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Which affects drivers more: alcohol or marijuana?

We wrote recently about the Colorado State Patrol's arrest figures released to the media. Officials said that about 1 out of 8 DUI arrests made by troopers last year involved marijuana use. About half of the drivers were believed to have used only marijuana, while others were suspected of using marijuana in combination with alcohol or other intoxicants.

The report got us thinking about a question many have asked since our state legalized sales of recreational marijuana, which affects drivers more: alcohol or marijuana?

The question has been studied by researchers, including in 2009 in "The Effect of Cannabis Compared with Alcohol on Driving." The National Institutes of Health funded the study which sought to determine if one substance or the other is more dangerous to consume before driving, or if the two are approximately the same in altering the abilities of motorists to drive safely.

Researchers surprised many with the following statement: "Although cognitive studies suggest that cannabis use may lead to unsafe driving, experimental studies have suggested that it can have the opposite effect." That's right. Depending on the person and the amounts and methods of cannabis consumed, some people might actually do better behind the wheel after marijuana consumption than without it.

That is not to suggest that people should get high before driving. In fact, the opposite is true: all Denver motorists should drive sober and obey DUI laws.

Nevertheless, the research states that marijuana users often have "an increased awareness that they are impaired" that results in them altering their driving behavior. They often drive slower, pass less, leave more space between vehicles, and so on.

Of course, the law is clear: if you drive while high on marijuana or alcohol (or other substances), you can be arrested for DUI, regardless of what the research might say.

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