Though the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has worked to eliminate marijuana-impaired driving since recreational legalization in 2014, Colorado has continued to see cannabis-involved traffic crashes and fatalities. In 2018, 13.5 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for cannabis.

To confront this ongoing challenge, CDOT launched “The Cannabis Conversation,” a two-year, statewide initiative to engage Coloradans in a discussion about marijuana-impaired driving and to learn more about the public’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviors on the topic. The purpose of the campaign, which wrapped up in late 2019, was to help CDOT develop fresh strategies, messages and solutions that would better resonate with cannabis consumers and influence decision making when it comes to marijuana-impaired driving.

CDOT connected with more than 18,000 Coloradans through surveys, public meetings and focus groups to learn how to best cater messaging, outreach and education based on consumers’ perspectives. The key takeaways are as follows:

— People who consumed cannabis more often considered driving under the influence of marijuana to be less dangerous. Although many users have normalized driving high, most still consider the travel conditions, their alertness and how recently they consumed cannabis before driving.

— Many cannabis users are highly skeptical of the laws, policies and enforcement regarding driving impaired and want credible, nuanced information on the topic.

Respondents expressed a desire for more research on detection methods and guidelines for self-assessment of impairment, dosage-based legal limits, and how long to wait before driving.

Most cannabis users were sensitive to any messages or ads they perceived as overstating the dangers of driving high, stereotyping cannabis users, or that were unrealistic.

— The key to reaching some skeptics is to lead with feelings and follow with facts. Users liked safety campaign materials, like PSA ads, that have an honest tone, a straightforward approach, and feel more like they are being talked to by a friend, not a parent.

“We talked online and in-person to thousands of marijuana users across Colorado,” said Sam Cole, CDOT traffic safety communications manager. “We learned how different groups of people respond to different types of messages — and will use that knowledge to try to influence people to make smart choices. After all, there is no ‘typical’ marijuana consumer.”

An important takeaway was challenging cannabis consumers to rethink the choice to drive under the influence and how it unnecessarily puts others at risk. Those skeptical about the risks associated with cannabis-impaired driving responded to campaigns that invoked feelings counter to their deeply held beliefs that driving after consuming is solely a personal decision.

CDOT is now applying these insights to their campaigns, as the agency develops a series of PSAs based on a concept vetted and chosen by the public. CDOT continues to work closely with dispensary companies, a trusted voice for consumers, with in-store educational collateral and budtender training. The state is also making strides in more cooperative and comprehensive data collection.

More states each year legalize recreational and medical cannabis, and CDOT hopes its takeaways from The Cannabis Conversation will help others in transportation, law enforcement, prevention and academia learn how to effectively approach impaired driving education and awareness.

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