Riding High: Florida’s marijuana-impaired driving problem revealed

8 On Your Side
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For the first time, we are beginning to understand the scope and magnitude of the marijuana-impaired driving problem in Florida.

As 8 On Your Side discovered, preliminary data shows marijuana was a factor in nearly one in three drug-impaired crashes in 2018. According to a report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 422 people died in collisions where marijuana and various other substances were involved. DHSMV states that marijuana was the most prevalent drug detected in these crashes last year.

Until now, the state had never tracked or reported marijuana-specific data.  

The data has been released as smokable medical cannabis is being rolled out across Florida. In March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation repealing the state's ban on smoking medical marijuana.

"Legalizing the marijuana is going to increase the amount of drugged drivers on our roads," said Tammy Leonard.  

Leonard, a Holiday mother, is on a mission to raise awareness about drugged driving and drugged driving fatalities. She shares her story with high school students and DUI offenders in Pasco County. She also volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"It's just a big piece of me is gone," said Leonard. "I'm their voice, I'm the only voice they have left."

On Oct. 12, 2015, Leonard's daughter Kassidy, her boyfriend Will and newborn Kimberlynn were instantly killed when a drugged driver hit their vehicle in Tennessee.  

Leonard said toxicology tests showed the presence of oxycodone, methamphetamine and amphetamines in the drugged driver's system.

"They were just starting their lives out, I mean Kimberlynn only lived 12 days," she said.

Leonard shares data and statistics about the general problem of drugged driving on her website.

8 On Your Side has reached out to DHSMV for an in-depth interview about the findings of the latest report on impaired driving.

Meanwhile, the department cautions the data is preliminary and represents too small of a subset to create a comparative baseline.

DHSMV just developed mechanisms to track cannabis-related crash data last year. In the latest report, they state they are still working with law enforcement agencies across Florida to ensure the accuracy of the data.

Various law enforcement officials identify another problem with tracking the role of marijuana in crashes. It is often difficult to isolate the effects of weed because intoxicated drivers have a mix of alcohol and different drugs in their system.

Additionally, unlike alcohol, the level of THC in the blood or oral fluid does not correlate well with impairment.

"If it's in the body, whether it's legally or illegally, don't get behind the wheel of a car," said Larry Coggins, the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

8 On Your Side showed the DHSMV marijuana-specific data to Coggins.

Coggins, who spent more than 25 years in law enforcement, said the report appears to be another indicator that a problem exists.

"I hope these numbers wake people up," said Coggins. "This is an extremely dangerous driving environment for all of us in Florida."

Hillsborough County often ranks as one of the worst counties in Florida for DUIs. FDOT data from December 2018 found Hillsborough County raked in the most DUIs statewide. 

Earlier this year, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced the formation of a centralized DUI squad, a dedicated unit of 20 deputies and two supervisors specially trained to detect and apprehend impaired and intoxicated drivers.

"When it comes to impaired driving, find yourself being an impaired driver and you will go to jail in Tampa," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Deputy Bryce Driscoll is part of the new HCSO DUI squad. 

"It happens quite often, while I'm working a DUI, another one rolls up right by us," said Deputy Driscoll.

Deputy Driscoll is an expert in spotting signs of intoxication and getting dangerous drivers off our roads.

"People – they don't often realize how much alcohol or drugs impairs them," he said.

In order to better understand the issue, 8 On Your Side also interviewed Nikki Fried, Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. We spoke with Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist, before uncovering the data in the 2019 DHSMV report on impaired driving.

"When people are using medical marijuana or even in a legalization aspect, they're not going out and they're not committing crimes," she said.

Fried does not believe the fears associated with smokable medical marijuana are warranted.

After Fried's mother was diagnosed with cancer, doctors prescribed medical marijuana. It was a difficult journey.

"Hearing her pain after chemo treatments and her inability to get off the floor," said Fried.

Fried said medical marijuana provided her mom with relief – like so many other Floridians. 

"This is alternating their quality of life, getting them another way to get through their pain and get through their days," she said.

Fried also said that she doesn't believe that marijuana, medicinal now or even recreational in the future, makes our roads more deadly.

"I go back to the data that I saw firsthand when I was a public defender," she said. "Every DUI that I saw was all alcohol-induced."

8 On Your Side sent the 2019 DHSMV report on impaired driving to Fried's office for further comment. They released the following statement to us: 

"Commissioner Nikki Fried is committed to doing things the right way – she is for increased patient access to legal medical marijuana and safely regulated cannabis. She has concerns for public safety when it comes to DUIs, but there is no evidence suggesting that medical marijuana patients, who are legally accessing their medicine, are at the source of statistics showing an increase in DUIs. And with patients just getting the opportunity to access smokable medical marijuana, that has not affected the statistics at all."

During our initial interview, Fried also highlighted how medical marijuana gets people off of opioids. 

"We've seen across the country that when you have some type of medical program, there's a 20 to 30 percent decrease in opioid overdoses," she said. "Getting them off of opioids is literally going to save lives."

As people on both sides of the debate battle, Deputy Driscoll and law enforcement across the Tampa Bay area will be patrolling the roads.

They are the first line of defense for people who are not high or drunk.

"I never realized how many DUIs there were until I started doing this," he said.


Alcohol versus drug crashes and fatalities in Florida

Here's a look at the number of crashes and fatalities attributable to alcohol and drugs in Florida. While alcohol crashes and fatalities are decreasing, drug crashes and fatalities are increasing overall in Florida. Hover over the bars to see the exact numbers.

Alcohol confirmed crashes

 

Alcohol confirmed fatalities

 

Drug confirmed crashes

 

Drug confirmed fatalities

 

Source: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

Drug crashes by county

Here's a look at the drug crash history by county. While the number of drug confirmed crashes essentially increased in Hillsborough and Pasco, they decreased in Pinellas and Polk. Hover over the bar to see the exact numbers.

 

Source: Florida Department of Highway Safty and Motor Vehicles

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