Lawmakers will Tuesday reconvene in St. Paul for the next legislative session. On the agenda for some lawmakers is legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, following the path of other states in the wake of dramatic changes in public attitude toward the drug.
But Minnesotans should be cautious before jumping into the pool and consider the consequences — both known and unknown — of legalizing recreational marijuana in our state, particularly when it comes to highway safety.
Over the last three decades, drunken driving fatalities have fallen nationally by one-third. This progress against impaired driving has been the result of collaborative efforts between government, private industry and nonprofit organizations in developing smart policies, strict enforcement standards and prevalent public education and awareness campaigns.
Despite these gains, impaired driving remains a serious issue. Recent data released by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety found that a majority of the 27,975 cases of motorists being cited for driving while impaired last year were alcohol-related. But perhaps more concerning was the growing number — a 5% increase from 2018 — in the number of drivers arrested for impairment by cannabis, opioids and methamphetamines.
What would that statistic be if the recreational use of marijuana were legalized?
According to the National Institutes of Health, marijuana use significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination and reaction time. When you consider that a tractor-trailer traveling at 65 miles-per-hour requires the length of two football fields to come to a complete stop, our grave concerns are understandable. Studies have found drivers with THC (one of the cannabinoids identified in cannabis) in their blood are twice as likely to cause a fatal accident as drivers who have not used drugs or alcohol.
Moreover, there is no enforceable national impairment standard for marijuana. Our legislators need to look no further than our neighbors in Illinois, where law enforcement, employers and lawyers are all grappling with the impacts of marijuana use that is now legal as of Jan. 1. Six months before the law was implemented, an Illinois law-enforcement official lamented that police were “incredibly unprepared” for the potential upswing in impaired driving from marijuana.
Another Illinois county sheriff noted, “I asked the legislature to slow down and get these public-safety components in place before the bill moved forward.” Without the necessary tools for law enforcement to test a driver for impairment from marijuana use, lawmakers must ask themselves how a rush to legalization threatens the hard-fought gains to reduce impaired driving fatalities across the U.S.
A 2018 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that the legalization of retail sales of marijuana was associated with a 6% increase in collision claim frequency. In other words, states that legalized recreational marijuana use were more likely to see vehicle crashes than before. These additional crashes, from impaired drivers, add costs to every driver in the form of higher insurance premiums.
Employers in commercial transportation follow current U.S. Department of Transportation standards for mandatory alcohol and controlled drug testing for our employees. This policy empowers the transportation sector to help ensure drug-free workplaces and the safety of the traveling public across all modes of transportation. That is why it is critically important that any legislative efforts that liberalize marijuana use come with safety carve-outs that preserve our ability as employers to test employees for drug use.
Until such safety concerns can be addressed and reasonable measures on issues like impairment testing can be assured, legislators should take a pass before rushing through ill-conceived policies that endanger lives. The consequences could be tragic and roll back the clock on highway safety.
John Hausladen is president, Minnesota Trucking Association. Aaron Cocking is executive vice president, Insurance Federation of Minnesota. Brian Peters is executive director, Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. Rick Thielen is chairman, Minnesota Charter Bus Operator’s Association. Shelly Jonas is president, Minnesota School Bus Operator’s Association. Paul Aasen is president, Minnesota Safety Council.