13% think driving while high on pot isn't risky, but AAA, police chiefs say otherwise

  • Police investigate a crash into a North Aurora house in 2011 caused by a driver who smoked marijuana. A AAA survey found a number of drivers aren't concerned about using marijuana and getting behind the wheel.

    Police investigate a crash into a North Aurora house in 2011 caused by a driver who smoked marijuana. A AAA survey found a number of drivers aren't concerned about using marijuana and getting behind the wheel. Daily Herald File Photo

 
 
Updated 6/19/2019 6:11 AM

Thousands of Americans are driving while stoned, and many think it's safe, a study released Wednesday by AAA found.

The report comes as Illinois prepares to legalize recreational marijuana on Jan. 1, a move supporters predict will reduce crime but one excoriated by many law enforcement officials.

 

AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety surveyed 2,582 drivers and found more than 13% thought driving while high on marijuana was "only slightly dangerous" or "not dangerous at all" compared to driving while drunk, drowsy or impaired by prescription drugs.

Among those surveyed, 70% said the odds of getting caught by police if you drive within an hour of consuming marijuana are low.

Such casual attitudes are alarming but not surprising, said Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police President Steven Stelter.

"Our society has created an atmosphere of 'it's not a big deal,'" said Stelter, adding that crash rates have increased in other states where marijuana is legal. "Wait a few years and we'll say, 'I told you so.'"

Nationwide, nearly 15 million Americans admitted to driving within an hour of consuming marijuana, the AAA reported.

Impairment from marijuana typically occurs quickly -- within the first one to four hours of using the drug, AAA researchers said, adding that driving while stoned doubles the risk of a crash.

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Meanwhile, Illinois has yet to provide local police departments with funds to train officers in drug recognition and detection before the end of the year, Stelter said. While breath tests provide an exact measurement of how drunk a driver is, there's no test that can prove marijuana impairment effectively, he said.

"Come January, when someone is high on marijuana and kills someone in a car accident, there's not much we can do. The difficulty is proving someone is under the influence," Stelter said.

Lawmakers who support legalization and Gov. J.B. Pritzker contend the new policy will save lives by ending illicit drug sales and regulating the marijuana that's distributed.

"People can buy from licensed vendors, not street dealers linked to gangs," sponsor and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago said earlier.

AAA's survey also found that 8% of men reported driving under the influence of marijuana compared to 5% of women.

The survey indicated that 14% of millennials, generally those born in the 1980s and 1990s, reported driving while stoned.

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