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Is it Safe to Drive While High on Marijuana?

With increased legalization of medical marijuana across the USA and the wider globe, the question might arise as to how safe marijuana is in terms of road accidents. The studies on marijuana are not yet there, given its rather questionable prohibition in the past century.

However, there is significant evidence pointing out that while it is obviously better to drive sober, marijuana is far superior to alcohol when it comes to road safety. In fact, some evidence is pointing toward a decrease in road accidents when marijuana is legalized in particular US states, for various reasons.

How Marijuana Affects Driving Skills

The psychoactive component of marijuana is known as THC, which is what generates the psychedelic and therapeutic effects. The mechanism through which THC works is not completely understood, though it operates on endocannabinoid receptors in the brain, having a particular influence on the central nervous system and endocrine system.

The effects of THC are wide-ranging. It is proven that those who smoke marijuana will have a slower reaction time and reduced balance and coordination. It can also cause anxiety and reduce judgment skills, as well as drastically affecting short-term memory. However, the positive effects of marijuana can often balance out these drawbacks, primarily due to the fact that the person is aware that he or she has reduced reaction time and critical thinking skills.

Consumption of marijuana adversely affects some systems of the brain (such as logic and memory) and positively affects others (such as creativity, awareness, empathy, and out of the box problem-solving capabilities). Additionally, the fact that fact that marijuana can make people anxious tends to lead to a reduction in road accidents, as they drive more slowly. This is dealt with in more detail below.

Does Marijuana Legalization Lead to Road Accidents?

Like all things, whether or not it is safe to drive while stoned is a not a static equation - it depends on how much marijuana has been consumed, of what type, the individual's tolerance, the road conditions, the capability of the person as a driver etc. However, in general, driving while under the influence of marijuana is not incredibly dangerous. People have a tendency to drive more slowly.

A 2018 public health study released by the University of British Colombia found that legalized states in the USA did not experience any meaningful changes in road accidents. Road accidents in Colorado and Washington did not rise following legalization. While the number of people killed who tested positive for THC rose, THC remains in the system for up to a month after consumption, so there is no definitive link established. Consider the following quote from a comprehensive study published in 2009 -

“Two epidemiological studies in New Zealand found that the significant relationship that existed between self-reported cannabis use and self-reported accidents disappeared after risky driver behaviors and unsafe driver attitudes were controlled for. A follow-up study found that the crash risk for driving under the influence of cannabis more than 20 times in one year was halved and reduced to marginal significance when distance driven and self-reported risky driving behaviors were controlled for”

Marijuana Versus Alcohol

It is well established that alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana in terms of road accidents. The keyword with drunk driving is that people become reckless and unaware of the dangers. In contrast, those under the influence of marijuana tend to drive slowly and might become a little paranoid about crashing or of police catching them.

In other words, marijuana users are more aware that they are stoned and account for this fact by driving super slowly in many instances, while the drunk driver is completely oblivious to the dangers, ultimately leading to more accidents and more deaths.

According to a statement from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety, once age and gender were accounted for, marijuana users were no more likely to crash than sober persons. The reason for this is stated above - marijuana users overestimate the level of their impairment, as opposed to drunk drivers who underestimate their capabilities.

Because marijuana users are aware of and compensate for their impairment, road accidents and fatalities are not a concern. Once again, marijuana fears are completely unfounded and have no basis in reality. It is, after all, a therapeutic plant.

While the data is indicative that marijuana use does not lead to increased road accidents, there are a number of variables which make any kind of deduction difficult. For one thing, THC remains in the body for a month after consumption, so it is impossible to link accidents with its use. For another, THC affects every individual differently.

It is not like alcohol, where you can simply measure the total amount in the blood to determine whether a person is drunk or not. There is no established and reliable method to test drivers for marijuana consumption.

Conclusion - Is it Safe to Smoke and Drive?

Some studies have actually found that accidents have gone down following legalization, and there is an interesting reason for this. Hardcore addicts (meth, heroin) switched to marijuana in these states. There are a number of statistically proven road fatalities associated with these type of drugs.

So two myths can be squashed with one stone - marijuana is as much a gateway drug away from other drugs as opposed to the opposite argument, where marijuana use is said to lead to harder drugs. It is positive in this sense. Additionally, marijuana consumption does not seem to lead to increased road accidents according to all the data, though it obviously will depend on the particular circumstances.

In all probability, marijuana impairs driving skills a little. A common estimate is that marijuana consumption can increase the likelihood of an accident by about 1.5. But factoring in that people tend to substitute marijuana for alcohol (which they do, in legalized states), it could end up reducing road accidents in total.

The likelihood of an accident while drunk is far, far higher than 1.5. The anxiety factor also encourages marijuana drivers to drive more carefully. In sum, it is largely safe to smoke marijuana and drive, despite all the unjustified hysteria. But we suggest not to.


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