Many drivers were stoned long before 21 states and a number of cities opened the door to legal marijuana use for medical or recreational purposes.
Yet law enforcement, auto insurance companies and the public have only just begun to grapple with serious questions about how to accommodate the risks posed by drivers who smoke marijuana -- and to protect those who drive sober.
Marijuana's active ingredient is commonly known by the initials THC. It is a hallucinogen that can relieve pain. And since it's mind-altering, it also has an effect on motor skills and perception, both important parts of driving. But like any drug, its effect depends on the quantity and quality used. Marijuana is currently listed as a "Schedule 1" or dangerous drug, alongside LSD and heroin.
But one thing is certain: More stoned drivers are headed your way – and in your lane.
It's difficult to assess the exact role marijuana plays in car crashes because many accidents are caused by people using marijuana in conjunction with other drugs, or in combination with alcohol.
A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study in 2007 found that marijuana was the most common drug used by motorists. This sample study found that about 4 percent of drivers were high during the day and more than 6 percent at night.
But researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, using toxicology exams on 23,500 car crash fatalities, found that marijuana contributed to 12 percent of traffic deaths in 2010, up from 4 percent in 1999.
Statistics from Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana at the start of the year, aren't as clear. Just like the rest of the nation, traffic deaths there have gone down in recent years. But the percentage of driving fatalities in which marijuana alone was involved spiked in Colorado in 2009, and then remained stable through 2013.
The situation is also confusing for state troopers, county Mounties and local law enforcement.
"If an officer thinks you are driving erratically [which could be as simple as driving in the left-hand lane of a highway], he or she can pull you over and give you a field sobriety test," says spokesperson Zach Hosseini of New Jersey's Division of Highway Traffic Safety.
Federal grants allow local police departments to designate and train Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) to identify drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers in the field, from symptoms such as dilated pupils, agitation, slurred speech and of course the pungent odor of marijuana from an open car window.
But apart from the obvious, there are few tools a law officer can currently use to determine the level of marijuana impairment. An effective Breathalyzer-type test is at least five years away, according to researchers at Columbia University.
Even a blood test has its limitations, according to High Times, a magazine devoted to the legalization of marijuana. While THC would vanish from the bloodstreams of part-time smokers after an hour and a half, and in all probability before a blood test could be administered, totally sober regular users of the drug would still test positive for hours after being pulled over.
While a chemical test may not be accurate, states like Colorado can still force drivers to take it or risk losing their licenses if they refuse, according to the state's Department of Transportation website.
Much is left to the discretion of an officer, particularly a DRE. "He or she can charge you with driving impaired with or without a Breathalyzer test," says Hosseini.
No matter how the driver became impaired, state laws – and insurance company rating systems that rely upon state driving records -- don’t distinguish a conviction for stoned driving from a conviction for drunken driving. A DUI is a DUI – and toxic to a driving record and car insurance rates either way.
That means auto insurers aren't likely to make any rash decisions to treat marijuana smokers differently. They rely on statistics, and there aren't any clear statistics yet that show how many motorists in a particular state are driving stoned, and whether their behavior is causing even more fatal accidents.
"You can't say that legalizing pot leads to more crashes," says spokesperson Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute (III), which represents the industry.
Insurers try to look at each driver based on his or her own record, says Brad Hilliard, a spokesperson for State Farm, the nation's largest car insurer.
"Factors like where you live, type of car you drive, how far and often you drive and your driving record are just a few. Rates are also influenced by the personal needs of an individual," he says. And with varying state and federal regulations -- even within the states themselves -- it's unlikely that state insurance commissioners would allow insurers to raise rates based solely on legalized marijuana use.
But increased danger on the road from stoned drivers in states where use is legal means all drivers should consider additional auto insurance, such as uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, says the III's Worters. This coverage protects the car owner hit by someone who's uninsured or who doesn’t have enough insurance to pay for all the medical bills and/or damages.
Another option is to buy collision coverage; that way, if an uninsured motorist hits your car, you can turn to your collision coverage to pay for your car damage (minus your deductible).
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