The dominos are beginning to fall…State after state, country after country is slowly and gradually legalising cannabis and hemp for industrial, recreational and medical use. Long-term, high functioning cannabis users all over the world have confessed to their penchant for the lush green plant. Concurrently, many people have begun wonder about the potential benefits and side-effects of this endeavour.Interestingly, just as I was illustrating sudden death prevention strategies for motor-vehicle accidents (for a chapter in my upcoming book, detailing some of my current post-doctoral research), I received a message from Michelle, wishing for someone to explain how to prevent car accidents as a result of cannabis inebriation.
In my personal opinion, what we do to our body is our own responsibility, however, we surrender that privilege to the law when we endanger others behind the wheel. More often than not, for good reason. The question, therefore, is how likely is substance use to impact on the lives of others, when driving?
First of all, that depends on the user and amount consumed. In the United Kingdom and the United States, the majority of road accidents involve young adults, excluding incidences of grand theft auto committed by a bunch of teenagers. As the leading cause of death in those under 30 are motor-vehicle crashes (MVC), an effective prevention strategy is necessary to commence with the legalisation of cannabis.
Although the furthest, most stoners I know, are willing to travel is the fridge, many functioning cannabis users do not have a choice when their working life comes calling… So, how does cannabis affect driving skills as well as behaviour? Studies indicate that as soon as any other form of narcotic is introduced into the mix, the effects of cannabis are overridden and/or negated. Protective behavioural mechanisms and inhibitions go out the window. The extensive physiological effects of cannabis on the road remain yet to be determined by the development of a more detailed medical testing methodology. However, a number of studies indicate the sole use of cannabis does not impair driving skills as severely as presumed by authorities:
“In summary, laboratory tests and driving studies show that cannabis may acutely impair several driving-related skills in a dose-related fashion, but that the effects between individuals vary more than they do with alcohol because of tolerance, differences in smoking technique, and different absorptions of THC. Driving and simulator studies show that detrimental effects vary in a dose-related fashion, and are more pronounced with highly automatic driving functions, but more complex tasks that require conscious control are less affected, which is the opposite pattern from that seen with alcohol. Because of both this and an increased awareness that they are impaired, marijuana smokers tend to compensate effectively for their impairment by utilising a variety of behavioural strategies such as driving more slowly, passing less, and leaving more space between themselves and cars in front of them. Combining marijuana with alcohol eliminates the ability to use such strategies effectively, however, and results in impairment even at doses that would be insignificant were they of either drug alone.” (NCBI)
Cannabis As a Cause of Motor-Vehicle Crashes
But what are the leading causes of MVC around the globe? Most studies hint to the fact that car accidents happen for three reasons: Firstly, when we are on autopilot… When we are not paying attention to what we are doing, either because we are mentally pre-occupied, multi-tasking or inebriated. Secondly, MVC occur as a result of slow reaction time and/or ineffective intervention strategies. Thirdly, MVC are triggered by the occurrence of unexpected events, such as the car at front, slowing down too quickly, the sudden appearance of a pedestrian as the car turns the corner or sudden, mechanical failure.
First, let’s have a look on what being on autopilot means…Have you ever snapped out of whatever you were thinking of as you pulled into your driveway, wondering how the hell did I get here? You may remember driving home, on some level, but your mind was a thousand miles away. Since you have probably taken the same route for a long time, your mind switches from manual to automatic, as it may. In other words, your unconscious mind takes over the wheel. More often than not, you’ll arrive at your destination safe and sound. Maybe, with the occasional fender-bender. However, the risk that you won’t the thousandth time you make the trip is quite high. Being drunk, stoned and/or tired merely quadruples the certainty of such an event. Truth be told, it is only a matter of time before accidents happen, if we don’t take precautions. More importantly, in certain circumstances, all the precautions and preparation in the world is of no use…Therefore, it is up to each and every single one of us to make the road a safe place.
In conclusion, out of all substance users, experienced cannabis users are the only control group that is more likely to drive at a reduced speed, taking additional precautions when under the influence:
“Surprisingly, given the alarming results of cognitive studies, most marijuana-intoxicated drivers show only modest impairments on actual road tests. Experienced smokers who drive on a set course show almost no functional impairment under the influence of marijuana, except when it is combined with alcohol.”(NCBI)
Driving inebriated is never a solution, especially when we are desperate and out of time. For example, when I was working in outreach home-care, a former colleague of mine was running late for work. Tired and exhausted from a late night, she rushed into the house to see to the personal care of an elderly woman. After half an hour, she came outside and found a police officer, standing by her vehicle, which she had parked in an almost straight line, blocking the entire road. She could have sworn she left it in a parking spot, but she was so sleep deprived, pre-occupied and possibly still slightly intoxicated/hungover. Although no one was hurt, she was summoned to court and rightfully fined. This is not an uncommon occurrence, when discussing alcohol-related driving incidents. That being said, it would require a massive amount of (only) cannabis to impair general functioning to achieve a similar effects. “Extreme Ice-boxing”, extreme cannabis use in an enclosed space, such as one’s car, would impair driving for a short period of time. Hence, it is advised by experienced smokers to take a walk, breathe deeply or eat, before even thinking of driving inebriated.
The mere fact that half of all drivers are statistically deemed to fail retaking an official driving test indicates that the average road user does very little to develop their driving skills. Inevitably, every driver will develop habits over the years, however, only a selective number of those habits are designed to reinforce road-safety. Believe it or not, a study conducted by the NCBI confirmed that functional cannabis users are more likely to develop behavioural strategies to prevent their involvement in car crashes. Nonetheless, accidents can happen. Each and every driver has to pay greater attention to their speed, even when they’re running late for the PTA, dance recital or staff meeting
Experienced cannabis users, similar to functional addicts, often develop behavioural strategies that ensure their safety on the road, but even stoners can be distracted, occupied or begin to develop bad habits. Road safety is a collective effort and in countries, where it is legal or illegal, we have ensure that we do not use a car when under the influence, unless medically necessary. For example, in the event that it prevents stress-prone seizures, which is a common occurrence, driving under the influence of medically prescribed marijuana may be an interesting court debate.
“Experimental studies could focus on measuring blood levels consistently or developing more accurate methods of measuring THC levels in the CNS, as well as examining residual effects that persist for more than one hour after smoking. This would permit construction of a better dose-impairment curve for THC. It would also be interesting to know whether the improved performance of experienced users is because of physiological tolerance or because of behavioural strategies that can be taught to infrequent users.”
Road safety is known to rank highly among important issues the public would like addressed by government (Lyons et al., 2008; p. 106). Safety when travelling is part of the Department for Transport’s third aim and objectives: ‘To contribute to better safety, security and health and longer life-expectancy through reducing the risk of death, injury or illness arising from transport, and promoting travel modes that are beneficial to health’
Conclusively, various studies suggest that the consumption of alcohol is medically more harmful and more dangerous behind the wheel than cannabis. To recap, once any other drug is introduced along with marijuana, general behavioural expectations fly out the window. The driver no longer exhibits the same behaviour. Conversely, speeding is more common in 30mph zones, particularly under the influence of a mixture of substances. As the medicinal value of cannabis outdates countless modern cultures, the issue of driving inebriated is bound to arise, involving the young and elderly. This does not change the fact that unless medically necessary, or for therapeutic/spiritual purposes, it is advised to avoid using cannabis before or whilst driving. Besides, you may never know the car may grow wings, take off and fly to the moon.
Dedicated to @YoursTruly_27