohol. The established limit is at five active nanograms of THC.

Melanie Brinegar was found not guilty of a marijuana DUI. Even though she was almost four times the legal limit, she was initially pulled over for expired plates. She was not even swerving. You would have to be pretty talented to pull that off with a .36% BAC. 

There are drug recognition experts who are trained to determine sobriety on site. With their eight to forty hours of training in hand, those officers managed to fail Brinegar’s sober jurors in a roadside sobriety test, which hurt the prosecution. Surprisingly, like a teenager in a driver’s ed class, a little class time might not be enough to make someone an expert on something.

The NHTSA doesn’t buy that training as legitimate either, as they go on to sight any psychomotor, cognitive, or behavioral test as inadequate to determine sobriety from marijuana. 

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Even when parameters are established, it’s not scientifically correct to put marijuana in line with alcohol DUI’s or even DWAI’s, which is what all but three states do. The DRUID study, one of the largest drugged driving studies in the European Union to date, laid out exactly why that’s not ok.

In an analysis of the data, the NHTSA found that drivers with a BAC over .08 were 5 to 200 times more likely to be involved in an accident than drivers who were sober. Those under the influence of marijuana were just 1-3 times more likely to be in a crash.

The NHTSA cites the same risk in driving under the influence of marijuana as it does for a BAC of less than .05. Having a BAC under .05 is not a crime, but DWAI’s start to emerge at .05. 

On first offense, many marijuana users receive a DWAI, which is essentially a DUI with four less points.

We have to monitor the risk of anything, but without scientific backing it’s completely unfair to mess with someone’s livelihood over something that amounts to drinking less than one beer for most people. 

If the science proves marijuana impaired driving isn’t nearly as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol then it shouldn’t be punished as such.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, a DUI can cost up to $13,500 in addition to jail time. Having a DUI or even DWAI can legitimately ruin career prospects and at least in the short term cripple someone financially.

Marijuana impaired driving should be a crime, but the punishment should fit the crime and amount to something like a bad speeding or distracted driving ticket. Impairment and culpability should be determined by actual driving performance, and not as a result of being pulled over for something trivial like Brinegar’s expired plates.

Anything more than that is simply unjustified, especially equating it to driving drunk.

Collegian reporter Mack Beaulieu can be reached online at letters@collegian.com and on Twitter @Macknz_James