ABC’s WNT Reports on Dangers of Driving High, Yet Mention Some ‘Studies Disagree’ That Problem Exists

Thursday night’s edition of ABC World News Tonight with David Muir included a report from ABC News correspondent Clayton Sandell on the growing problem in Colorado with law enforcement encountering motorists that are driving while high on marijuana in the time since the state legalized its recreational use after voters approved it in 2012. 

However, at the end of his report, Sandell pointed out that, in a piece that otherwise spotlighted the dangers of marijuana, “different studies disagree on whether stoned drivers are actually causing more crashes.” 

After that, he made another pot joke following video of a police officer about to arrest a motorist who was high. Sandell remarked that individuals like him may “now could be headed for a different kind of joint.”

The ending to Sandell’s piece was unfortunate because the two-minute-long report highlighted the growing dangers in smoking marijuana and then getting behind the wheel. In addition, he followed around police officers in Colorado as they conducted traffic stops for individuals that were driving dangerously and erratically that they suspected could be driving high. 

Sandell also included interviews with a Denver Health doctor expressing concern and a woman who was seriously injured in a car accident by someone driving high.

Further, Sandell reported that “Colorado state troopers have written nearly 230 citations for driving high” and research by a team of doctors at Denver Health found that, in Colorado, “the number of drivers testing positive” for marijuana “after fatal crashes doubled.”

The report on Thursday’s World News Tonight was quite similar to a report by NBC News correspondent Miguel Almaguer on March 10's Today, that included a ride-along with a Colorado State Patrolman and video of officers training how to recognize motorists who are high. As the Media Research Center’s Kyle Drennen reported, the story also cited that “[m]ore than half of Colorado’s 61 arrests made in January for impaired driving involved someone who was high.” 

Overall, Sandell’s story marked the latest installment in the on-going pattern of broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC going back and forth in portraying the drug in either a positive or negative light. Reports have ranged from Almaguer’s critical report for Today in March to CBS This Morning and Today on July 7 pushing puff pieces on pot. 

In the CBS This Morning story, CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen profiled writers of a blog started by The Denver Post that’s dedicated to “all things pot” and substitute co-host Jeff Glor proclaimed that it was “[a]mong the most sought after positions.” 

Over on Today that same morning, NBC News west coast correspondent Joe Fryer joked that marijuana dispensaries in Washington state were opening the next day “at high noon.”

The relevant portions of the transcript from ABC World News Tonight with David Muir on September 11 are transcribed below.

ABC World News Tonight with David Muir
September 11, 2014
6:30 p.m. Eastern [TEASE]

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: New Driving Danger] 

DAVID MUIR: The new driving danger. We're in the patrol car as they pull this driver over. 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: All right, man, you are driving all over the place. 

MUIR: It's not drunk driving. Authorities say the new danger is something else. 


6:44 p.m. Eastern [TEASE]

MUIR: There is still much more ahead on World News Tonight this Thursday. We are inside the car as police pull over this driver. Authorities say it is not drunk driving. Tonight, they say it's something else. The new and frightening danger on the roads, putting your family at risk. 


6:47 p.m. Eastern

MUIR: Next tonight here to what authorities call the new driving danger next to you on the road. You've seen drunk drivers, but tonight here, a different kind. This year, Colorado and Washington becoming the first states to legalize recreational marijuana and now that new concern on the roads. ABC's Clayton Sandell on patrol with the police. 


CLAYTON SANDELL: It's the new challenge for cops patrolling Colorado's highways. 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Any marijuana tonight? 

UNIDENTIFIED MOTORIST: I did have some of that, sir. 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I did have some of that, sir. Okay. 

SANDELL: Drivers getting behind the wheel, stoned.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: New Driving Danger; Inside a Police Crackdown]

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Hey, you know why I stopped you? 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: All right man, you are driving all over the place, okay? Hey, man. How much marijuana have you smoked tonight? UNIDENTIFIED MOTORIST: No. 

SANDELL: Police say the signs of drunk driving can be obvious, but judging marijuana impairment is tougher. 



SANDELL: For now, police are relying on standard roadside tests. 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Follow me under my pen with your eyes and your eyes only. Okay, take a series of nine heal-to-toe steps down that line that you’re seeing.

SANDELL: There is no breathalyzer test and results from drawing blood can take weeks. Plus, experts say seasoned users are less impaired with more in their blood and newer users are going to be more impaired with less in their blood. This year, Colorado state troopers have written nearly 230 citations for driving high, compared to over 3,100 for alcohol. 

DR. CHRISTIAN THURSTONE: People need to know that it's a significant problem. 

SANDELL: Dr. Christian Thurstone and colleagues found that as marijuana has become widely available in Colorado, the number of drivers testing positive after fatal crashes doubled. Valerie Walton is recovering from serious injuries after she was hit by a driver police say was high. 

VALERIE WALTON: It makes me upset because they don't realize that it does affect them. 

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Seeing some body tremors. I’m seeing some – like you said, your red eyes. Put your hands behind your back. SANDELL: But different studies disagree on whether stoned drivers are actually causing more crashes. This driver failed his roadside test. 

SANDELL: And now could be headed for a different kind of joint. Clayton Sandell, ABC News, Denver. 

MUIR: Clayton, thank you.

— Curtis Houck is News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Curtis Houck on Twitter.