At Marijuana Break, we aim to provide readers with truthful information about weed. At no point do we hide any inconvenient facts about the herb, and this is certainly the case when it comes to driving while under the influence of cannabis. It is amazing that some people still think it is a good idea to get stoned and then drive an automobile.
In reality, being stoned and driving is no different to driving while under the influence of alcohol. With the number of states legalizing medicinal marijuana swelling to 33 plus D.C., law enforcement has a new problem: Identifying drivers guilty of DUI from marijuana use.
When you consume alcohol, it is relatively easy to track how it is absorbed, distributed, and eliminated from the body. A person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is a fairly good indicator of their level of inebriation.
This isn’t the case with marijuana. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, but its presence in a driver’s body is NOT the most reliable way to determine a DUI. It is possible to detect THC metabolites in blood or urine for up to a month after use, depending on how frequently a person uses weed, along with the quantities used.
At present, there are no uniform laws to decide how weed testing is used at traffic stops, not to mention no definitive guide on drug screening. A significant issue is the lack of a field test analogous to a breathalyzer for marijuana. With no national standard for drugged driving tests, it can be a question of ‘pot luck’ if you get pulled over.
Before we delve into ‘high’ driving statistics, let’s first take a look at how weed hinders your driving skills, and what might happen at a traffic stop.
Does Marijuana Impair My Driving Skills?
The short answer to this question is ‘yes.’Even NORML recognizes this fact and recommends not getting behind the wheel for 3-4 hours after you have finished using weed. The level of impairment is unclear, because of the lack of accurate roadside testing for marijuana. In a July 2017 report to Congress, the NHTSA pointed out this fact and knows how big of a problem it is.
To date, the best anyone can do is conduct driving simulation research. When this was performed, it was shown that marijuana reduces your reaction time, tracking ability, target detection, not to mention cognitive skills such as anticipation, attention, and judgment. It was also shown that weed use affects risk-taking, but the NHTSA did not find an obvious link between marijuana usage and car accidents.
There is an interesting difference between those under the influence of alcohol and weed that is significant when it comes to driving. While those who drink alcohol underestimate their level of impairment, those who get stoned tend to overestimate it. Typically, you can expect a stoned driver to travel more slowly, stay a greater distance behind cars and take fewer risks when compared to a sober driver. In contrast, a drunk driver speeds, drives too close to cars in front and takes too many risks.
In theory, at least, a stoned driver is less likely to be involved in automobile accidents than drunk drivers and is only slightly more likely to be involved in an accident than sober drivers.
What Happens if You Get Pulled Over on Suspicion of Drugged Driving?
When it comes to alcohol, if you are involved in an accident or are pulled over for driving erratically, a police officer will ask you to blow into a breathalyzer. In most states (but not all), if your BAC is over 0.08, you will be arrested and charged with DUI.
As far as cannabis is concerned, the police officer doesn’t have such an easy task. If you drive erratically, and the officer suspects you of being high, you may be asked to complete a field sobriety test. If in doubt, you could be brought to the police station where a trained Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) checks for signs of drug use including red eyes, pupil size, and blood pressure.
There are a few relatively new tests available such as oral fluid drug screening devices. These can provide law enforcement with a preliminary indication of whether a laboratory test is likely to yield a positive result for THC.
States such as Nevada, Ohio, Montana, Washington, and Pennsylvania have per se Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID) laws. If a blood test finds more than the acceptable legal limit of THC metabolites (normally 5 nanograms of THC per ml of blood), you are considered in violation of the law without the need for a Drug Influence Evaluation or a Field Sobriety Test.
Several more states, including Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, and Illinois, have a ‘zero tolerance’ per se law. You can be arrested if any measurable level of THC or one of its metabolites is found in your blood. This is a major issue for regular users since THC metabolites remain in the blood for weeks after your last marijuana use.
The only good news is that in most states, DUID laws are ‘effect based.’ A prosecutor has to argue that the observed impairment at your traffic stop was down to marijuana use rather than the level of THC in your blood. It isn’t always easy to make the case so there is a decent chance you will escape punishment, as long as you hire a competent legal team!
How Do Marijuana Driving Statistics Compare to Drink Driving?
The campaign against drink driving in the United States appears to be having a positive effect. The NHTSA study looked at the number of weekend drivers with a BAC of 0.08+ and noted a massive downturn in a 40-year period. In 1973, 7.5% of weekend drivers had a BAC above the legal limit. In 2013/2014, just 1.5% of drivers were guilty of the same infraction.
Even so, the CDC reported that 10,497 people died in an ‘alcohol-impaired’ car crash in 2016; a figure that accounted for 28% of all fatal road accidents. The same study found that 13% of nighttime weekend drivers have weed in their system. The CDC also discovered that marijuana users were 25% more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than sober drivers. The study did point out that age and gender factors could account for much of this increased risk.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released results of a 2016 study and found that 8% of drivers in fatal crashes had used marijuana in 2013, but 17% of those involved in fatal accidents were under the influence of weed just a year later. This study was limited to Washington state and cannabis had been legalized recreationally in the state before the sudden jump in fatalities.
From 2013 to 2016, the number of drivers in Colorado who tested positive for THC increased by 145%. A worrying increase until you discover that even in 2016, only 115 drivers tested positive for the psychoactive compound.
The GHSA recently released a report on how marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington impacted traffic safety in these states. It found the following:
- Month-by-month usage of weed in Colorado increased amongst adults aged 26+ by 71% in the first three years of legalization (2013-2015) when compared to the final three years before it (2010-2012).
- In Washington, the number of drivers that tested positive for THC increased to 21.4% a year after legalization. The figure at the time of legalization was 14.6%.
- In Colorado, traffic deaths increased by 16% in the three years after legalization compared to the average of the final four years before legalization.
- Even so, the study did not find any link between an increase in overall traffic accidents and fatalities with marijuana legalization.
It seems clear that consuming marijuana DOES negatively impact your driving skills. One 2016 study in Norway analyzed 13 international crash and collision studies across 33 years. It found that weed use increases your risk of a crash by 30% compared to a sober driver.
Meanwhile, a report by the NHTSA, released in December 2016, found that drivers over the legal limit for alcohol were an incredible 600 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a sober driver.
Drunk Driving Vs. High Driving: Final Thoughts
The studies to date only serve to outline what many of us suspected: You are significantly less likely to crash when stoned than when you are drunk. However, this is NOT an excuse to use weed and get behind the wheel. One of the most disturbing aspects of the studies so far is the relaxed, almost dismissive, attitude of drivers towards marijuana use before going on the road.
In September 2014, the GHSA surveyed drivers in Colorado and Washington who reported any cannabis use in the previous month. An incredible 43% admitted to driving under the influence of the herb in the past year, while almost 24% had driven within an hour of using weed a minimum of five times in the past month.
Once upon a time, drivers used to say that a beer or two relaxed them and enabled them to drive safely. We know now that is a complete fallacy. Hopefully, the same will ring true when it comes to marijuana use while driving. Sure, you feel more relaxed, but in reality, your reflexes are slower, your judgment is impaired, and you are significantly more likely to make a mistake that results in a crash. Depending on how much you smoke, it will take hours for you to be fit for driving. The sooner that people in America, and around the world, view cannabis in the same light as alcohol when it comes to driving, the better.