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People who use marijuana more frequently consider it less risky to drive while high, and would like to receive clear guidance for how to avoid impairment, a new report from the Colorado Department of Transportation found.

CDOT created the “Cannabis Conversation” in the summer of 2017 to learn about the habits of people who use marijuana and drive, with the objective of creating an effective safety ad campaign.

"We talked online and in-person to thousands of marijuana users across Colorado," said Sam Cole, CDOT’s traffic safety communications manager. "We learned how different groups of people respond to different types of messages, and will use that knowledge to try to influence people to make smart choices. After all, there is no ‘typical’ marijuana consumer.”

Participants in the CDOT effort spoke of a “tolerance” for marijuana the more they used it, and its ability to make them “calmer” while driving. People who did not consume cannabis spoke of their discomfort with others’ choices to drive while high, while drivers mentioned the expectation that their passenger would intervene if they felt unsafe.

“I think cannabis tolerance plays a huge factor in what ‘under the influence’ might be. I am a heavy user … if an inexperienced user consumed a normal amount for me, they would probably be unsafe to drive,” said a non-Hispanic white male between the ages of 35 and 44, whose identity CDOT kept anonymous.

The initiative had multiple phases, including an initial survey of 16,000 respondents, a focus group of 30 cannabis users, and subsequent surveys of over 8,000 people.

CDOT reports that in 2018, there were 31 fatal car crashes in which the driver had five nanograms or more of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol in their blood. That year there were 588 fatal crashes overall. More than one in five marijuana users also reported driving within two to three hours after consumption.

Marijuana users whom CDOT surveyed were not keen on “stoner” stereotypes, scare tactics or “preaching,” the department found. They observed that bloodstream measures of THC were not reliable indicators of impairment.

“I’ve just seen people wreck from little things and have never really seen anyone I know wreck in a collision from smoking weed,” said a Hispanic woman between the ages of 25 and 34.

CDOT took away from the “Cannabis Conversation” that the state should avoid referring to “driving while high” because many users reported not feeling high when they consume. There should also be an emphasis on waiting to drive until the high wears off, or using alternate transportation. CDOT will call its advertising campaign "Uncomfortable High."

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