Radical Rant: The Truth About Marijuana and Driving

You’ve done it. I’ve done it. I’ve traveled all across America and witnessed scores of people doing it. We all say we’re not supposed to, but many of us do it anyway.

Smoking pot and driving—sometimes at the same time.

Half of the problem for us is that most of the public has not a single clue about the effects of marijuana. Less than half of us have tried it, only one in seven use annually and about one in 12 use monthly. For those people whose experience with weed, if any, was a joint in a dorm room 30 years ago, they don’t have much understanding of how we who consume marijuana on a regular basis handle our high.

For those people, alcohol and marijuana are things that impair you, and you shouldn’t drive when using them.

But most of that is driven by the perception of the belligerent drunk, slurring his words and stumbling through the parking lot, angrily proclaiming, “Itsh OK, I can drive, you guysh!” Add to that a consistent refrain from our side to “treat marijuana like alcohol,” and you can understand the public’s trepidation about stoned drivers—especially when we haven’t given them a marijuana breathalyzer so the cops can “treat marijuana like alcohol”.

The other half of the problem is that marijuana ain’t alcohol. In fact, it’s almost anti-alcohol. Think about it. Booze makes you mean; pot makes you mellow. Booze is water-soluble; pot is fat-soluble. Booze is man-made; pot is natural. Booze is a poison; pot is a medicine. Booze makes you puke; pot cures nausea. And so on.

Some people get this. They may tell you that you shouldn’t drive impaired by anything, but if they had to make a choice, they would ride in the car with a stoned driver before a drunk driver.

The reason for that is marijuana, when it is impairing one’s senses and reactions, it isn’t impairing one’s judgment. The drunk’s not only too impaired to drive, his brain is telling him that he isn’t. (Liquid courage!)

The stoner who gets too high won’t be terribly impaired, but his brain will tell him he is. Numerous researchers trying to get test subjects high for driving tests often report that the subjects will refuse to get out on the driving course when they feel too high and have to be goaded by the researchers to do so.

Even if we do get behind the wheel while feeling the effects of marijuana impairment, we overcompensate for it by driving slower, leaving more room between cars and making fewer lane changes. The old joke that the drunk driver runs the stop sign while the pothead waits for it to turn green has a kernel of truth to it.

The other reason is that frequent marijuana users will develop a tolerance to its impairing effects.

Not just compensating for impairment, but actually lacking impairment. Seattle’s KOMO News produced a great demonstration of this when they got a 24-year-old medical marijuana patient named Addy Norton to consume marijuana to the point where she had 56 nanograms of active THC per milliliter in her blood—11 times the per se DUID limit in Washington of five nanograms—before the experts observing her said that her driving was “borderline.” (You get to 11 times the 0.08 alcohol limit, and you’re borderline dead.)

That five nanogram limit was set in Washington to allay the fears of nervous voters by giving them a “treat marijuana like alcohol” equivalent to the 0.08 BAC. But it is a completely useless measurement because of the fat-solubility mentioned earlier. Alcohol, being water-soluble, is processed by our bodies in a dose-dependent, predictable fashion. Whether you’re a jockey or a sumo wrestler, when you’re at 0.08, you’ll be markedly impaired.

But THC, being fat-soluble, stores in your body, releases now and then, and in no way accurately correlates with your impairment. Addy Norton can drive OK at 56 nanograms; Maureen Dowd might be too messed up at 5 nanograms. It’s highly variable from person to person and not correlated by dose.

Recently, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA), an arm of the Drug Czar’s office, released a report on the effects of legalization in Colorado. They claimed that marijuana users were 25 times more likely to be in a fatal crash. Project SAM, the anti-legalization lobby, claimed the British Medical Journal found pot smokers were twice as likely to be in a fatal crash.

The truth? The study RMHIDTA cited actually said that drivers with THC in their system were 25 percent more likely to be in a fatal crash, not 25 times (2500 percent!) more likely. But then, the researchers noted that the greatest amount and frequency of pot smoking is done by 18- to 25-year-old males. Guess who, even when sober, are statistically speaking the worst drivers on the planet? 18- to 25-year-old males. When they corrected the data for age and gender, researchers found that THC-impaired drivers were just five percent more likely to get in fatal crashes, a value that is statistically insignificant (margin of error) from sober drivers.

Hooray, you’re thinking, let’s spark up a doob and hit the road! Not so fast, Dr. Thompson.

Keep in mind that the study looked at people who died in wrecks, then determined if they had THC in their blood. Any THC.

So, indeed there are a whole bunch of dead drivers who might have had, say, less than 10 nanograms in their system and died in a wreck through no fault of their own. But there may also be some drivers who had, say, 100 nanograms in their system after doing a dab who then died in a wreck because they were far too stoned to drive.

In other words, just because the overall study says any THC isn’t a good crash predictor, it doesn’t say that too much THC in your system won’t lead to a wreck.

Personally, I don’t think you have to worry much about wrecking your car if you toke and then drive. You will know how high you are, if you have any experience, and you won’t drive in a manner that should frighten anyone. We trust that adults who drink can drive to a bar and then drive home if they aren’t too impaired (that is, below 0.08 BAC), so why can’t we trust adults not to drive too impaired by THC?

However, I always strongly recommend you never toke and drive. Not because you may be too impaired, but because traffic stops are the number one way cops have to bust you and that weed smell will persist even if you roll down the windows.

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