Legalization Isn’t Increasing Stoned Driving, It’s Revealing It


“One day, the fisherman goes to the river and returns home having caught two fish. The next day, he goes to the river and returns with twenty fish. So what happened? Were there suddenly ten times more fish in the river? Or did the fisherman swap out his fishing pole for a net? Or find a different fishing hole? Or use a better bait?”

This is the mental picture to draw when your state legalizes marijuana and the data comes back showing an increase in drivers charged with DUID. We’re just hearing that charge in Oregon and it’s been leveled in Washington and Colorado as well.

What’s happening is that law enforcement is becoming increasingly vigilant in spotting marijuana drivers. I also suspect with marijuana being legal, fewer pot smokers are bothering to disguise their possession and use of marijuana. Where we might have brushed off weed crumbs, hid the stash in the glove box, and sprayed ourselves with Binaca and Febreze, under legalization we’re more likely to ditch those protocols.

In other words, there isn’t an increase in marijuana consumers driving (fish), there’s just an increased attention to catching them (a net), legal pot shops from which to start tailing them (fishing holes), and in Washington and Colorado, a five nanogram limit to incentivize stops (better bait).

Another charge used to scare the public about legalization is the claim that there is an increase in the rate of driving fatalities found to have cannabinoids in their system. This will sometimes be reported as a massive increase in marijuana-related driving fatalities.

What this statistic reveals, though, is that the chances you’ll find someone with marijuana in their system increase after you legalize. It says nothing about whether they were impaired on marijuana at the time of the crash or that it in any way contributed to the crash. You might as well point out that there are more married gay people in car crashes these days now that marriage equality is legal.

The most important statistic is that auto fatalities are down to record low numbers, still, even following legalization. If you want to argue that more fatalities are marijuana-related, you then have to accept that fewer of them are alcohol-related and that legalization had something to do with that, too, and the overall result has seemed to be fewer people dying in car crashes.

Legalization didn’t invent cars and weed. We’ve been tokin’ and drivin’ for well over sixty years; if it were terribly dangerous, we’d have seen the deaths increase between 1966-1980 as marijuana use climbed and decrease between 1980-1992 as marijuana use fell. We wouldn’t see fatality rates lower in the medical states after they passed medical and lower than the national average.

I’m not advocating for some newbie to hot box the Accord and see how well he does on the freeway. I am saying that a longtime cannabis consumer develops a tolerance to the impairment and an awareness of marijuana’s effects and may be acceptably safe enough to operate a vehicle. Even the government agrees with me; on a bottle of the FDA-approved synthetic THC called MARINOL® is a label warning against the operation of heavy machinery “until it is established [you] are able to tolerate the drug” – which tells me once you can handle your high, go ahead and drive.

Marinol Warning

Russ Belville

"Radical" Russ Belville is a blogger, podcaster, and host of The Russ Belville Show, a daily two-hour talk radio show focused on the evolution of the legal marijuana industry in the United States. The program is airing live at 3pm Pacific Time from Portland, Oregon, on, with podcast available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio. Russ began his marijuana activism in 2005 with Oregon NORML, then in 2009 went on to work for National NORML, and found and direct Portland 2015.