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Despite marijuana legalization impaired driving is still a major issue

  • / Updated:
  • Staff Report 

The steady rise in narcotics-impaired driving incidents, including marijuana use, has become a growing concern in New York over the past five years. In 2021, the year marijuana was legalized in the state, over 10% of impaired-driving tickets involved drug use. Although it is uncertain if marijuana legalization directly impacts the increase in drug-impaired driving, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveals a worrying trend. Between 2009 and 2018, the presence of cannabis in drivers killed in crashes and subsequently tested for drugs nearly doubled.

The Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research has also found that in the past three years, drug impairment in fatal crashes has overtaken alcohol impairment. In response, New York state police have increased the number of troopers trained as “drug recognition experts.” In 2021, these troopers identified cannabis as a contributing factor of impairment in 1,321 cases, a 7.4% increase from 2020.

Though preliminary data for last year indicated a slight decline in marijuana-related impairment cases, drug-impaired driving remains a critical concern. Acting State Police Superintendent Steven A. Nigrelli emphasized the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs, which can cause thousands of injuries and deaths annually.

A key challenge for law enforcement is the lack of a widely accepted device to test for cannabis impairment, like the devices used to measure blood-alcohol content. While New York has made it a violation of motor vehicle law to burn marijuana in a vehicle, similar to the open-container prohibition for alcohol, the development of a reliable roadside test is still in progress.

To address this issue, New York is ramping up its efforts to train more police officers as drug recognition experts. The Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee aims to have 550 officers trained by the end of this year, with every trooper required to attend a course on identifying signs of drug and alcohol impairment.