Starting in the new year, teens who want to get their driver’s license in Massachusetts will have to take a course about the dangers of driving high.
The Bay State will be the first recreational-use cannabis state in the nation to adopt, “Shifting Gears: the Blunt Truth about Marijuana and Driving,” a AAA curriculum that educates teens on the risks of cannabis-impaired driving.
An educational video produced by AAA Northeast for Massachusetts explains how tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in marijuana, affects a person’s ability to drive safely.
“The length of time a user is impaired by THC varies by person to person. It depends on the amount of THC consumed and their level of consumption,” AAA Northeast Director of Public Affairs Diana Gugliotta explained in the video. “That’s why it’s so critical that people separate marijuana use from driving.”
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The announcement was made at the Worcester Registry of Motor Vehicles by Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Registrar of Motor Vehicles Colleen Ogilvie, Cannabis Control Commission Commissioner Kimberly Roy, AAA Northeast Vice President of Public & Government Affairs Mary Maguire, and Newton Chief of Police John Carmichael.
“Having a curriculum that informs soon-to-be drivers is critically important because cannabis-impaired driving is a public safety risk just like alcohol but there isn’t a real understanding or appreciation for what that impairment does to you and how important it is as a licensee to be responsible about your actions. Not only for your own public safety but also for your passengers and other motorists,” said the lieutenant governor said.
Polito also praised the collaboration with students of the Legal Protective Services Class at Keefe Regional Technical School who contributed to the development of the curriculum.
“I felt pretty good participating in it knowing I was going to help change laws and do something good for the community and for current drivers and new drivers,” said Keefe student Kailani Velez.
The instructional video also shares research findings from the AAA that looked at the state of Washington, which was one of the first states in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana.
“After the state legalized recreational marijuana the proportion of people killed in car crashes in Washington who had recently used marijuana and were impaired by THC doubled,” said Gugliotta. “Unfortunately, many people don’t understand that marijuana is just as dangerous as alcohol. This means that when marijuana was legalized in Washington, more people than ever before decided to get behind the wheel after using cannabis.”
Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said the organization has long advocated for a public service campaign educating consumers about drugged driving laws and about the risk of drugged driving, especially for young drivers ages 18 to 25.
“We know that they are most at risk for being involved in motor vehicle accidents and they are also the most likely to use cannabis and other intoxicants,” said Armentano.
He said NORML’s principles of responsible cannabis use include refraining from operating a motor vehicle or other dangerous machinery while impaired by cannabis. When it comes to research regarding risk of cannabis-impaired driving, he points to studies that do not attribute trends in traffic safety directly to changes in statewide cannabis policies.
“Personally, I’m concerned when I hear things like part of the curriculum says that drivers under the influence of cannabis or drivers who test positive for cannabis have doubled the risk of accidents that’s simply not true," he said. "We do know that THC-positive drivers, depending on the studies, have a higher risk of accidents than drug-negative drivers but, that elevated risk of accident is anywhere from about 5% if you use NHTSA’s gold standard studies to about 25 to 30%. It is not a doubling of risk."
"By contrast we know that individuals who drive with alcohol in their system under the legal limit have about four times the elevated risk of motor vehicle accidents. Not only is context key but it’s key that we are providing individuals with accurate information,” he added.
Both organizations share the message that the combined consumption of cannabis and alcohol has a larger impairment effect.
“When a motorist drinks alcohol and consumes cannabis, the levels of THC in the brain are higher with the same amount of cannabis without any alcohol,” Massachusetts State Police Trooper Peter Pollard explains in the Shifting Gears video.
Beginning January 2023, the Shifting Gears curriculum will be taught to approximately 50,000 young drivers each year in all 700 Massachusetts driving school locations.