As the list of legal and commercially available substances that can impair a person’s ability to drive a vehicle grows to include pot, state public safety officials on Wednesday launched a public awareness campaign to urge drivers to find alternate transportation if they have been drinking or using marijuana.
An average of 125 drunk or high drivers die on Massachusetts roads each year, Undersecretary for Public Safety and Security Jennifer Queally said, and a recent Department of Public Health survey found that one-third of people who said they have used marijuana in the last 30 days have also driven under the influence in the last 30 days.
“The number of high drivers and the number of deaths on our roadways is already too high, no pun intended,” Queally said Wednesday at a press conference to launch the campaign. “Driving high, driving stoned or driving drunk is dangerous and illegal, but most importantly it is deadly.”
The awareness campaign, which includes a 30-second ad that will air on broadcast television and digital platforms, focuses on the consequences of impaired driving.
“There are roads, the ones you take, the ones you don’t, there are laws, there are rules and there is you … you driving, you drunk driving, you driving high, you stoned and driving … you spinning, crashing, you arrested, you killing my mom or yours, my daughter, my sister, my love, my life and yours,” actors in the ad say into the camera.
The ad ends by displaying the text, “Drunk? Stoned? Driving? Don’t.”
The campaign encourages anyone legally using marijuana or alcohol to hail a cab, use a ride for hire service or take public transit instead of driving.
“If you are using marijuana legally, all we ask is that you use an alternate means of transportation, whether that be a rideshare, the MBTA, a taxi or a designated driver,” State Police Maj. Richard Ball, the commanding officer of Troop H, said.
The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security on Wednesday also announced that it will provide funds to the State Police and 153 local departments to conduct “high-visibility enforcement patrols and sobriety checkpoints throughout the state.”
Cannabis Control Commissioner Jennifer Flanagan said the CCC wrote into its regulations requirements that marijuana labeling, marketing and branding must include warnings like, “Marijuana can impair concentration, coordination and judgment. Do not operate a vehicle or machinery under the influence of this drug.”
“When adults ages 21 and older decide to use cannabis, they must educate themselves about the consequences of impaired driving. We’ve heard time and time again the messages about impaired driving with alcohol and the same remains true about the messages about impaired driving with cannabis,” Flanagan said. “While we understand the body [metabolizes] cannabis a little bit differently than alcohol, we all realize that once you are impaired the ability to operate a motor vehicle lessens.”
The law that governs non-medical marijuana in Massachusetts created a panel to make recommendations to prevent operating under the influence of marijuana and impaired driving. That group, the Special Commission on Operating Under the Influence and Impaired Driving, has been slow to get going.
The group is planning to convene Friday for what will be its second meeting. A meeting scheduled for July 3 was canceled because there were not enough members present and it was moved to July 20. That meeting was called off out of respect for the funeral of a Weymouth police officer killed in the line of duty. The commission has met once, on June 13.
The panel is not fully formed yet, either. Gov. Charlie Baker, who led the opposition to the 2016 marijuana legalization ballot initiative, has not yet appointed anyone to the commission. His administration said its candidate is under review and that the governor hopes to make his appointment to the commission shortly.
The 13-member commission is tasked by the Legislature with producing “a comprehensive study relative to the regulation and testing of operating under the influence of marihuana, narcotic drugs and depressant or stimulant substances” as well as recommendations for legislation by Jan. 1, 2019.
Though Massachusetts has not yet opened non-medical marijuana stores, it has been legal for adults to grow and use marijuana since December 2016.
In late June, the Department of Public Health said about 21 percent of adults in Massachusetts reported using marijuana in the last 30 days and one-third of users said they have driven under the influence of marijuana in the last 30 days.
Asked what effects have been seen on the state’s roads since it became legal for adults to grow and use marijuana more than a year and a half ago, Highway Safety Division Director Jeff Larason said the impact is not known.
“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been any research that has been done that has shown any sort of impact on the specific crash rates at this point,” he said, later noting that recent years have shown an uptick in the rate of fatal crashes that cannot be attributed to any one cause.
Though marijuana was a focus of Wednesday’s press conference to launch the statewide PSA, Queally said the message is not exclusive to cannabis.
“Impaired is impaired is impaired,” she said. “If you are impaired and you drive a car, it is illegal, it is dangerous and it is deadly.”
Asked how dangerous driving while stoned is compared to the dangerousness of driving while drunk, Ball said there is no real difference.
“If your ability to operate your motor vehicle, a 2,000-pound vehicle in most cases, and your motor reaction is slow and your depth perception has changed or your ability to respond in a timely manner is changed, it’s the same dangerousness,” the State Police major said. “You’re a danger to yourself and others.”
Also Wednesday, one of the first companies to become licensed by the CCC to sell non-medical marijuana announced that it developed its own public awareness campaign, “Let’s Do This Right,” that includes a video that will air on digital media to encourage responsible marijuana use.
“With added rights comes additional responsibility,” Sira Naturals CEO Mike Dundas said. “One of my goals is to help shape the emergence of this new industry and to encourage responsible cannabis-related public policy approaches.”
Wednesday’s press event also featured representatives from Uber and Lyft, ridesharing companies that offer an alternate means of transportation. Lyft announced that it will make credits equal to $50,000 worth of Lyft trips available in Massachusetts once retail pot shops begin to open.
Larason on Wednesday also had a suggestion for the journalists covering the public awareness campaign and the issue of impaired driving.
“We like to not use the word ‘accidents’ when we talk about impaired driving crashes,” he said, citing similar guidance from the Associated Press Stylebook. “When a person has driven impaired, they have knowingly and intentionally broken the law, they have done that knowingly that they are endangering others and we don’t think those are accidents.”
The Associated Press has recommended using alternative terms such as crash or collision.