Driving and Cannabis – Critical Questions Answered

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As recreational cannabis continues its advance across the United States, questions are once again being asked about road safety. Reaching any general consensus on the subject has so far proved difficult, given the way in which the opinions vary so wildly. A subject of heavy public debate it may be, but the whole driving and cannabis issue is one that hasn’t received nearly enough attention to date at an official level. Nevertheless, with millions more Americans now having every right to indulge, it’s a subject that most certainly cannot be side-lined any longer.

The November ballot transformed the cannabis culture of the US overnight.  Chances are, the example set by the nine states that took cannabis to the vote will have enormous influence over others, which are likely to follow suit soon enough. Cannabis in one form or another is now available to more than half of the US population – many of whom are still at least partially in the dark when it comes to the driving debate. The team behind recently conducted a subscriber poll, which confirmed widespread confusion among cannabis users.


Conflicting Opinions

Bring the subject to the attention of cannabis critics and they will likely all tell you the same. In their opinion, consumption of cannabis in any capacity and before getting behind the wheel is just as dangerous and reckless as hitting the road after hitting the bottle. On the other side of the fence, cannabis supporters swear blind that cannabis has an entirely different effect on the body and therefore cannot be realistically compared to alcohol. Some even go so far as to state that marijuana makes them safer behind the wheel – that’s a debate we will not be getting into right now.

If you look at the subject with a sense of neutrality and common sense, you start to get the idea that the truth is somewhat central. First of all, cannabis and alcohol are indeed two entirely different things and therefore have very different effects on the body. Nevertheless, anything that has the potential to negatively affect driving ability even to a minor extent is something that should be prohibited and avoided outright. Indeed, both arguments have their own elements of truth.

So rather than taking sides, it might be a better idea to take note of what we actually know for sure about driving and cannabis, based on hard evidence and facts rather than personal opinion.

driving the way alcohol

Driving the way alcohol / Pixabay

Does cannabis impair driving the way alcohol does?

Technically speaking, it’s impossible to answer this question outright as both alcohol and cannabis affect different people in different ways. Instead therefore, we can gain an insight as to exactly how cannabis consumption affects RTA rates in regions that have ended prohibition.

For example, it was reported back in 2013 that traffic deaths directly related to cannabis had increased 48% in the wake of cannabis legalization. However, far more substantiated reports from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reached the conclusion that where every variable of importance has been taken into account, cannabis legalization doesn’t have any impact on the number of annual accidents, injuries or fatalities on the roads, attributed to drug use. At the same time, accident-rates attributed to alcohol use continue to climb.

A much earlier study by the Department of Transportation carried out in 1993 reached the conclusion that “THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small” in comparison to alcohol. But at the same time, the report also stated outright that this does not mean cannabis may not adversely affect driving ability. It simply reached the conclusion that of the two, alcohol is considerably worse.

Do all cannabis strains affect driving ability to the same extent?

Like the previous question, the answer here varies significantly from one person to the next. Which is precisely why the subject as a whole has become incredibly complicated and difficult to nail. Not only does cannabis in general have a very different impact and effect from one person to the next, but the same is also true when considering each individual cannabis strain.

Just as there are certain cannabis strains that guarantee immediate and heavy sedation, others deliver energised feelings of alertness and concentration.  Likewise, while one cannabis user may benefit from optimism and positivity from any given strain, the same strain may fill someone else with an overwhelming sense of paranoia and anxiety.  It all depends on who you are.

Which means that the answer is of course, no – all cannabis strains affect different people in different ways.

Things are different with alcohol as its effects are entirely more predictable.  While it’s true to say that individual tolerance differs greatly from one person to the next, the general effects alcohol has on the body and mind are largely consistent. In addition, alcohol has the same effect on the person consuming it, regardless of the specific product or method of ingestion chosen.

Is it legal to drive while impaired by cannabis?

In a word, no. Far too many people overlook the dangers associated with driving under the influence of anything at all. From prescription medication to recreational drugs and anything else that can affect driving ability, it is fundamentally illegal to compromise the safety of other road users in such a manner. And what’s worth remembering is that when it comes to determining whether or not you are in fact compromising your driving abilities, it isn’t your decision to make. If you get pulled over and subsequently test positive, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve never felt more alert, aware and in-control in your entire life. If anything, cannabis drivers are likely to be punished even more severely in the era of decriminalisation.


Is there an effective way to test for cannabis impairment?

Not at all, which is precisely why you need to be very careful when it comes to cannabis use and driving. As it stands, the only genuinely accurate way of testing whether or not an individual has been using cannabis is to perform a blood test. Which is clearly something that cannot be done at the roadside.  Which immediately causes problems, compounded by the fact that cannabis may still show up in the results on the test, even if the person in question hasn’t touched the stuff for days…even weeks. All of which means that if you chose to indulge at the weekend and are summarily tested the following Thursday, the results may still indicate that you are under the influence and are therefore breaking the law. It’s a highly flawed system and one in desperate need of an overhaul, given the on-going changes in cannabis legislation.

So, what should I do?

When presented with everything we know (and don’t know) about cannabis driving to date, the simple advice is to not take the risk. Of course, it’s going to prove extremely difficult for regular cannabis users to also operate motor vehicles in accordance with state laws, while testing methods remain so imperfect. Even if you think cannabis makes you a better driver, this definitely isn’t the view of those out to relieve you of your licence. And even if you’re right, you’re still only ever one test away from big trouble.

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