I can drive bro; I only had one joint…

The two main risks involved in marijuana de-criminalization: THC content and impaired driving.

DISCLAIMER: This is no way intended to advocate for the manufacture, importation, distribution or use of marijuana for recreational use. The content here is designed to be used to generate innovative and creative dialogue about legalized marijuana and the Homeland Security Enterprise.

The White House has an Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The ONDCP published a fact sheet in 2010 that listed several risks of marijuana use. These include dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and impaired cognitive and immune system functioning. Marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, problems with thinking, problem solving, learning, and memory. Studies have shown an association between marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia. Not to mention the fact that marijuana smoke contains 50–70 times more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke.

A 2011 study by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the MetLife Foundation illustrated that past-month heavy marijuana use increased 80 percent within the period from 2008 to 2011 (See Chart Below). Though the study did not address this fact, of the 23 states that currently have marijuana laws, twelve of them have passed their respective legislation since 2008. The four states of Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia passed their marijuana-friendly laws during the years of reported increased use.

It can therefore be inferred that the successful push for de-criminalization and legalization has resulted in increased use…but, of what? Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC or THC) is a naturally occurring component of Cannabis sativa L. (Marijuana). THC is one of the compounds that have been clinically demonstrated to possess therapeutic utility. It is also the compound that has psychoactive properties, and is scheduled by the DEA. THC is the most widely cited compound in testing and recording potency. THC content varies greatly in concentration in samples of seized marijuana. Thus, I propose that the two main risks involved in marijuana de-criminalization are those of THC content and the resulting impaired driving.

Federal law and regulation require that a regulated drug’s chemistry must be known and reproducible. Most jurisdictions opting for legalization are foregoing these drug safety mandates, acknowledging that there are no standards for growing processes or THC levels of marijuana, and voting to allow marijuana use anyway. As of July 2014, 23 states and the District of Columbia now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana programs. Of those states, only seven have laws limiting the THC content or psychoactive effects.

Marijuana has seen rising levels of THC over the past sixty years of testing. For comparison, the national average of THC content in 1978 was 1.37%, in 1988 it was 3.59%, and in 2008 8.49%. The highest tested sample in a December 2008-March 2009 study recorded 22.04% THC content. Though some marijuana advocates argue that the increases in THC level merely mean that smaller doses can be ingested, this logic does nothing to negate the potential for abuse, and quite possibly the biggest risk which comes from unregulated and unknown THC levels.

A RAND Corporation study of the correlations between the legality and acceptability of substances and their level of use shows that alcohol and cigarettes far outpace marijuana in reported use. This trend would likely wane if illegality ceased to keep prices high and social acceptability low. What do these wildly high THC levels mean for drivers who recreationally use marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington? One might think that there is not yet enough data to make any correlations between legalization and the feared increase in impaired driving, but…

There actually exists a steady stream of reports to support such fears. One report, published in January of 2014, compared the marijuana use of fatally injured drivers, not the drivers involved in traffic collisions resulting in someone else’s death, which is far more likely. This study showed that the number of drivers testing positive for marijuana tripled between 1999 and 2010. Though the study tested merely for drug use and not a level of impairment, the tests were conducted on drivers involved in fatal traffic collisions. It should be noted that California was the first state to decriminalize marijuana with the medical marijuana legislation passed by Proposition 215. Though only six states that routinely test the toxicology of injured drivers were included in the study, California was one of them.

Another study, supported by the National Institutes of Health conducted a meta-analysis of nine different research studies. The research found that drivers that test positive for marijuana or report driving within three hours of marijuana use are more than twice as likely as other drivers to be involved in motor vehicle crashes. Though there is no data with regard to amount of marijuana ingested or the potency, the findings are still significant because a 100 percent increase in the likelihood of a traffic collision means that these marijuana-impaired drivers are at twice the risk of being injured or causing someone else’s injury.

Another study that was recently published looks at the state of Colorado, before and after their legalization of marijuana. The researchers compared fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado, and in 34 states (at the time) without “medical marijuana” laws. Data was compiled from 1994 to 2011. Colorado passed its first marijuana law in mid-2009. The researchers found that fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado involving at least one driver who tested positive for marijuana accounted for 4.5% in the first six months of 1994. This percentage increased to 10% in the last six months of 2011. The increase was significantly greater in Colorado than in any of the 34 non-medical marijuana states.

Studies are now required to gauge the level of impairment in drivers who are under the influence of marijuana and how those levels of impairment correlate to the THC content in the marijuana being ingested. The first step in answering these questions is to begin robust testing and documenting of THC percentages, and to regulate those levels. Just as alcohol manufacturers are required to put amount of alcohol by volume on their intoxicating products, marijuana producers and sellers must be required to do the same.

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