Of all the taboos attached to the use of marijuana, some true and others false, there is one point both sides of this growing concern agree. Driving high is just as impaired as driving drunk, albeit a different kind of impairment.
Although scientific studies show that cannabis is not a Gateway Drug as many have feared, it is not addictive relative to other substances including caffeine, it does not cause cancer, nor does it damage your lungs like tobacco does. Statistics from many large city police services shows that it does not lead to an increase of violent crime.
But that does not mean it is totally harmless. These same studies have indicated that “stoned driving” isn’t much, if any, better than drunk driving, but it is different.
Being the first two states to make marijuana legal, Colorado and Washington States have had sufficient time to crunch the numbers and have found that while the number is sufficiently worrisome, the method used when classifying a crash as “marijuana related” may skew those statistics somewhat.
If a drug test shows you smoked half a joint last week and drank a bottle of vodka 20 minutes ago, your car crash goes down in the books as “marijuana related.” The THC remains in your blood many hours, days and even weeks after your last joint, but you are not necessarily impaired.
Other similar studies have estimated that, compared to sober drivers, pot-impaired drivers have a five per cent greater risk of crashing. But alcohol-impaired drivers, under the legal limit of (.8) have a 225 per cent greater risk.
But that is not a blank cheque to decide to drive stoned. Even though you cannot overdose on weed, you can fall asleep or space out at the wheel. At that point it becomes dangerous not only for the driver, but for everyone else on the road or sidewalk.
Colorado State law specifies, “drivers with five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in their whole blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence (DUI)… and no matter the level of THC, law enforcement officers base arrests on observed impairment.”
Specifically, studies found that traffic fatalities fell by nearly nine-percent after the legalization of pot in those states, five years ago, according to University of Colorado Professor, Daniel Rees and Montana State University Professor, D. Mark Anderson.
The reason explained was that there are less drunk drivers on the road now that pot is readily available. Those numbers can be twisted many different ways, but the reasoning makes sense.
A stoned person is quite different from a drunken person, even if it’s the same person. In a nutshell, most drunks becomes 10-foot-tall and bullet proof. Many become aggressive and easily angered. A pot smoker is usually mellow, friendly, and in a much better frame of mind although still impaired as to reflexes and distance judgment.
In 2013, Colorado police found that nearly 25 per cent more drivers tested positive for marijuana than before legalization. But there has been no corresponding jump in accidents or arrests for intoxicated driving.
“When I speak to the police, they say that given the cost, the time, the challenges in these areas, that they only lay drug impaired charges if they are slam-dunk cases,” says Robert Solomon of Western University’s law school.
Here in Canada, the results have been similar.
“Depending on the person, drivers with high levels of THC in their system might not be impaired, while others with low levels may be unsafe,” said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research.
“The level does not in and of itself say the person was impaired,” added Doug Beirness, vice-chairman of the Canadian Society of Forensic Science committee advising Ottawa on drugs and driving. “If you’ve just taken a puff of cannabis, your level could be very high. But then it’s redistributed in your body and it gets to your brain. And that’s when the impairment occurs.”
But even after all the statistics and differing opinions on the subject, it only makes sense to not drive if impaired by any substance.