CDOT examines marijuana-impaired driving behaviors of Gen Z, 10 years after recreational marijuana became legal

News Release

February 5, 2024 - Statewide Safety News - Growing up (and driving) in the age of legal cannabis

CDOT examina el comportamiento al manejar bajo el efecto de la marihuana de personas de la generación Z, 10 años después de que se legalizara el consumo recreativo de marihuana en español.

Statewide — Generation Z is the first generation of Coloradans who have grown up in a state where recreational cannabis is legal. As this group transitions into adulthood, CDOT is examining how the attitudes and behaviors of Gen Z differ from those of previous generations when it comes to driving high.

CDOT’s 2023 survey of nearly 1,000 randomly selected Colorado drivers shows 18–24-year-olds consume cannabis more than twice as often as the average driver (seven times per month vs. three times per month). Click here to find more information about CDOT's 2023 cannabis survey

Gen Z was also more than twice as likely to report driving high in the last 30 days. One out of five (20%) 18-24-year-old drivers said they had driven within two hours of using cannabis at least once within the last month compared to 7% of older Colorado drivers.

In partnership with Native Roots Cannabis Co., CDOT also conducted intercept interviews with customers at the Native Roots Speer Boulevard location. More interviews with cannabis consumers were coordinated through referrals from the agency's communication office. The effort aims to gather valuable insights and feedback to inform future initiatives and messaging strategies.

“Cannabis has been legal my whole adult life,” said a 25-year-old young professional woman living in Denver who asked to remain anonymous for privacy considerations. “My friends and I prefer marijuana to alcohol — times have changed.” She added she consumes cannabis daily and alcohol about once a week. She sees driving high as dangerous but believes that’s not true for everyone her age.

CDOT continues to partner with the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and certified driving schools throughout the state to share the facts of cannabis-impaired driving with young drivers to educate them early. Campaign messaging focuses on how cannabis impairs critical driving abilities and can result in a DUI and other severe consequences.

However, changing perceptions around driving high still has a ways to go. When asked in the survey if they could drive safely under the influence of cannabis, 37% of Gen Z cannabis consumers said yes. For comparison, 17% of those ages 25-34 agreed with the statement.

Cannabis survey results bar graph
CDOT's 2023 Driver Behavior Survey

“Our audience has broadened as Coloradans from new demographics explore legal cannabis consumption,” said Darrell Lingk, CDOT’s director of the Office of Transportation Safety & Risk Management. “And cultural norms are constantly changing as well. We have data, but we also need to understand the human component to increase safe driving behaviors and decrease cannabis-involved crashes and fatalities on our roadways.”

While CDOT’s survey shows Gen Z respondents report consuming cannabis more often, 2020 DUI case filing data from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice shows drivers screened for THC and other cannabinoids ages 16 to 23 had the highest rate of positivity at 62.5%. Drivers ages 24 to 38 tested positive for THC or other cannabinoids at a rate of 44%. However, traffic safety data spanning the last decade shows the youngest subset is always the most at-risk age group. Click here to see the 2020 DUI case filing data.

“Reaching our most at-risk Coloradans can be difficult,” said Sam Cole, CDOT safety communications manager. “Young consumers are cord-cutters, they consume news and information differently than before — but they’re not the only people we need to reach. There are many people across all demographics, age groups, socioeconomic statuses, and locations that we still need to convince that driving high is dangerous and illegal.” Cole said that CDOT is taking a no-opportunity-left-behind mentality when it comes to reaching those consumers.

Working alongside the cannabis industry, targeted advertising and engaging directly with cannabis consumers in a way that resonates is key, he said.

“Research has shown that the most effective way to change behavior is to show that those who do choose to drive high are in the minority. Positive social norming can be effective,” said Cole.

CDOT’s multi-year initiative with the Colorado DMV includes materials for use by driving schools — in classrooms and online — as well as signage and materials featured at numerous DMV locations throughout Colorado.

Drive high DUI banner
CDOT's Drive High get a DUI pop-up banner, placed in local DMV offices.

“I definitely think it's dangerous to drive high because things happen so quickly on the road, and marijuana inhibits your reaction time behind the wheel,” said Kimberly, a 23-year-old daily cannabis consumer interviewed at Native Roots. “A lot of my friends will tell me, ‘Okay, let’s wait. Don’t go home yet.’” Kimberly consumes alcohol about once a month but consumes cannabis daily. She believes that her parent’s generation views marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug, while cannabis consumption is less taboo among Gen Z.

For information and resources on cannabis-impaired driving, visit CDOT’s website. Additionally, CDOT has partnered with Learn Brands, an online budtender education platform, to provide a free interactive cannabis-impaired driving safety course. View and take CDOT’s Budtender Training Course, linked here.