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Washington Cops Find 420 “Stoned Drivers”… Really!


marijuana dui duii oklahoma per seAfter writing on polls and statistics for the past few years I always find it funny how media will jump all over a press release from some police agency with some meager scraps of data in it and turn it into a five course meal of propaganda scaremongering.

The facts: The Washington State Patrol released preliminary data on positive THC blood tests from suspected impaired drivers for the first half of 2013.  The crime lab reported 745 people tested positive for marijuana and of those, 420 tested above the state’s five nanogram per milliliter (5ng) THC limit…

Yes.  Four hundred and twenty.  So add the easy pot puns and stoner references to the media meal as dessert.

Continuing with the facts: In the past two years, the annual total each year for positive marijuana blood tests in Washington is about 1,000.  In 2011, there were 506 tests >5ng.  In 2012, there were 609 tests >5ng.  Overall impaired driving cases, however, are on pace to hit the annual average of about 20,000.

Based on those data, we find the Christian Science Monitor proclaiming “Pot smokers arrested for DUI: A record high in Washington”.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  To get a blood test, cops must make a DUI arrest and get a warrant, and in years past, about 1,000 tested positive for THC.  But before legalization, all those positive tests – at any amount, not just over 5ng – were evidence used to convict on DUI charges.  Now, any test below 5ng is proof a driver was below the legal limit.  The 420 tests above the 5ng limit work out to 840 DUIs for the year, below the 1,000 any-amount DUIs of the past.

The website Medical Daily goes even further.  In their story, “More Washington Motorists Test Positive For Pot Following Marijuana Legalization”, their opening sentence proclaims, “Since fully legalizing marijuana in January, Washington state reported this week a three-fold spike in marijuana-related arrests for suspected impaired driving.”

How did about 1,000 pot positives a year to 745 pot positives in six months become a “three-fold spike”?  Reading further, Medical Daily writes, “Those numbers compare to 1,000 such arrests over a two-year period prior to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.”  It seems the author misread a sentence from the original Reuters report that read, “By contrast, in each of the last two full years, about 1,000 drivers who were pulled over tested positive for THC,” and missed the crucial “each” part.  So, take 1,000 for two years, divide by two, then compare your new 500 yearly total to the 745, which if you double to make six months into a year becomes 1,490, close enough to 1,500 to proclaim a “three-fold spike”!

Other media outlets are more subtle in their accentuation of the negative.  The Reuters piece was reprinted in several media outlets, like the Chicago Tribune.  It opens by pointing out the 745 drivers with positive pot tests, then notes that over half the tests were above 5ng, and then compares that to 1,000 positive THC drivers from 2011 and 2012.  It’s what they leave out that helps to set the scary frame.

I requested the actual data from AP reporter Eugene Johnson who got it via email from Bob Caulkins, the Media & Community Relations Officer for the Washington State Patrol.  Indeed, the rate of THC positive drivers has increased to 27.2% of all blood tests ordered, up from roughly 20% of all tests in years prior.  However, the rate of positive drivers over the limit has actually declined from 2012.  Where 61.6% of 2012’s THC positives were over the legal limit, it is so far 56.4% of 2013’s THC positives.

Year Tests THC + THC + Pct Under 5ng Over 5ng Over Pct. Alc Fatal Drug Fatal






























Half 2013









Full 2013









This still leaves us with a potential 840 >5ng THC positives for 2013, compared to just 609 in 2012.  However, the number of tests being ordered has increased, on pace for 180 more than the prior year.  It can also be true that cops are more likely to order a blood test in a pot case now.  As Calkins told Huffington Post, “We’re testing blood we didn’t test before.”  So do we actually have more stoned drivers on the road or are cops now just better trained and incentivized to go after them?  Just because you’re catching more fish doesn’t mean there are more fish; you may just be using a bigger net, fishing longer hours, and picking a better spot to fish.

The real concern isn’t whether there are more drivers caught with THC in their system; that’s not terribly surprising given the state has legalized marijuana.  The concern is whether harm has increased.  On that front, we see in the various reports that the Washington State Patrol is on pace for their average 20,000 impaired driver stops, so it doesn’t seem like their seeing more impairment on the roads than before.  The “on pace” suggests that they’re at about 10,000 stops over six months.  So, out of 10,000 stops, cops only felt the need to order a blood test about a quarter of the time and found 420 people over the legal THC limit.

According to Washington State’s Traffic Safety Commission “Target Zero” data for 2013, the state is on pace to record 88 alcohol-related traffic fatalities and 80 drug-related fatalities for the year.  Those would be the lowest figures for both for the last five years and a decline of 22% for alcohol and 30% for drugs from 2012.  Could it be that greater access to marijuana equals less abuse of alcohol, leading to lower traffic deaths from both?

It is certainly the case that stoned drivers are far better drivers than drunk drivers, but they are also far better than drivers using certain legal prescription medications.  According to research published this year in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, drivers who tested positive for marijuana had an odds ratio of 1.81:1 of being in a fatal crash compared to a sober (1:1) driver.  Those odds were 3.03:1 for narcotics like Vicodin, 3.57:1 for stimulants like Adderall, and 4.83:1 for depressants like Ativan, but each carries a warning on the bottle instructing users not to drive until they know how the medication affects them.  None of those drugs carries any per se threshold in a blood test indicating automatic proof of impairment like cannabis and alcohol do.  Alcohol comes in with an astounding 13.64:1 odds ratio for a fatal crash, so if some of those drivers are switching to the drug with the 1.81:1 risk, we should all be celebrating.

So, in summation, we have fewer people dying on the roadways, about the same amount of impairment detected on the road, more blood testing that has uncovered a lower ratio of pot-positive drivers testing over the new 5ng limit, and four-out-of-nine drivers who tested below the new 5ng limit have a legal defense to DUID charges they didn’t have the year before.  Isn’t it interesting how mainstream reporting missed out on so many of these details?

This post has been modified to reflect traffic safety stats for “drug” impaired rather than “THC” impaired – the data were for all drugs, not just THC.  I regret the error. -“R”R

Source: National Cannabis Coalitionmake a donation


About Author

Executive Director: Russ Belville has been active in Oregon marijuana reform since 2005, when he was elected second-in-command of the state affiliate, Oregon NORML. After four years with Oregon NORML, Russ was hired by National NORML in 2009, working as Outreach Coordinator and hosting the NORML Daily Audio Stash podcast until 2012. Since then, Russ launched the 420RADIO marijuana legalization network and is the host of The Russ Belville Show, a live daily marijuana news talk radio program. Russ is also a prolific writer, with over 300 articles posted online and in print in HIGH TIMES, Huffington Post, Alternet, The Weed Blog, Marijuana Politics, and more.


  1. I guess you’re too busy for the likes of me, just like those organizations you work with. Good to know.

  2. Well, it’s nice and quiet here, isn’t it? Can we talk? See, I left a question for you in a recent AlterNet comment section, and because I remembered our conversation in this thread, I came back here to ask for your help. We were talking about lab testing…

    For my initial research on testing labs, I’m just assessing the size of the industry. There are not very many labs testing cannabis right now, obviously, but the list does seem to be growing (no pun intended). Specifically, I’m trying to determine the quality of the testing done here in New Mexico.

    To figure that out, I would need to understand the difference between a good test result and a bad one. This seems rather challenging to me. I mean, I can’t tell the difference (yet) between good bad and bad bud just by looks alone. How am I supposed to understand what the tests results are telling me?

    I was just thinking that, considering your love of detail, you might be willing to do some more reporting on the testing aspect of marijuana. Perhaps those in the online cannabis community could begin doing the same. Is there a website with reviews for labs? I haven’t found one yet.

    This issue could also be tied into the controversial 5ng limit for driving, a threat to every cannabis lover. How much (and what kind of) bud would I have to smoke to reach this 5g limit in my bloodstream? Just like most people should know how many drinks they can have before they reach the “alleged” limit for safe driving — cannabis consumers should know how much bud they can toke.

    Will my blood tests come back at this 5g limit if I smoke crappy weed? Or, is that something I don’t have to worry about if I’m smoking crappy weed? Or, because this level is so low, would I test for that 5g amount no matter what?

    Anyway, I need to understand what I’m looking at when I see a test result for a particular strain, so I can attempt to gauge its accuracy myself. Considering all the problems in testing labs around the country, I don’t think it would be prudent for any patient to just trust what they are told by any lab.
    (Oh, and perhaps you can point me to where I could find an answer to my question on THCA?)

    Thanks for listening. Peace out.

  3. Since the measured substance is fat soluble. I wonder if skinnier people with lesser body fat have better chance than chubbier ones to comply with X nano gram thresholds set forth by authorities? Eating less munchies would lessen the chance of DUI bust? Please do not get me wrong. I suspect the authorities are trying to get the formula right, but might err on one side or the other. Meanwhile people do get arrested — hopefully acquitted rather than convicted as the science is still not very exact. Not well understood as of writing.

  4. What is the use of detecting nano gram concentrations of a substance if the number of DUI fatalities do not correlate or align with the number of DUI arrests? For example 2011 Washington: 156 fatalities vs 7,159 arrests is a ratio of 22 fatalities for every 1000 arrest. Since DUI is mostly alcohol the alcohol 22 fatalities for every 1000 alcohol DUI arrest seems like a policy that is somewhat acceptable and people can ‘live with’.

    So if one thousand Cannabis DUI’s have been made what is the corresponding number of non disputable ‘stoned’ fatalities (if the common term ‘stoned’ is allowed). Are Cannabis DUI traffic fatalities less than 22 compared to every 1000 arrests? Since laws and their arbitrated thresholds are very new we must assume that the threshold for arrest is set too high rather than too low. In conjecture: If cannabis fatalities are much less than 22 fatalities for every 1000 corresponding arrests — then how much less are we talking about? How to tell a part a deadly accident from a deadly DUI accident if the neither of the drivers reeks of alcohol?

    We prefer to enumerate fatalities rather than accidents because OF disagreement of what is a fender bender, small accident, major accident, or severe injury accident — where to draw line between categories. And having more than one category. How many categories should there be if not exactly one.

  5. What, Mr. Bellville, no response to my post, below?
    To the article regarding the hoax of forensic science and labs in particular?

  6. There is actually much science to show that the blood alcohol levels are reliable predictors of impairment for just about every body size and gender. Teetotalers and severe alcoholics are the outliers on these measures, but by and large, an obese dude and a petite girl at 0.08 BAC will be equally impaired.

    As we all know, THC doesn’t work that way. 5ng is a stupid number, as is just about any number if you’re trying to tie THC in blood to impairment. We all saw All-Day Addy driving for KIRO at eleven times the legal limit. By any rational scientific standard, THC in the blood is not a measure of impairment.

    Too bad politics is neither rational nor scientific. We kinda made this mess for ourselves with all of our “treat it like alcohol” framing. OK, says the public, sounds good, so if we treat it like alcohol, what’s the magic drunk number and where’s the Breathalyzer? And we can spout science and studies until we’re blue in the face, they’ll just want us to find better science that lets cops pick out stoned drivers with a magic test.

    The public doesn’t want stoned drivers, period. Yes, we know people are stoned on Xanax, Zyrtec, and Zoloft, but the public doesn’t care. That’s medicine, pot is for fun (setting aside medmj for a moment) and we don’t want people’s irresponsible fun leading to deaths on the road. Currently, the public believes stoned driving is kept under control not because stoners are decent drivers (true), but because pot is illegal and if you’re caught with it in public we put you in jail.

    So, as we take away the “cops can bust any public stoner” method of preventing stoned driving, the public wants a replacement method. We can’t just say “use the field sobriety tests we’ve already been using,” because to the public, pot never gets that far; it gets found by the cop and we take the driver into custody, even if he was driving perfectly.

    I think the movement miscalculated by thinking science would trump fear. I would have re-framed the issue away from impairment and toward responsibility. I’d have started by explaining how we wish to have a standard, like the blood-alcohol standard for booze, that prevents someone from drinking and immediately getting behind the wheel. It’s not “too impaired to drive”, it’s “got behind the wheel immediately after drinking”, and it’s something we could have easily dovetailed into the emerging “buzzed driving is drunk driving” campaigns.

    Then we’d have hammered away on the BAC chart concept. We have a BAC standard and a chart that shows any drinker that if they drank X amount over Y hours, they are Z level of drunk, and that they have to wait a certain amount of time before they’re not too drunk. Again, prepping the public for the idea that it’s not about determining your own impairment, but waiting a responsible amount of time before driving.

    Once we’d have solidified the “preventing drunk driving = waiting responsibly” frame, we can then pivot to framing the prevention of stoned driving as a matter of waiting responsibly and use the psychopharmacology of THC in the blood to our advantage. See, we could show the public, THC in blood doesn’t reliably tell us whether someone is impaired like alcohol, but…

    We CAN show by THC in the blood whether someone has toked recently. When one first inhales cannabis smoke or vapor, one’s THC in blood spikes into the three digits within the first five minutes. It then decays fairly rapidly until it’s below 5ng within two hours. So, with our new “responsible wait” frame, we could have sold the idea that no toker should drive within one hour of toking, where ng/mL will be above 50. We could’ve batted away 5ng by saying “you expect a toker to wait two hours when a drinker only has to wait one?”

    At a 50ng THC in blood standard, even the most stoniest of stoners and sickest of patients should not be above that level unless they have recently used. Yes, edibles and tinctures put a bit of a monkey wrench in that, since you don’t spike until digestion happens 20-45 minutes later, but I’d say that argues even more to the responsibility frame (“you ate a brownie and not yet aware of how strong it was you got behind the wheel?”)

    I’d prefer no THC limit, of course. And I’ll be fighting to prevent one from being instituted in Oregon. But if the political will is such that legalization doesn’t pass unless it has a per se DUID limit, I’ll fight for the highest one we can get.

  7. I will be kind to you even though you called me a “liar”.

    The statement “But before legalization, all those positive tests – at any amount, not just over 5ng – were evidence used to convict on DUI charges.” is absolutely true. Prior to I-502, any amount of active THC in your system was evidence used at trial to help convict you.

    What I didn’t write was “But before legalization, any amount of THC was a per se conviction.”

    See the difference?

    Pre I-502: Cop sees you driving impaired. Cop pulls you over. Cop sees bloodshot eyes or smells pot. Cop gives you field sobriety test and you fail. Cop arrests you. Cop gets warrant for blood draw. Cop draws blood. You turn up at Xng/mL. You go to trial for DUID. State presents evidence which includes cops’ word, cops’ dashcam, and your Xng/mL blood. 90% of the time, you’re convicted of DUID.

    Post I-502: Cop sees you driving impaired. Cop pulls you over. Cop sees bloodshot eyes or smells pot. Cop gives you field sobriety test and you fail. Cop arrests you. Cop gets warrant for blood draw. Cop draws blood. You turn up at 5ng/mL. You go to trial for DUID. State presents evidence which includes cops’ word, cops’ dashcam, and your 5ng/mL blood. The 5ng automatically convicts you of DUID. HOWEVER, if you tested at 4ng/mL, you’ve got a better defense than you had with 4ng pre-I-502, because you’re under the legal limit.

    “Evidence used,” Matt, is the operative term here. Pre-I-502, about 1,000 DUID cases had Xng/mL used in trial to convict on DUID about 90% of the time, which works out to about 900 DUID convictions. Post I-502, there are 420 >5ng readings in six months, equal to 840 >5ng in a year, and even though all of those are guaranteed convictions, 840 is still less than the 900 pre-I-502 convictions. AND 325 (650 by years’ end) of those blood draws will be <5ng and those 650 people have a defense that the 1,000 prior blood draws in each of the past four years didn't have.

    But yes, I will continue to defend I-502 because it ended my criminality as a healthy cannabis consumer and changed the world to the extent that support for legalization rose 10 points nationwide.

  8. I love it when people are trying to prove a point and ask me to do the work for them by googling and searching for the information myself. Don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but that doesn’t seem very fair to me.

    Okay, Russ’ statement is not a complete lie, but it is not as clear as he could have made it. When we talk about evidence, we’re talking about what is used in a court of law. So if the cops make a stop, believe they have probable cause for a warrant, obtain that warrant and gather evidence, then that evidence is used in court. Now, when we’re talking about pre-I-502, the odor was enough for probable cause and, when evidence was gathered, if the blood test was positive for THC, then that was usually enough (flimsy) evidence to convict. Since there was no limit like in alcohol, and because the legal system is so discriminatory against marijuana. And because people did not have adequate counsel, because cops are prejudiced, etc., etc.

    In other words, I’m talking about the end of working your way through the system, more than I am talking about what happens before you get into the system. Hope this makes sense.

    I don’t know how accurate the alcohol test is, and one of the links you gave me is to a DUI attorney who states that the .08 alcohol limit is subjective. Now if the alcohol test doesn’t allow for different body types and weights, or for instance if the driver was male or female, then yes, I would think it is subjective. But that is similar to every other “average” number we use to include the whole population. Which makes it subjective. (From what I understand, extremely low levels of THC are in other things that we ingest normally, although I can’t prove that. Kinda like the poppy seed on bread, or how decongestants test positive for meth. This would make the THC test even more subjective.)

    It will be harder for police to discern if a cannabis user is impaired, as compared to a drunk driver. The drugs work on different areas of the brain and being impaired means different things when you compare the effects of alcohol and pot. THC levels are not always a sign of strength of an effect, especially if the marijuana has a high CBD count. Plus all the other arguments that show this 5 ng limit is, well, stupid. There is not enough research going on at this time, in this area, for police and doctors to create a better limit for legalization, or perhaps there is not enough will to do so, probably both.

    It looks like your state will be the first to experiment with a lot of legalization matters, and this THC limit is one of them. Sucks big time for you. I would hope that enough people will speak out and stand up when this limit proves to be as ridiculous as it sounds, but ya’ll are going to have to let the experiment go forward so that we can get the results. Again, a lot of innocent people being punished so that we can determine what works and what doesn’t when it comes to legalization really, really sucks. All we can do as patients and consumers is to add our voices, our point of view, as the only ones with the actual experience in these matters. I’m sorry this is so long and I’m sorry I don’t know how to help. Just know that we are worried for you. (sad smile)

  9. Just a couple here, you can research more in google if you want :



    So again, tell me how Russ’ statement isn’t a complete lie. I still stand by with what I say. Washington State, like California, DID NOT have a 0 tolerance threshold for marijuana in your blood before I-502. Even if they found 40 ng / ml, they still had to prove you were “impaired”. If they couldn’t prove that, you were not convicted. That’s why this provision in I-502 is crazy. You can feel totally sober at 5 ng / ml and can be convicted of marijuana DUI with NO defense for yourself in court.

  10. Justin Rutkowski on

    um, 5ng on a drug test. i spent 6 days in jail, got out for two with out smoking marijuana and was drug tested and scored around 35ng… i must be too impaired to write this comment, sorry i’ll come back some other time.

    On a serious note though, there is no real way to test to see if some one is too impaired to drive with out the police officer doing their job and doing a sobriety test. No one should have to give over their blood with out a warrant signed from a judge. period!

    We should allow the cops to do their jobs and use their best judgement. They know when some one shouldn’t be driving and if they haul your ass to jail because they believe you’re endangering the lives of others by operation the vehicle then i agree with them. Screw a blood test, breathalyzer and all that mess. I know if i drink a beer i won’t blow over the legal limit but i rarely drink so one beer and i’m too impaired to drive. Now i can smoke a fatty and go for a cruise with out a problem. Every thing effects every body differently and should be treated that way.

  11. “But before legalization, all those positive tests – at any amount, not
    just over 5ng – were evidence used to convict on DUI charges.”

    That is a big lie. Stop lying Russ. They didn’t have a 0 tolerance DUI law like Arizona. They had a law like California’s. The fact they showed cannabis in their blood was NOT enough to convict for DUI in Washington, even over 5 ng, prior to I-502. They had to prove impairment of the user, like they do in California, like if you take too much benadryl, Robitussin, or Nyquil. Now anything over 5 ng is impairment. What is so hard to understand about this?

    Oh but you already understand. You are going to continue lying and defending I-502, as always.

  12. Everybody just needs to smoke marijuana, and the problem would be solved. People make it a WAYYYY bigger deal than it actually is, and it really pisses me off. Like, you can’t knock it till you try it and 75% of the people that do hate on it probably hasn’t ever smoked it before.

  13. Since the limit is not based in scientific fact, all these figures mean nothing, really. Except more money in fines for the government, more legal fees for attorneys… more of the same.

  14. Expecting the main stream media to get much correct is absurd. The notion of reporting only facts is a concept that has left news. Since news, for the most part, does not sell; everything must be “spun out” for maximum shock effect so people will consume the new “the sky if falling” disaster reports. Once again we see that figures don’t lie but expecting reporters to get it right when their level of literacy is generally so low, is an unreasonable expectation. So liars do still figure or perhaps are not capable of understanding the data. Thanks for the nice layout, all the data and the analysis.
    Locally we have had some press awfulizing the threat to public safety caused by cannabis. It was interesting because the a police officer who was interviewed reported some rather vanilla raw data with no “spin” while the reporter was clearly covering a “scoop”.
    Start counting the news articles that are not new, but recapitulations of old stuff with a new slant and you will quickly see that in order to keep the news river flowing; pressmen must continually urinate in it.

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