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State lawmakers propose bills to ramp up safety education surrounding cannabis and driving

Hartford Police Department officer Timothy Budwitz talks with a driver passing through an Asylum Ave. sobriety checkpoint operating from 5pm to 1am. 42 Such checkpoints are scheduled to be set up through the year. (Mark Mirko/Connecticut Public)
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Hartford police officer Timothy Budwitz talks with a driver passing through an Asylum Avenue sobriety checkpoint on March 9, 2023. Forty-two such checkpoints are scheduled to be set up through the year.

Connecticut lawmakers are considering bills to boost education efforts around the impact of cannabis on drivers. While recreational cannabis use is now legal in Connecticut, driving under the influence of cannabis is not.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, introduced a bill “requiring an applicant for a motor vehicle operator license who is 16 or 17 years of age to complete a safety course on the effects and impact of marijuana.”

House lawmakers said the proposed legislation is designed to make sure those who apply for a driver's license are aware of the risk of impairment.

Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, also proposed an act “concerning driver education on the dangers of driving under the influence of cannabis,” demonstrating bipartisan concern for the issue.

Members of the medical community are weighing in on the impact of cannabis legalization and the dangers of impaired driving.

Dr. Godfrey Pearlson, founding director of the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living in Hartford, said he is “cautiously in favor” of cannabis being recreationally legalized, given that sales are restricted to those who are 21 and older.

Pearlson, who also is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Yale, said there is “good evidence that young people using high-potency cannabis and using a lot of it significantly raises risk for psychotic illnesses, including schizophrenia.”

He also warned against driving under the influence of cannabis.

“Driving under the influence of cannabis acutely, at least from epidemiologic studies, doubles your risk of being involved in some sort of motor vehicle crash,” Pearlson said. “Certainly less dangerous than alcohol. That doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous at all. Double your risk is still significant.”

After recreational cannabis became legal in Connecticut in January, demand shot up, said Ben Zachs, chief operating officer of Fine Fettle, a Connecticut-owned and -operated recreational cannabis dispensary.

Zachs was in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis and said customers seek cannabis for many reasons, including trouble sleeping, cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, he said it is not safe to consume cannabis and drive, and he does favor of a course that would aim to educate potential drivers on the risks of driving under the influence of cannabis.

“I think courses to make people be safer drivers no matter what is a good idea, and it is illegal to consume cannabis and to drive. It is not allowed, just like it’s not allowed to consume alcohol and drive, or just like people who don’t have a license shouldn’t be driving. If you have 10 cups of coffee and you’re in a really bad mood, you shouldn’t drive,” Zachs said.

However, Zachs said it is important to ensure that a bill on enacting educational content surrounding cannabis safety and driving does not single out cannabis and therefore doing what he called “vilifying” cannabis.

“It is very obvious that people should not drink and drive, that people should not consume cannabis and drive, whether edible, vape, smoking flower, et cetera,” Zachs said. “But is the point of the bill in regards to simply creating the education? Or, is it around singling out cannabis, which has been vilified — I would argue, not fairly — as compared to anything else?”

Fatima Khan, owner of the family-operated Shining Star Driving School in Manchester, said the state now needs to expand on the effects of cannabis consumption while driving.

She said she is against driving under the influence of cannabis, and in contrast to Zachs, she opposes legalizing recreational cannabis. But similar to Zachs, Khan said her students could benefit from a more expansive driver's safety course in general, pointing to the effects that can be caused by prescription drugs and texting and driving.

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