RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A new survey reveals some Virginians are downplaying the dangers of using cannabis behind the wheel, according to the state agency overseeing recreational marijuana legalization.
In a recent press release, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority (CCA) called the results “troubling” and said the data would be used to develop a safe driving campaign. The campaign, which is set to launch in January 2023, was mandated by the Virginia General Assembly when lawmakers legalized adult possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Driving under the influence of marijuana and having an open container in the car remains illegal.
“As a public safety and public health agency, the CCA currently has no greater priority than creating a well-funded, aggressive, and sustained campaign aimed at reducing the incidence of marijuana-impaired driving,” Jeremy Preiss, acting head of the CCA, said in a statement.
The survey by the consulting firm Stratacomm collected over 750 responses from a demographic cross-section of Virginians aged 16 and older.
Roughly 14% of Virginians surveyed said they have driven high a few times or more in the past year.
It showed Virginians don’t think marijuana-impaired driving is as dangerous as other risky behaviors. Only 26% viewed driving under the influence of marijuana as “extremely dangerous,” compared to 60% for texting and 49% for alcohol-impaired driving.
The survey also revealed that 47% of marijuana users “do not always have a plan for a sober ride” and 24% of respondents have been a passenger in a car operated by a high driver more than once in the past year.
Additionally, almost one-third of respondents believe those who consume marijuana “tend to drive slower and more cautiously and are usually safer drivers.”
Brianna Bonat, health policy and data manager for the Cannabis Control Authority, said that’s not true.
“Marijuana can impact the brain in terms of making informed decisions. You might have slower reaction time,” Bonat said in an interview on Monday. “With recent legalization of possession of marijuana of up to an ounce, sometimes people see legal as safe and that is not always the case.”
Virginia lawmakers legalized marijuana possession and home cultivation in small amounts for adults in 2021. The legislation set a goal of allowing the retail sale of recreational marijuana by 2024 but that timeline is in question after Republicans blocked a bill that would’ve moved the process forward. The debate is expected to be revisited during the 2023 session, which kicks off in January.
Opponents of marijuana legalization have often raised concerns about a possible increase in drugged driving.
Bonat said it’s unclear if attitudes or behaviors have changed as a result of recreational marijuana legalization in Virginia. She said this is the first time they’re collecting this kind of data and they plan to conduct a similar survey after the safe driving campaign goes live.
“The data collection is new,” Bonat said. “That is an area that the state as a whole needs to work on collecting.”
A spokesperson for Virginia State Police said they don’t have data comparing DUI cases specifically involving marijuana before and after legalization took effect in July 2021. Neither does the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Virginia State Crime Commission is currently analyzing historical DUI data. VCSS Executive Director Kristen Howard didn’t want to detail their findings before their November 16th presentation.
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police wasn’t immediately available for an interview on Monday.
Virginia NORML Executive Director JM Pedini said these recent survey results shouldn’t stop the General Assembly from moving forward with retail sales.
“These recent findings should not be a deterrent to lawmakers moving forward with implementing retail access. Adult use marijuana laws have generally been associated with few changes in traffic safety and it is important that we finish the job that we started in Virginia,” Pedini said.
One frequently cited study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported five states that legalized retail sales saw a 6% increase in injury crash rates.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says these trends can be difficult to track due to the limitations of drug-detecting technology and the lack of a national standard for what’s considered drugged driving.
“Drugs do not affect people consistently. Drugs such as marijuana can also stay in the system for weeks, thus appearing in roadside tests while no longer causing impairment,” NCSL said on their website.