Proposition 19: Will Legalized Marijuana Lead to Unsafe Streets?

One of the more celebrated ballot propositions appearing on next month’s ballot is Proposition 19 a measure that would legalize possession and smoking of Marijuana for people over the age of 21 under state law. Meanwhile, the Federal Government has vowed to continue enforcing a federal prohibition on marijuana regardless of the vote of California voters.

Photo: ## Blissful/Flickr##
Photo: ## Blissful/Flickr##

For many law enforcement agencies, the passage of Prop. 19 is a scary idea.  Not only would they be receiving different instructions from the Federal and State governments.  Agencies are also concerned that passage will lead to an army of stoned drivers taking to the street and imperiling themselves, other drivers, and other road users.

Recently, Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has launched a strange public relations campaign to try and “discover” the impact of smoking marijuana on driving.  What makes it strange?  Instead of using a scientific method and having a control group; Trutanich and the California Highway Patrol are basically giving marijuana to media personalities, letting them smoke it and putting them behind the wheel.  If I didn’t know any better, I might think this was a publicity stunt.

Amongst the media personalities that have taken Trutanich’s bait is L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez who wrote a recent column on his adventures with controlled marijuana use.  Under the supervision of a couple of amused CHP officers, Lopez smoked a joint of something called “Train Wreck” before being taken to a testing course and put behind the wheel of a Crown Vic.  Lopez reports that neither himself or ABC Radio personality Peter Tilden passed the test with flying colors.

With all do respects to the testing of Professor Trutanich, actual studies on the impacts of marijuana use on drivers is somewhat harder to determine.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the Federal Government, has done its own testing with a somewhat more rigorous scientific testing model.  They discovered that:

Marijuana has been shown to impair performance on driving simulator tasks and on open and closed driving courses for up to approximately 3 hours. Decreased car handling performance, increased reaction times, impaired time and distance estimation, inability to maintain headway, lateral travel, subjective sleepiness, motor incoordination, and impaired sustained vigilance have all been reported. Some drivers may actually be able to improve performance for brief periods by overcompensating for self-perceived impairment. The greater the demands placed on the driver, however, the more critical the likely impairment. Marijuana may particularly impair monotonous and prolonged driving. Decision times to evaluate situations and determine appropriate responses increase. Mixing alcohol and marijuana may dramatically produce effects greater than either drug on its own.

Meanwhile, tests that are done out of the United States seem to come up with a different result.  In the Netherlands, Professor HWJ Robbe of the Institute for Human Psychopharmacology, University of Maastricht, completed his own test on the impacts of rolling a joint and driving a car.  Under three different circumstances he concluded that marijuana has a minimal impact on drivers’ abilities to process information and react if taken in moderation.  Of course, mixing marijuana with another substance while driving can be a deadly combination.  Fortunately, imbibing most of those substances is illegal in and of itself.

Unfortunately, science is not pointing us in a clear direction, so educated voters will have to read different studies and make up their mind on which they trust more. You can scour the Internet and find similar results.  Too often the impact of studies on these impacts tend to follow how the local culture views smoking marijuana.  Do you work for the police?  Then the passage of Proposition 19 is intimidating.  Are you one of the sixty percent of Americans who have smoked marijuana?  Then you might gravitate toward studies that point you in another direction.  If you’re stuck in the middle, you have a lot of homework to do between now and election day.

  • Joseph E

    I’m surprised you are not taking a harder line against driving under the influence, Damien.

    Marijuana clearly impairs judgement and reaction times. It may not be as bad as alcohol, but I’d imagine that smoking pot would also increase the risk of drinking and driving, due to further impaired critical thinking skills.

    In the study you linked (, the dose of THC used in the “urban driving” test was only 1/3 of the dose used in the two highway tests which did show significant impairment. Note that the subjects also reported feeling their driving ability was worse than usual, and note that the subjects were all “regular marijuana users”, not occasional users like most Americans. And the study only tested car handling skills, it did not test important results, like the rate of crashes, injury rate, or fatality rate.

    There is no excuse for drinking and driving, or driving after smoking pot. Even most car advocates accept this, and the available science you have listed above is not as mixed as you imply.

  • Chris

    I will not contend that marijuana makes you a impared driver(though not proven in my eyes by studies or experience)

    I will contend the fact that more people will drive impared because it is legal. This has not been proven. I don’t think more people will smoke when it is legal. I know I could do it ever day if I want to, but chose not to.

    Alcohol is the main factor in any almost every DUI case. Next is pills, then mixes of other
    drugs. (I know, I have 2)

    Would you rather be around an alcoholic or a stoner? Does it bother you that alchohol is glamorized in public media while marijuana is outlawed?

  • We can all agree that no one should consume excessive amounts of alcohol or marijuana before driving. This has little to no bearing on whether or not we should pass Prop 19. There are literally hundreds of medicines used every day by millions of people that impair driving ability. We we get on the road, we get on the road with everyone. Whether someone may be using a drug legally or illegally makes no difference. What matters is that we are on the road with impaired drivers every day.

    The only question for Prop 19 voters is whether or not the number of impaired drivers will be greatly increased. Personally I think there may be some increased impaired driving at first if marijuana is legalized, but I think that in a short time our streets will actually become safer as more drivers switch from more dangerous substances like alcohol over to the safer drug, marijuana. I personally think Prop 19 as basically safety neutral except that it might improve safety over the long term.

  • closet_toker

    The author fails to mention that tokers rarely WANT to go driving anywhere. They would prefer to chill at home and relax.

    Vote yes on Prop 19!!

  • arnie

    I think the chances are that the streets will become safer. Here in the UK there is very litle roadside testing for cannabis intoxication and unlike alcohol, cannabis rarely slurs speach or impeids walking and other motor functions. so detecting an impaired person is a lot harder by sight and sound regardless of the cliche of a mumbling red eyed hippy.

    legalisation will bring in devices akin to the breathaliser we are all familiar with (products are already available to forces around the world)into everyday use. The stigma attached with driving under the influence of cannabis will be the same or greater than it already is with alcohol. The state will enforce harsh penalty’s for being “over the limit”. the world will be a better place and a large tax paying portion of the community will no longer have to live in fear of the state finding them enjoys a little pleasure.

    Theres a lot riding on prop 19 for us who enjoy cannabis. From the four corners of the world we wait with anticipation.


  • Michael

    Their argument makes no sense. They contend that legalizing marijuana will result in more people driving stoned. The idea is that there are people out there who would drive stoned if it were legal, but this is a flawed argument because driving while stoned will NOT be legal. If they’re not driving stoned now, only because it is against the law, then they’re not going to start now because it will still be illegal.

  • Would a stoner need to drive if every neighborhood had a 24-hour doughnut shop within walking distance?

    I see some potential allies for Complete Streets here.

  • Egadd

    I think it is fair to assume that those who drink and drive do so because they can. Many feel no responsibility toward the safety of others and consider nothing but themselves. Sad but true. It is not the fact that alcohol is legal or illegal. It is simply in some peoples makeup to behave like that. PASS Prop 19 and offer a safer, healthier alternative. It may save someone you know from the hell of alcoholism. VOTE YES and CHANGE the WORLD

  • Concerned

    It looks like Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and whomever from the Highway Patrol, is a drug dealer.

    They should be arrested immediately.

    Also, how did they get the Cannabis/Marijuana? Someone should look into it. Hopefully they didn’t steal it from evidence.


  • Concerned

    Never mind my last post. If you read the linked article you will find that the person who smoked it was a Medical Marijuana patient, and brought the Cannabis himself.

  • drowningboy
  • Mr Miller

    The problem with the stoned drivers argument is the fact that it only takes about an hour and a half to two hours to come down from marijuana(maybe 3 if it’s of the highest quality). Driving under the influence of alcohol is so prevalent because it takes about an hour for your body to metabolize one beer, so when people get drunk usually it takes 5-12 hours for them to come down.

  • anon

    Drug dealers are on the street because it is illegal. Ever wonder how the crime rate mysteriously skyrocketed after the war on drugs started? Put it together.

  • Miguel

    here’s the thing. People are going to smoke pot reguardless of its legality so this make believe “wave of stoned drivers” you talk about arent going to rush into the steets,.. they’re already there. so pass 19, enforce arrest for anyone under the influence of anything including too much nYquil & move on with life. I personally dont want to do anything but relax when i get stoned (which happens very rearly) but from what I see from friends of mine that are frequent stoners, they dont want to do much either while stoned so…

  • Cann_Do

    The answer to the question posed in the fear=mongering title is… No, it won’t.

    Case closed

  • @angle I agree. People don’t drink and drive or smoke and drive because they want to. They do so because they have to in order to get where they want to go. I’m not saying that making it easier to get places without a car while drunk or stoned could should be a goal of the complete streets movement, but I suppose it’s a co-benefit.

    I’ve often thought that tougher enforcement of DUI laws would lead to higher demand for walkable, mixed-use development and public transit. More people would walk or take transit back from their evening out because it would be a viable alternative to driving. I know that late night and owl service is not that great in LA, which is why DUI fines should be increased to pay for an increase in transit service on Friday and Saturday nights.

  • Christopher Kelly

    Most of these discussions talk about people using in different situations and the Truth is that it is a drug as alcohol, caffeine, pills, etc. Driving while impaired is illegal. Marijuana is not a new substance it is a plant that has been here since the begining of time. Users of any substance must be aware of how they respond to the drug. Using a drug does not make one irresponsible.

    Responsible users will not drive stoned. Anyone who does is acting irresponsible. This is the case with any substance.

    Why make a plant illegal? How can one condemn God’s creation?

  • graciela.

    Are we currently worried about medical marijuana users driving stoned? Because if this is such a huge worry in passing prop 19, how come we haven’t heard public outcry and worry for the years that people have been legally allowed to smoke pot for medical reasons?

    This is just another scare tactic to vilify marijuana. Yes, some will not use it responsibly but that also goes for alcohol. We’re not out trying to ban alcohol even though it does present public safety and health problems if abused and used irresponsibly.

    So no, marijuana will not make the streets any more unsafe. There should be tougher enforcement and penalties for DUIs, hit and runs, and reckless drivers if we really want to make streets safer.

  • Barry Barnett

    There have been numerous RECENT studies that show Marijuana has done little to make our streets any less safe. The number of impaired drivers under the influence of Alcohol is statistically non existant. It simply doesn’t happen in our society as the drug simply isn’t powerful enough to truly impair motor function as Alcohol does.

    I think the big misperception people have is that Cannabis affects driving in the same or a similar manner to excessive drinking and this could not be farther from the truth. Alcohol will KILL you, Marijuana is relatively safe and non-toxic. Nobody has ever over-dosed or died from it and quite frankly, I think we are al worrying about nothing.

    In reality, if Prop 19 passes, the only problems that will come from it are those that the Federal Govt. cause by continuing prohibition. The drug itself, causes almost no harm to society and Prop 19 simply allow Adults to use it in the privacy of thier home. It’s a non issue,. Don’t be fooled by scare mongering. Vote yes on Prop 19!

  • Barry B.

    There are millions of Pot users now, and so far, there haven’t been any reports of “mayhem on the highways” from all those users. Alcohol is the WORST thing to drive after using and it’s legal. Marijuana has been shown to cause very little harm to the user and it does not affect driving in any significant way. Give anyone who is stoned a “field sobriety test” and they will undoubtedly pass it.

    All this worry and fear mongering is for nothing. None of it is happening now (will millions of Pot users) and it won’t happen after Prop 19 passes.

  • Voting YES on Prop 19

    If Obama won’t give us the ‘change’ he promised, then we the people will make the change we need. The money & jobs to be created from these 2 new industries (hemp & cannabis), at a time when real unemployment is nearing 20%, makes this a no-brainer. Add in the violence from mexican cartels waging war (on both sides of the border), an existing $14 billion dollar industry going untaxed (while Cali is so broke its forced to hand out IOUs), & the extremely mild nature of a naturally commonplace plant (it is called weed for a reason), then you see why we NEED CHANGE.

    Quick example: An old friend visits you, so you go out to a bar for his last night in town. The next day you both are hungover, feel awful, & maybe even call in sick to work. That will never happen from using too much marijuana.

    Join the Green Movement & VOTE YES ON PROP 19!

  • mike d

    i have never heard of a driver under the influence of cannabis hitting someone

    despite all the people that have used it? hell, even the president used marijuana.

    now i have heard of gangs killing people. and i have heard of gangs getting tons of money from selling drugs. and i have heard of gangs selling drugs to kids. and i have heard of cops wasting their time chasing marijuana users around.

    i wonder which will be worse – the number of lives lost from stoned drivers crashing into things – or the number of lives saved by taking away funding for gangs and putting police back in the role that they were meant to do.

    not to mention the money it would bring in, the innocent citizens it will keep out of jail, and the return of a freedom that by god’s will i should have had since the moment i was born.

  • This is a really tough call for me. There is enough evidence that smoking causes driver impairment to give me pause. Of course some people smoke now, but the projection (LA Times) is that the price of pot will drop significantly if Prop 19 passes which suggests an increase in demand and with it, irresponsible driving by some.

    Of course, alcohol causes lots of mayhem, and I don’t support going back to prohibition. Taxing pot could bring in a lot of badly needed funds and lead to less jailing of people who really shouldn’t be in jail.

    I’m frustrated that the people who drafted Prop 19 didn’t do a better job of addressing people’s completely legitimate concerns about pot and road safety. Stricter penalties for DUIs and enforcement money should have been part of the law from the beginning.

    If I vote against legalization it will be because of this.

  • I’ve already voted, and I couldn’t be less concerned with this law and its implications for safety on our roads.

    Marijuana is available practically everywhere, at all levels, of our society. People drive stoned every day, with harsh anti-marijuana policies in place.

    I predict that whether or not Prop 19 passes, people will continue to drive stoned at the rate they currently do. The problem is not whether they drive stoned or not – the problem is that they are driving at all. I’d much rather have a nation of stoners on bicycles or riding the bus rather than behind the wheel of a car.

    This is a distraction cooked up by a lame-brained D.A. and a reporter, and it has worked – we’re distracted! Oh no! Someone reading this post could also be driving! Better ban blogs!

  • mojo jo

    I’ve smoked weed and hash and pot oil extracts for over 40 tears. I drive a lot and never ever have had any problems with attention to the road, or any other problem.

    The cops are just making their own little bull shit to keep their imagined control over the streets.

  • Bryan

    I like it how every time educated people debunk one myth another unlikely myth pops up. I never see on the news, reading the news paper, or internet that has covered a motorized fatality from a driver smoking marijuana. It bares no merit to me. When I read stuff like this, i think “did they really think this through before they posted this?” Because they’ve had the same studies in other foreign nations that say otherwise to “unsafe streets” Im just saying. You only hear of drunk people killing people. Not your average stoner..

  • Leonard Krivitsky, MD

    Cannabis should have never been illegal in the first place. Its “illegality” is not based on any science, just on lies, distortions of fact, and blatant racism. The truth is that Cannabis is less physically addictive than caffeine, and that it may also serve as a much “safer alternative” to alcohol and/or hard drugs. Another Cannabis product, hemp, was used by humans since time immemorial! It is fully recognized that Cannabis use SUPPRESSES VIOLENT BEHAVIOR, and that Cannabis may be used to help not only treat, but to also prevent some devastating illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

    The fact is that Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years exactly because there are so many ways in which this remarkable plant can help us and our planet. So, it is naive to presume that a bunch of fear-mongerers can change this fact, no matter how loud and untruthful they become! I worked in addiction medicine for years, and Cannabis use was the least of my problems, so I do recognize that classifying Cannabis in the same group as heroin and cocaine is one of the greatest scientific fallacies of our times. The so-called “gateway” drug theory was found to be totally invalid, and a very recent large study called this “theory” half-baked. It is simply untrue scientifically.

    As Kathleen Parker aptly observed on CNN couple of days ago, “To say that most hard drug addicts start with marijuana is the same as to say that all rapists start with masturbation”. Yeah, that’s about it! Cannabis is not physically addictive, as there is no clearly definable and reproducible physical withdrawal syndrome, observed with alcohol or opiate withdrawal, for example. A recent large study denied any connection between smoking Cannabis and a risk for lung cancer. Quite the opposite, Cannabis use is being found to have some preventative role with such serious conditions as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and according to the latest research, Cannabis may even be an “exit substance” for recovering alcoholics/hard drug/prescription drug abusers. Cannabis criminalization leads to horrendous Civil Rights violations around the country. YES to Cannabis re-Legalization! YES on Cali Prop. 19!


  • yuppiescum

    Because the streets are so safe as it is?

  • StonedDriver

    I am someone who currently doesn’t smoke pot. I really really want to smoke and then get in a car and mow over some kids, but it’s that $100 fine that is stopping me. Damn the power of that $100 fine!!!

  • jkm

    um drivers that are going to be driving stoned are already out there. Driving under the influence will still be illegal. Some people just cant understand simple concepts and in this case they are not the stoner’s. Why cant you judgmental, arrogant, ignorant, busy bodies stay out of there peoples lives and focus on your self and your kids. Instead your begging the government to protect you from things you don’t want to do anyway. Then on the other hand you say you want “small” government. The right is so FREAKING confused it is absolutely disgusting!

  • Say Yes to 19

    Maybe legalization will make people more aware of other drivers. That is enough to keep users off the road. Maybe a phone number can be setup where people report stoned drivers. Legalization could be a blessing in disguise.

  • terrence ellington

    Please California, please, lead the way as you have so many times in the past. Pass Prop. 19 and end this stupid, harmful prohibition. The only ones negatively affected will be the corrupt narcotics police and the gangs. Then maybe we can think about freeing the thousands who have been imprisoned for minor possession. Let’s create a better world and quit living in fear. That fear was created by people with something to gain by it. Here’s a new fear: thousands of black clad, gun wielding psychos will loose their job.

  • jack

    In my personal experience with marijuana and driving, I have noticed almost no difference in how I drive. I used to almost exclusively smoke weed while driving (since it’s so unacceptable to smoke anywhere else) and I smoke just about everyday. Typically I would just cruise around a neighborhood (usually AT the speed limit, not even 5 above) and smoke while driving (or while a friend was driving and pass it to him). I’ve also done this on busier roads and high(lol)ways, with no problems. While I’m high, driving is more fun yet I’m at the same level of attention as when I’m sober. Whenever I drive long distances, you bet I’m going to be high, it would just be too boring otherwise.

    I’ve only been pulled over 3 times, and each time I was high and had weed on me. Cops never even knew. I got a speeding ticket for going 15 over on the highway (speed trap), pulled over almost instantly after I finished smoking a bowl. Cop wrote the ticket and was on his way. Didn’t even mind me smoking my post-bowl cigarette while he was talking to me.

    I have also driven drunk an unacceptable number of times, but I’ve never been pulled over while driving drunk. It is definitely a LOT harder to drive drunk than high. You have to put your full concentration on driving when you’re drunk, which is hard, especially when you’re drunk.

    So, basically, driving while high is not a big deal. Sure, some people are better than others, but the problem isn’t going to get worse if prop 19 passes. The “problem” is already there. If prop 19 passes then perhaps places will open where you can smoke and chill, instead of “road-toking” like I was forced to do. This article has no real argument.

  • ratcheted

    Granted these are my results, but driving stoned should be the least of the worries of law enforcement. In my younger days, I would drive to/from Santa Barbara twice a month for three years (GO GAUCHOS!). In the beginning it was nice and mellow but after a while the drive got “boring” and expensive because of the speed traps on the 101 in Calabasas. I fought the monotony by smoking a nice joint as I left the confines of Santa Barbara and would enjoy the drive even more and by the time I got to LA I was nice and sober. I didn’t get any speeding tickets after that at all. Smoking weed does slow down your reaction time by a couple of split seconds but not to the point of making it dangerous to yourself and the other people on the road.

    As others have said, this article is bogus.

  • Jack

    You do understand Prop. 19 does not make it legal to drive under the influence?

  • Christian

    Jesus said, Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. (Matthew 7:12).

    I know I would not want my child sent to jail with the sexual predators, or my aging parents to have their house confiscated and sold by the police, over a little marijuana. (And in California, you can still lose your house, your freedom, and your kids for growing even one single plant, even under the recently passed “decriminalization” rule, so California really DOES still need Prop 19.)

    We can change the world when we vote.

  • Ross Hirsch

    Please don’t fall for the fear mongering–Prop 19’s passage would show serious leadership.

  • @ Jack

    “You do understand Prop. 19 does not make it legal to drive under the influence?”

    Of course, but you do understand that the projection is that Prop 19 will make pot cheaper and that when something is cheaper people buy more of it right?

    You do understand that 33,000 people died in car crashes in 2009 right?

    Let’s not be naive. This will probably lead to more impaired driving. I think that is a serious cost that needs to be weighed against the benefits of legalization.

  • Agh, I meant 33,000 people died in car crashes in the United States . . . Honestly, I view this as a very serious problem, and even though I would like to vote for legalization for almost every other reason I’m troubled by the thought that it would lead to even a single additional death.

    That’s why I say the law should have been drafted to address this issue more explicitly.

  • Stan

    I already voted Yes on Prop 19 via mail and I am very satisfied with my personal choice.

  • Chewie, you raise an interesting point, and your framing of the issue is enough to give everyone pause. However, we need to keep in mind that there is a precedent for legalized intoxication in this country: alcohol. It is legal to consume alcohol yet illegal to drive a motor vehicle or bicycle after doing so. If we accept your reasoning that legalization of marijuana would lead to increased DUIs and deaths, it would follow that the (re)prohibition of alcohol would have the same effect. Thus, if voters are interested in applying a consistent standard to the legalization of both alcohol and marijuana based on whether consumption leads to dangerous driving, they would ultimately have to accept the legalization of both, or neither.

    I sympathize with the argument that we must take drastic measures to keep impaired drivers off the road. But unless it can be proven that marijuana is significantly more dangerous to drivers than alcohol (and all the studies I have seen indicate it isn’t), it would make sense to apply the same preventative measures to driving under the influence of marijuana as we currently do to alcohol. Whether that means a legalization of marijuana or a prohibition of alcohol is for you to decide.

  • Oops, wrote kind of a confusing sentence in that last post. I wrote “If we accept your reasoning that legalization of marijuana would lead to increased DUIs and deaths, it would follow that the (re)prohibition of alcohol would have the same effect.” I should have said “If we accept your reasoning that keeping marijuana illegal would lead to less DUIs and deaths, it would follow that the (re)prohibition of alcohol would have the same effect.”

    Hope that helps.

  • Barry B.

    Myth: Marijuana Use is a Major Cause Of Highway Accidents. Like alcohol, marijuana impairs psychomotor function and decreases driving ability. If marijuana use increases, an increase in of traffic fatalities is inevitable.

    Fact: There is no compelling evidence that marijuana contributes substantially to traffic accidents and fatalities. At some doses, marijuana affects perception and psychomotor performances- changes which could impair driving ability. However, in driving studies, marijuana produces little or no car-handling impairment- consistently less than produced by low moderate doses of alcohol and many legal medications. In contrast to alcohol, which tends to increase risky driving practices, marijuana tends to make subjects more cautious. Surveys of fatally injured drivers show that when THC is detected in the blood, alcohol is almost always detected as well. For some individuals, marijuana may play a role in bad driving. The overall rate of highway accidents appears not to be significantly affected by marijuana’s widespread use in society.

  • the thing i love about bike racks is that they keep your bicycle secure in one place against thieves.~’

  • Damien W

    Ugh! It’s the day before the election and I’m still so undecided on Prop 19. I strongly support the legalization of marijuana, but after reading the analysis, I can’t figure out if I support Prop 19 or not.

    Driving under the influence of marijuana should be enforced the same way as alcohol influence. However, as someone who has had several family members injured or killed by “buzzed” (alcohol) drivers, I actually don’t think alcohol DUI is enforced strictly enough. And I come from a state with a 3 Strikes and You’re Out Law.

    It really does come down to a driving issue for me and it’s been really difficult to find unbiased information about the subject.

  • aaron

    Ive smoked pot for 20 years now, Never been in an accident, pulled over, or done anything reckless. Proposition 19 sounds like a good idea in my mind. Alot better than having legal alcohol? That is one I don’t get, alcohol is legal and pot is not. *shakes head*


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