Slowly driving through downtown Denver in her Nissan Rogue, Max Mascarenas cruises past old Victorian homes, bars crowded with people and weed shops with names like Kush Club, Universal Herbs and Good Chemistry.
It’s the Mile High City, of course — the heart of America’s recreational marijuana movement.
“Fifty percent of the people who got in my car last night smelled of marijuana,” Mascarenas tells me.
Mascarenas drives for Lyft. And for the past month she’s been working with the ride-hailing company and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to warn folks of the dangers of driving high.
When I first heard of Lyft’s partnership with CDOT, and the fact that they’d wrapped 17 Lyft cars in green emblazoned with the tagline “Plan a ride before you’re high,” I asked for a ride-along.
A couple of weeks later I find myself sitting in the back seat of Mascarenas’ car. People stare as we roll by. One guy runs up to have his picture taken with the vehicle.
“This is quite the car,” our first passenger says as she climbs in.
PR stunt? You bet. But it’s also doing what Lyft and CDOT hope: making people aware of drugged driving.
Lyft and rival Uber both say they make the roads safer from drunk driving. Both companies have created PSAs against driving under the influence of alcohol, and have partnered with beer companies, like Budweiser, and advocacy organizations, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Now, as more states legalize marijuana, the two ride-hailing companies are targeting the stoner market.
“When I started talking to CDOT and they gave us stats, it was pretty shocking,” says Gabe Cohen, Lyft’s Colorado general manager. “Clearly a lot of people use Lyft when they’re drinking and we think they should do the same thing around marijuana.”
Driving high is dangerous?
It’s no coincidence that Lyft wrapped 17 of its cars in green. Seventeen percent of all driving under the influence arrests in Colorado in 2016 involved marijuana, according to CDOT.
“Most marijuana users think it’s safe to drive high,” says Sam Cole, safety communications manager at CDOT. But “it impairs perception of time, distance and speed. And it also impairs your reaction time.”
A lot of people don’t realize it’s illegal to drive stoned. Just like with alcohol, driving under the influence can put people at risk for a DUI. In Colorado, that can mean up to a $13,500 fine and jail time. This includes people who use marijuana medically.
Fatal car crashes involving cannabis in Colorado have climbed since the state legalized the drug in 2012. In 2013, there were 18 fatalities involving drivers under the influence of marijuana; 44 fatalities were recorded in 2015.
Colorado law dictates that the legal limit of active THC — the compound in cannabis that makes us high — is 5 nanograms. But detecting the amount of THC in the blood isn’t easy, Cole says. Marijuana affects people differently and comes in all sorts of potencies.
And there’s no foolproof way for police officers to test if drivers are stoned. For now, police do blood tests on impaired drivers but those tests are contingent on officers making an arrest first.
Washington, DC, and eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — have legalized the recreational use of marijuana and 20 additional states allow for medical use of the drug. That number is bound to grow as more states continue to push legalization legislation.
420 turf wars
Even as lawful marijuana spreads across the US, Colorado is still king of the weed world. Not only is it ground zero for legalization in the US, it’s also home to the biggest 420 festival in the world (420 is code for smoking cannabis).
And while the festival is all about feeling irie, it’s also big business. More than 80,000 people are expected to attend Thursday, according to Colorado state police, along with hundreds of vendors. DJs and bands will be playing all day, and rap group 2 Chainz will give a free concert.
With the throngs of stoners, Uber and Lyft are gearing up to get in on the action. Uber is the “official transportation partner” of the festival, and has also partnered with the Colorado State Police, MADD and Native Roots dispensaries. Uber’s tagline for the week: “Take the high road.”
“Marijuana impaired driving is 100 percent preventable,” Uber spokeswoman Tracey Breeden said in a statement. “With our technology, we want to help everyone have a safe 420 week.”
But while Uber nabbed the official sponsor spot, Lyft will also have a big presence throughout the week’s festivities. It’s partnered with Tru Cannabis dispensary as well as the Red Rocks concert venue, and it’s sponsoring a side-festival called “420 On The Block.”
Lyft also has those 17 wrapped cars.
As Mascarenas cruises through Denver, she tells me most passengers don’t plan ahead when driving stoned as they do with drinking. It’s going to take a while for that cultural shift to happen, she says. But that shift looks like it’s already underway.
Mascarenas picks up a couple of passengers heading to a party. As we chat, I ask one if he’s high. He hints that marijuana could be in the night’s plans.
“I’m not,” he says. “But I’m not driving either.”