Impairment Safety: Keep Pace During Evolving Times

A researcher is pictured conducting tests on marijuana plants in a lab.
Cody Stewart

The ability to purchase cannabis is expanding nationwide, with 22 states legalizing cannabis for adult use. That number has increased just since April, and Minnesota is in the middle of finalizing an adult-use bill this month.

While Texas has low-THC/CBD laws (a step down from medical), it shares almost 65% of its border with Mexico and states that have legalized adult-use cannabis. The other 35% have legalized cannabis for medical use.

Easier accessibility is coupled with higher Delta-9 THC potency. Delta 9 THC is one of the few active compounds in cannabis and the psychoactive compound that causes a “high.” In 1991, THC potency hovered around 3%. In 2017, THC potency increased to over 17%, according to research published by Science Direct. This increase primarily is attributed to legalization and commercialization without regulatory practices for product testing.

Unfortunately, cannabis’s federal illegal status means a historical lack of research and education. As a result, rumors such as “cannabis improves your driving” and “legalization means it’s safe to use” continue to spread.

With widespread availability and higher potency comes greater use and potential for impairment, even in states without legalized cannabis. Compared to alcohol, with cannabis use, especially high-potency products, we are still in the infancy stage in terms of what we know about how it affects people short- and long-term. We do know cannabis use decreases motor skills, increases reaction time and impairs judgment – all necessary for the safe operation of equipment and vehicles.

Often overlooked is how cannabis stays detectable in the body for prolonged periods. Alcohol stays in the body for a linear and predictable amount of time, which correlates directly to impairment. Cannabis is stored in the body’s fat cells and can be detectable up to 30 days after consumption.

Additionally, cannabis impairment is not directly related to detection. Several factors influence impairment, such as frequency of use, method of intake and potency of products used. This important distinction from alcohol can spell trouble for employers and employees, alike. For employees, this means running a risk of failing a drug test for cannabis use that might have been days or weeks ago. For employers, this means potential consequences to employees that aren’t impaired, or removing THC from the drug panel in testing, which studies show increases the chances of incidents and post-incident drug positivity rates on the job.

Ultimately, the goal is to keep people safe. Regarding cannabis impairment, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, “If you feel different, you drive different” – simple, yet effective.

If you are interested in education on cannabis, consider signing up for our self-paced online training, Essential Education on Marijuana. This free training was created by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute with funding from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Education is essential to preventing injuries.

– Cody Stewart is an associate transportation researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute