As cannabis takes the world by storm, there are many offshoots of its increasing legalization that very few could have predicted.
One of the main compounds within cannabis, known as cannabidiol or CBD, has now found its way into pet treats, athletic supplements and even the skin care industry. Hemp is being used to construct clothing and houses, and more people than ever are showing up to work stoned.
Now, the latest hurdle for cannabis advocates is the growing trend for users to smoke behind the wheel.
According to CBS news, almost 15 million drivers in the U.S. got behind the wheel of a car within an hour after using marijuana in the last month alone.
Upon hearing this, most will think the solution is simple: Ban the consumption of cannabis when behind the wheel – which is essentially what most places have done.
However, given there were 15 million stoned drivers in just one month, a zero-tolerance policy towards cannabis may not be realistic. And given the litany of health benefits associated with cannabis use, many of those drivers may have been prescribed the plant for medicinal purposes. For some, cannabis is as necessary as a pharmaceutical pill.
Though even in these medicinal cases, cannabis remains illegal to consume behind the wheel. This is despite the fact that other medicines, such as opioids, aren't tested for at roadside stops.
Anew study conducted by the researchers at Columbia University has even found that using opioids appears to double the risk that a driver will trigger a fatal crash, regardless of whether alcohol is in the mix.
The study looked at two years worth of fatal, two-vehicle crashes and found that more than half of those accidents involved narcotics, often leading the individual to drift outside of their own lane. The primary researcher of the study, Guohua Li, said the findings show just how severe America's opioid crisis actually is.
According to the CDC, there were almost 58 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 Americans in 2017.
And if it isn't opiates, the next drug of choice is of course alcohol. According to Responsibility.org, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities comprised 29% of the total vehicle traffic fatalities in 2017.
While only small amounts of alcohol are legal when behind the wheel, they still play a much larger role in accidents than cannabis. These facts muddy the waters when it comes to an all-out cannabis ban when driving.
The Test of Time
When it comes to testing the differing levels of impairment upon the ingestion of different drugs, there simply isn't a clear cut answer.
Firstly, one can quite easily test for alcohol by measuring a persons BAC – Blood Alcohol Concentration. As many will know first hand, this is measured simply by blowing into a breathalyzer. If your BAC is higher than 0.08%, you're in trouble.
And with increased BAC levels, there's fairly clear effects. The more you drink, the less lucid and cognizant you become, until eventually your speech, coordination and attention are at dangerously impaired levels.
Cannabis however, isn't as simple.
Firstly, to test for cannabis, one must carry out a roadside saliva test, which will alert the police officer whether or not there's THC in your system. Though saliva tests haven't had the best track record as of late. Roadside cannabis tests have been reported to give inaccurate results, which can only be zeroed into through several days of lab testing.
In a study performed by Sydney University, it was shown that roadside mobile saliva tests provided inaccurate results over 20 per cent of the time when testing for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
In some cases, the tests came back positive, despite users having not smoked cannabis in days or weeks.
The Academic director of Sydney University's Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, Iain McGregor, stated his concerns with the current testing process.
"We found on occasion the tests gave a false positive when people have very low levels of THC and that is a concern for the carriage of justice, people are not impaired and they have not had cannabis for quite a long time.
"We had someone test positive for THC who was using a placebo," McGregor said.
In fact, Nicole Spackman, an Australian woman who tested positive for cannabis, was able to get off charges as she claimed she only ingested cannabis secondhand from her terminally ill neighbor. In that instance, the judge ruled that we simply don't know enough about THC and its role in the body to make a concrete judgment.
This puts police in a difficult position, as they want to minimize drug use while driving, but currently lack a definitive roadside test for cannabis.
On top of that, the level of intoxication provided by cannabis isn't clear either. Gallop polls have shown that 70% of Americans feel comfortable with driving while stoned, reporting that it doesn't impede their abilities. And while driving under the influence of any drug is never desirable, some argue that marijuana is a safer substance for drivers to be taking than alcohol or opiates.
A 2010 analysis published in the American Journal of Addiction found that while "cannabis and alcohol acutely impair several driving-related skills … marijuana smokers tend to compensate effectively while driving by utilizing a variety of behavioral strategies".
While drinkers often miscalculate their own impairment, leading to increased speeds while driving, cannabis gives users the opposite effect, making drivers much more cautious and hesitant.
Benjamin Hansen, an economist at the University of Oregon in Eugene and at the National Bureau of Economic Research, has studied marijuana and its effects on users driving abilities.
Hansen stated that people who have recently smoked actually become more risk-averse.
"They'll drive slower, they'll follow cars at greater distances, they'll take some actions that at least somewhat offset the fact that they're impaired."
– Benjamin Hansen, Economist at University of Oregon
He also cites a study performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1993 which shows that people who have smoked just a third of a joint will say they are impaired, even though tests would show virtually no impairment. The administration states that "cognitive studies suggest that cannabis use may lead to unsafe driving, experimental studies have suggested that it can have the opposite effect."
Green Light for Ganja?
In every instance, driving sober is optimal. Taking any mind-altering substance or drug is undoubtedly worse than having the driver in a sober state. Though given that people inevitably will be taking substances—either recreationally or medicinally—it now becomes a question of which substances are going to be safest.
Many now believe that cannabis is one of the safer drugs to ingest while driving, and evidence can somewhat verify that claim. Hansen carried out a study in 2013 to investigate the role of cannabis in driving, and found that in the first full year after medical marijuana was legalized, states saw an 8–11 percent decrease in traffic fatalities.
The same study also found that when cannabis was legalized, rates of alcohol consumption simultaneously decreased. This correlation led Hansen to believe the two drugs were substitutes for one another, and as marijuana usage increases, alcohol usage will drop.
Research has also shown that adolescents—primarily males between the ages of 12-21—are increasingly choosing cannabis as their first drug to experiment with over alcohol and tobacco. In 2004, 4.8% of those involved in the study stated that marijuana was the first drug they'd tried. In 2014, the number had almost doubled. As marijuana becomes increasingly legal it's highly likely we'll see this number continue to rise and perhaps one day, overtake alcohol entirely.
And with the leaps and bounds made by the medicinal marijuana industry, many believe that marijuana will eventually replace the majority of opioid prescriptions.
So while studies remain scarce and uncertain surrounding the impairing effects of cannabis, it's clear that there is a growing movement towards the plant as a source of recreation and medicine, and this trend will only continue to rise.
And if cannabis does prove to be a safer drug than alcohol or opioids when it comes to driving, then this may be a trend which eventually saves many lives.
Until then, as we said, the evidence is scarce. Be responsible and avoid taking any substances, legal or otherwise, behind the wheel. And if you do happen to have a sneaky joint instead of a beer at a party, consider getting an Uber home.