While marijuana usage and acceptance are up higher than ever across most of the United States, there are still many concerns for anyone using it. 10 states have now legalized cannabis for personal and recreational use and a further 33 have legalized it for medical use with a prescription. As a result, some 22.5 million Americans use some form of cannabis, often with the belief that it is harmless, affects them less than another substance such as alcohol, and is safe to use when at work or driving.
However, this often isn’t the case. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug which impacts the brain in several ways, including memory, motor skills, and concentration. These effects can have significant effects on driving and any other activity requiring attention and motor coordination and it can cause driving a vehicle to become dangerous.
How Does Smoking Marijuana Affect Driving?
Smoking marijuana affects the brain in numerous ways, primarily in that THC and other cannabidiols bind to cannabidiol receptors in the brain. Here, they affect motor skills, memory, emotional responses, and concentration. In high doses, such as with cannabis edibles, marijuana may also cause visual hallucinations, the effects of which can be significantly more severe than smoking or inhaling cannabis.
Here, individuals experience poor motor coordination, which affects steering, breaking, and perceived distances between objects. Most also suffer from decreased attention span and concentration, which can result in not paying attention to other drivers, signs, or traffic lights. Most individuals can easily see how much being stoned affects hand eye coordination by playing a simple sport, which is often much more difficult when high. Actual hallucinations can cause major disorientation, similarly to being very drunk. As a result, it’s estimated that being high on cannabis increases the risk of a traffic accident as much as 300%.
This is a stark contrast to the commonly held belief that cannabis use doesn’t impact driving skill. In fact, many drivers even claim to drive better while under the influence. While most cannabis users will drive more slowly while high, they often do not pay attention, may not be able to react quickly enough in case of an accident-causing incident, and may cause an accident by simply not paying enough attention.
Is It Illegal to Drive While Stoned?
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Driving immediately after smoking cannabis is illegal in the United States and in nearly every country where cannabis use is legal. However, actual cannabis use laws vary a great deal, with some pertaining to open container (you cannot drive with cannabis in your vehicle) and others attempting to test the current blood-THC content using a blood test. These options have varying success as THC levels in the blood drop extremely rapidly after ingestion and then remain stable for as long as 3 days. As a result, many European countries such as Germany actually ban driving for up to 3 days after THC consumption.
What does this mean for you or a loved one as a driver? If you smoke or otherwise use cannabis, you shouldn’t be driving. It is illegal and you may be asked to take a blood test if pulled over. Cannabis also often has a strong odor and visible signs of use such as bloodshot eyes, and many police officers will be able to see it. You may be asked to take a roadside blood test. You may also be asked to appear at a clinic for a blood test at a later date.
For example, in Colorado, law states that you are driving under the influence if you have more than five nanograms of active THC in the blood. However, officers are able to arrest based on observed impairment regardless of the blood test results.
In most cases, being pulled over while stoned and driving will face the same or similar penalties as any other “Driving Under Influence” case. You will be arrested may face jail time, and it will likely go on your permanent record. If you accrue multiple DUIs, you may lose your license and may be asked to attend rehabilitation or self-help.
In most cases, police struggle with identifying low levels of cannabis use, simply because drivers often don’t drive erratically, they simply don’t pay attention and have difficulty avoiding other vehicles. Blood tests only work in some of the cases, but new and better ways of cannabis use detection are being studied.
Does Legalized Cannabis Increase the Risk of Driving?
While cannabis has not increased the average number of traffic accident related deaths in any meaningful way, it has increased the total number of auto-accidents in marijuana-friendly states as much as 6%. That is a large increase considering the total number of drivers and accidents in the USA. Car accidents result in property damage, hospitalization, and even death, all of which are significantly damaging to the persons involved, their families, and their employers.
Cannabis users do show different behavior compared to alcohol use while driving. For example, cannabis users are more likely to show erratic driving and poor attention span and may simply not pay attention to anything. Alcohol users are much more likely to be actively reckless and dangerous and may drive very aggressively. So while different, neither are safe.
Today, some 40% of the United States population has used or tried Marijuana at some point. Another 9% actively use cannabis for recreational or medical use. Increased acceptance has led to increased instances of individuals driving under the influence, often under the mistaken impression that it’s safe and does not affect their driving skills. This is not the case and using any psychoactive drug will inhibit your ability to operate large machinery safely. Here, the rule should be that no one should take any psychoactive or mind-altering substance and then attempt to drive because no matter how mild the effects, it will impact your motor skills and concentration, which can put you and other drivers at risk.
If your loved one is struggling with cannabis use to the point where they knowingly endanger themselves and others by using before driving, they may have a substance abuse problem. Marijuana, like prescription pills, can result in a substance use disorder, addiction, and dependency in many people. But marijuana use disorder is a diagnosable and treatable problem, similar to any other addiction, and responds well to high quality substance abuse treatment. If you’re struggling, there is help.