It's a long-awaited weekend and you're spending it with some friends, passing around gossip, food, drinks, and maybe a blunt. The lights are dim and the pop music merged with continuous chatter sends you right to your happy place. Aditya, 32, a Game Testing Engineer, recalls one such night when he took a few hits at his friend's apartment and decided to take a ride around the city roads. It was late at night and Mumbai's roads devoid of traffic looked extremely tempting for a long joyride. He only smoked a moderate amount of weed so that he would feel in control of his abilities as he didn’t want to drive stoned out of his mind.
"With a limited amount of cannabis, it's calming and exciting to drive. It's pretty much normal if you're a seasoned driver. I got the hang of it immediately and didn't perceive it as a task." He tells the Bingedaily.
"After a smoking session at home, I used to love taking my car out for a spin. In fact, it became somewhat of a ritual over time. Personally, cannabis never interfered with my cognitive skills and strangely, I felt like I used to drive a lot better on weed."
But he emphasizes that he can only drive with a limited amount of recreational cannabis as one time when he drove baked, he made several mistakes which could've resulted in traffic fatalities.
"When I was baked out of mind, I used to make mistakes like a shift to the wrong gear. I didn't care about putting an indicator while switching lanes and I didn't even watch out for oncoming traffic. It's definitely a lot riskier. I couldn't tell how fast or slow I was going but in my opinion, it's still safer than drunken driving." He explains.
Much like Aditya, many stoners believe that smoking weed and driving is a safer and healthier alternative to drunk driving. Though, uncommon in Bollywood, American pop culture has made millions off stoner movies that depict the wild adventures friends embark on, while high as a kite. For instance, remember the scene in the 1978 comedy film Up In Smoke when Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin hit the road and lit a gigantic spliff while driving? Well, it’s a fictional movie so it’s funny to see them smoke a comically huge joint but is it really a good idea to ‘toke’ while you’re driving?
People believe that marijuana is a safer intoxicant compared to alcohol while driving
A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 70 percent of Americans polled believed that people who drive while impaired by marijuana are "not much of a problem" or only a "somewhat serious problem," whereas a minority of 29 percent felt it was a very serious problem.
In contrast, 79 percent of Americans think drivers who are impaired by alcohol are a very serious problem.
A recent 2019 study by PSB Research and Buzzfeed News, had similar results and showed that almost half of cannabis users believe it’s safe to drive when you’re high. However, those who abstain from weed, take a different view – only 14% believe someone who’s stoned can drive safely.
There's no standard method for cops to test drivers for marijuana use
Unlike the standard breathalyzer used for detecting alcohol levels in people, there is no universal tool to measure how impaired a stoned driver is, and other field sobriety tests such as walking straight are only relevant to alcohol.
Though marijuana breathalyzers exist and have been tested, they aren't very reliable as there is no clear correlation between how much THC can be objectively linked to impaired driving. In other words, there's no link that determines that ‘x’ quantity of THC in a person's blood will impair their driving skills.
Another issue that THC detectors overlook is that THC can linger in a person's system for over a month since it gets stored in a person's fat cells. So, whilst a blood test can detect THC in a driver's system, it won't be able to ascertain whether the driver toked an hour ago or a week ago.
Countries such as Canada, however, that have legalized medicinal and recreational marijuana use, have set legal limits for the amount of THC that can be in a driver's system. According to Mother Against Drunk Drinking (MADD), Canada, in order to fail the roadside oral screening test, a driver must have above 25 nanograms per milliliter of THC in his or her oral fluid. Readings at this level are indicative of very recent use or a high level of impairment. However, some researchers claim Canada’s THC testing methods are too strict and impractical.
One study by the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggested that Canada’s cannabis-impaired driving penalties may be too strict. The researchers arrived at this conclusion after they found no link between low levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical in pot, and car crashes; the keywords here being 'low levels'.
Along with their guidelines for the legal limit of marijuana, MADD acknowledges that this might be a concern for medical cannabis users as their trace cannabis levels will be higher than the recreational user.
In Australia, there have been reports of roadside drug tests coming up with false results, discounting its credibility. Meanwhile, there are no marijuana tests in India, even though cannabis use is illegal and criminalized so even if an individual were to get pulled over by a police officer, it would be hard to charge him of any crime.
A 24-year-old, app developer, Rajesh recalls his experience getting caught while stoned driving. "This one time, my friends and I had hotboxed a car and went on a drive after. Since it was late at night, there were checkpoints on the road. And when it was our turn, the cops immediately got a whiff of cannabis when we rolled down the windows,” he tells Bingedaily.
“Naturally, the cops pulled us over and asked me to step out of the car. He asked me to blow into the breathalyzer, but nothing came up because I was high, not drunk. So, he had no choice but to let me go," he continues. So, even though the car had a strong cannabis odor, the police officer had no real grounds to book him of any charges.
What are the effects of driving on marijuana?
In an interview with Vice, Dr. Prashant Punia, a neurosurgeon based out of Pune explains the effects of marijuana on a person's brain. He says, “Marijuana can have a peculiar effect on your brain’s cerebellum, which is responsible for motor functioning. Depending on the dosage, this makes it tough to multitask cognitive actions like following the GPS, avoiding potholes, or staying in your lane.”
Unlike what your mind may be communicating to you, marijuana does cause impairment to your abilities.
According to a review of 60 studies presented in 1995 at the International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs, and Traffic Safety, marijuana impairs all the cognitive abilities needed for safe driving, including tracking, motor coordination, visual function, and divided attention.
Despite its hindrance to one's cognitive abilities, it's not nearly as dangerous as driving while drunk. Cognitive impairments caused by marijuana are correlated with only modest reductions in driving performance in driving simulations, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Addictions.
So, stoned drivers are more likely to drive a little more dangerous than sober drivers, however, they weren't as careless as drunk drivers. A study published in the Journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that people who used vaporized marijuana were more likely to weave within their own lane, than people who were sober, but not more likely to weave out of their lane or speed. Drunk drivers, by contrast, were likely to do all three.
If you do smoke up during the day, research advises that ideally, users should at least wait till their high flattens before getting behind the wheel. A study by McGill University suggests people should wait at least 5 hours after they've smoked cannabis before they drive. However, this advice can't be standardized as all highs may not wear out in 5 hours, especially when we consider the stronger and longer-lasting highs of marijuana edibles.
Additionally, Dr. Punia highlights that marijuana is a far more subjective experience than alcohol, making it difficult for researchers to measure the objective effects of it.
Some research says that cannabis users may be extra cautious while driving
Although it's been established that marijuana impairs cognitive abilities, certain studies prove otherwise, at least in the behaviors of stoner drivers. The studies indicated that stoned drivers tend to drive below speed limits and maintained a safe distance from other vehicles. Overall, it stated that marijuana smokers may be more careful while driving to compensate for their high!
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”.
In theory, marijuana should make people worse drivers, but surprisingly, in researcher-conducted tests, it didn't. “Cognitive studies suggest that cannabis use may lead to unsafe driving, experimental studies have suggested that it can have the opposite effect,” they wrote.
Another 2017 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reached similar conclusions. In one test, participants were given either marijuana, alcohol, or both and then used a driving simulator. The researchers found that the stoned drivers were actually more cautious, exhibiting “reduced mean speeds, increased time driving below the speed limit and increased following distance during a car following task”, however, lane discipline was not seen among marijuana drivers.
While these studies suggest that stoners overcompensate and are more cautious while driving high, there isn’t enough objective research to support these claims as Dr. Punia pointed out the subjectivity of marijuana effects.
A better way of gauging the detrimental effects of marijuana-impaired driving would be to study whether states, where cannabis has been legalized, witnessed an increase in crash risk and collisions since.
Have accidents increased in places where cannabis is legal?
Studies contradict each other on this subject as well. While a 2017 study found that fatal crashes haven't risen in states that have legalized weed, compared to states where it remains criminalized, another study showed that accidents, in general, were more common since weed became legal in certain states.
The Highway Loss Data Institute found a 12.5% increase in insurance claims on collisions in Colorado following legalization and a 9.7% increase in Washington. But found no discernible increase in accidents in Oregon (the authors suggest this may be because legal cannabis use is not continuing to increase in Oregon as it is in the other two states).
Another study by the same organization found an average increase of 5.2% in police reporting of crashes in states where cannabis is legal compared with control states. But before you concretize your opinion based on the above studies, there's a study that has polar results.
People may be switching to stoned driving from drunk driving, reducing fatalities
A 2013 study in the Journal of Law and Economics, researchers found that in the year after medical marijuana laws were passed, traffic fatalities actually fell. The steepest reductions were found in evening accidents and drunk driving or alcohol-related accidents.
The researchers hypothesized that cannabis may have decreased accidents because most people who would usually drink and drive are instead using cannabis.
But researchers believe it's tricky to make that claim as traffic fatalities have been falling nationwide for several years, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposes improved car safety and lower drunk-driving rates overall as the reasons behind this change.
It seems further research is required to objectively determine the amount of weed that is dangerous and the exact effects it has on driving ability. But one fact has been repeatedly proven and that is - alcohol is more dangerous than smoking pot when it comes to driving ability.
Shobit, 23, a graphic designer, opens up about his misguided attempt at drunk driving and tells Bingedaily about the differences between drunk driving to high driving. He says, "Drunk driving is way worse because I have absolutely no control over my motor skills. My hands were slipping off the steering wheel and once, I pressed the accelerator instead of the brakes."
"I was aware but I had no control, Whereas on weed I still feel like I have control," he concludes. However, much like Aditya, he agrees that driving with a large concentration of THC in one's system is a risky decision.
A study suggests heavy marijuana users are dangerous drivers, even when sober
The study stated that 'heavy marijuana users' who started using pot before age 16 were likely to be dangerous drivers even when sober, as reported by researchers at Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The theory proposed is that early marijuana use changes the brain, making people more impulsive and likely to make reckless decisions.
The study tested participants in a driving simulator and found that cannabis users who started consuming the drug in their teens got into more accidents, drove at higher speeds, hit a pedestrian, cross the centerline, miss stop signs and cruised through more red lights compared to people who had never used marijuana.
"This research suggests that early exposure to cannabis may result in difficulties performing complex cognitive tasks," said co-author Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital.
A major drawback of this study is that we don't know if the early smokers were impulsive characteristically or became so after cannabis use. However, Gruber believes the results may be credible despite this drawback as there are studies that suggest that cannabis use, while the brain is developing, can lead to a number of changes, including an increase in impulsive behavior.
Overall, driving on cannabis is a murky subject and current research is so diverse and contradictory that it is hard to reach concrete conclusions. While your friends may assure you that weed isn't as perilous as alcohol, your body's reaction to it could be totally unpredictable. So, solely banking on their advice might not be a rational decision. Additionally, with alcohol, you have an approximate idea of your consumption but with THC there’s no telling, so you could feel moderately high while taking out the car but feel an intense high kicking in the middle of driving, which is a surprise nobody wants.