Lose the rhetoric — here’s the truth about driving high on cannabis


Oftentimes in American politics, the policy is incongruent with the relevant science. We have seen this time and again with regards to climate change, fracking, intelligent design, and, more recently, with stoned driving in Massachusetts, where marijuana was legalized this past election cycle.

Disregarding the reality that people had been driving high for decades prior to the recent vote, Commonwealth lawmakers and their PR branch, the local mainstream news media, are indoctrinating an already-confused public about this “new threat” of stoned driving.

On the surface, this appears to be a relevant concern. If cannabis, like alcohol, causes a loss of coordination and an increase in aggression, which would then lead to an increased risk of car crashes, then it would certainly be in the public’s best interest to stop this threat in its tracks. But there is no such recorded spike in wrecks associated with legalization of cannabis. Nor was there a notable increase in pot-related crashes after marijuana was decriminalized in 2008 or following the introduction of medicinal pot and subsequent opening of dispensaries since 2012.

And why is that?

Because no such spikes in driving fatalities associated with the use of marijuana appear to exist. Not in any recent study, nor in any study from the ’60s. Or ’70s. This isn’t drug enthusiast propaganda, either.

Mainstream scientific literature, like a recent study by Columbia University researchers published in the American Journal of Public Health, suggest that medical marijuana legalization has actually correlated with an approximate 10 percent decrease in traffic fatalities. Similar government-funded studies, like one conducted by National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration in 2015, also note that there is no “significant increased risk of crash involvement” associated with the use of marijuana.

Even if there is some statistical upswing, though, correlation doesn’t always mean causation. There could be several other factors in play leading to an overall change in accidents, or fatalities. Severe weather conditions, increased smartphone ownership in a given state, or increases to the number of drivers can skew numbers and analyses.

To make matters worse, the public at large and many of the law enforcement agents tasked with enforcing these laws do not understand the science behind cannabis or how it works. Instead many are quite dangerously preparing for legalization with misguided expectations that stoned drivers are like drunken ones. Such ignorance will surely lead to cops, judges, and juries putting innocent people in jail, however unknowingly.

For those who are interested in learning, on the other hand, here is some underlying science:

  • Alcohol is water soluble. When you consume alcohol, it passes through your urine in a matter of hours. The booze remains active until it is flushed out of your system, leading to easy and reliable indicators of intoxication.
  • On the other hand, marijuana is fat soluble, and is thus stored in your body’s adipose tissue and fatty cells for upwards of 30 days, long after its psychoactive effects — which typically last about 2 hours when smoked — wear off, with regular users having a higher concentration of these metabolites stored in their fat cells.

As a result, any such drug test to determine if someone is presently under the influence would likely be inaccurate. A person could come up as having marijuana in their system whether they smoked 10 hours or 10 days ago. That’s not a controversial position; even AAA has called for the handful of states that have arbitrary limits on what “stoned” means for drivers to scrap them, as they are not reliable.

So where does all of this leave us?

At some point in the future, scientific advancements may make a Breathalyzer or comparable tool for use with cannabis feasible. Nevertheless, there is currently no reliable scientific test to determine if someone is stoned, so it makes little sense to treat this as a crime, especially as people are regularly motoring around on physician-prescribed opiate and amphetamine-related drugs without any heat from the establishment to speak of. The argument could also be made that distracted driving (i.e., texting while driving) is drastically more likely a cause for swerving, crashes, and traffic fatalities. 
 All things considered, it would only make sense to prosecute the actual crime (except, of course, in alcohol related cases in which accurate testing is possible). What do I mean by prosecuting the actual crime?

  • If I drive while high and commit property damage, I should be charged with property damage.
  • If I text while driving and commit manslaughter, I should be charged with manslaughter. It’s so simple, I’m surprised that no one’s thought of it before!

In any event, the law, as it stands, may be out of step with science, but unfortunately it is the law, not science, by which we must abide. That said, one should be knowledgeable about laws in their region, and of course follow the Don’t Be Stupid Rule and other intuitive guidelines:

  • Don’t go on “bone cruises.”
  • Do not ignore the open container law in your state, if it has one.
  • Don’t eat 1000 mg of THC and go for a joyride.
  • Drive with full awareness of yourself, your surroundings, and the fragility of life (something cannabis may, realistically, assist in).
  • Realize that you are fortunate enough to live in a state that has legalized marijuana, medical or otherwise, and be happy about that.
  • Again, use common sense. So that you don’t ruin it for everyone else.

Finally, educate and inform those around you. Fight at any level you are capable of to make the public aware that the law does not reflect the science. Do whatever you can to change the law accordingly until the ignorance and fearmongering of prohibition is left in the dust once and for all.

Chris Rice is a writer and holistic health practitioner from Massachusetts who has studied the effects of drugs for nearly a decade. He is a founding member of the Psychedelic Society of New England.