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January 2008
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Marijuana and Driving

The difference between drunk drivers and stoned drivers:

  • The drunk driver will speed through the stop sign without noticing it.
  • The stoned driver will stop and patiently wait for it to turn green.

The invoked boogeyman of reefer-crazed drivers on the road has been one of the convenient tools of the prohibitionist. The experienced marijuana smoker knows better — they know from experience that they avoid driving, and when they do drive, they drive more cautiously/less recklessly, more paranoid and alert even than when they’re sober, due to the marijuana-induced self-awareness of their impediment. But they also know that any attempt to explain that to the propaganda-fed general public will sound like the deluded braggadocio of the drunk who claims to be OK to drive.
So we’re very careful to say: “Well, certainly driving while stoned would still be illegal,” and without realizing it cede to the prohibitionists the fearmonger’s tool. The public, certain that legalization will mean an increase in use, logically imagine a future multitude of stoned drivers mowing down their children.
This is why I’ve been so vocal about the relative safety of stoned drivers — not to say that it’s OK to drive stoned, but rather to say that, of the many dangers we face daily, stoned drivers will always be one of the lowest.
We now have another resource — NORML’s Paul Armentano has put together a comprehensive review of the science: Cannabis and Driving: A Scientific and Rational Review. I think that it could well serve as a useful tool in providing sane alternatives to prohibitionist posturing. And there are a lot of excellent points, well referenced.
Personally, I find the report to share characteristics with its subject matter — it’s overly cautious, although I understand the desire for an organization like NORML to appear that way in order to gain mainstream credibility. I’m assuming the audience for this is not the general public, but rather the researcher and the media — it’s way too… dry for viral propagation. I may need to take on a project of creating a page similar to Why is Marijuana Illegal? related to cannabis and driving for distribution on messageboards and social networks. If so, I will certainly draw upon Armentano’s work, for which I am grateful.
I do question the strength of one of his assumptions:

Drivers should also be advised that engaging in the simultaneous use of both cannabis and alcohol can significantly increase their risk of accident compared to the consumption of either substance alone. 3233

I’ve not been able to read the complete studies referenced, but I’d certainly want to verify that they conclusively show that the combination of cannabis and alcohol is more dangerous in actual crash likelihood than alcohol alone (although they certainly do show that alcohol and cannabis are more dangerous than cannabis alone), and I’d also like to verify that they address the mitigating caution factor. Based on other studies I’ve read, I’m skeptical.
Additionally in this regard, I think the Transport study’s speculations are worth mentioning:

But the study also found that drivers on cannabis tended to be aware of their intoxicated state, and drove more cautiously to compensate. Indeed, doped-up volunteers often rated themselves as being more impaired than police surgeons brought in to evaluate their sobriety.
Surprisingly, drinking alcohol didn’t offset this cautious behaviour, opening up the unproven possibility that a driver who is moderately drunk might be better off under some conditions if they had also smoked.

Paul Armentano concludes with a call for the development of better cannabis-specific impairment testing. That’s something I also support, (although I’d push harder for it to actually be impairment-based and avoid phrases like “identify intoxicated drivers” (which I fear will lead to some cannabis equivalent of a 0.01 BAC)).

The development of such technology would also increase public support for the taxation and regulation of cannabis by helping to assuage concerns that liberalizing marijuana policies could potentially lead to an increase in incidences of drugged driving.42 Such concerns are a significant impediment to the enactment of marijuana law reform, and must be sufficiently addressed before a majority of the public will embrace any public policy that proposes regulating adult cannabis use like alcohol.

There’s where I disagree. Better testing will not, in my opinion, assuage the public. They know that testing doesn’t prevent drunk drivers from killing people. All that the implementation of better cannabis impairment testing will do is falsely tell them that cannabis driving is very dangerous — something that they already believe — and so, certain that legalization will mean an increase in use, they logically will imagine a future multitude of stoned drivers mowing down their children.
No, the way to assuage the public regarding legalization is to show them that driving while stoned is about as dangerous as driving with a cellphone. Something to be discouraged, maybe even outlawed. Certainly less dangerous than driving while fatigued. And not even in the same universe as driving while drunk.
The real reason to develop impairment based testing for cannabis drivers is two-fold:

  1. To prevent the prohibitionist claims that, since there is no reliable impairment test, we simply must outlaw driving with any metabolites in the body (the zero tolerance movement), thereby providing a sneaky way to prosecute people for smoking marijuana even if it was days before they drove.
  2. Let me tell you a true story…

Last Thursday, 17-year-old Courtney Anna Marie Kuenzi Kessenich of Spring Green, Wisconsin, was killed in a car crash. Courtney had been dating John Harrison (also 17) of Madison for about a year. There were planning to get engaged June 8 (her 18th birthday). She didn’t want to drive home from work in the snow Thursday night, so John offered to drive. On the way home, he lost control of the car, which went sideways and it was hit broadside. She died and he is in the hospital recovering from serious injuries.
It’s the tragic tale of so many young people on the roads. An accident. Two devastated families.
But it gets worse.
Police believe that they found some marijuana in the car and so they questioned Harrison while he was sedated and he admitted smoking a little pot earlier in the day.
So they arrested him “on suspicion of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle and causing injury by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle.”
The charges are tentative and may still be dropped, but it’s completely outrageous that such charges can even be contemplated without any evidence of impairment.
There’s one other person who is devastated, and who is not going to take it — the girl’s father.

“It was an accident. It wasn’t his fault,” Kessenich said. “The road conditions were terrible and he lost control of the car and my daughter died. It was an accident. Why do I want to live with bitterness? I ‘m supporting him and his family.”
He said he wants Harrison to attend Courtney’s funeral today in Spring Green.
“John was like a son to me,” Kessenich said. “I’ve been agonizing over this. It ‘s going to be my mission to straighten it out. I don’t want her going down as a statistic from a drunk driver.”

The thing is… in the real world — not the fantasyland of the prohibitionists — people instinctively know that it’s extremely unlikely that pot caused Courtney’s death. In fact, some may even argue that if John had been stoned, he might have driven more slowly, or even convinced her not to make the trip home at all.
We know that there’s no justification in claiming Courtney died because of pot. But without a way to actually test for impairment, you can practically see the Dane County regulars salivating at the chance to point to a Death By Marihuana!
Even if it means ruining more innocent lives.

Drive careful out there. OK?

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