DWH: Driving While High

The facts are in and they may surprise you.

It used to be that if you talked about where marijuana was legal, the conversation would begin and end with California. And that was just for medical use. But today, if you want to have the same discussion, you’ll need to take a much bigger breath. So, *breathe in deeply* here goes:

It’s legal for recreational* or medical use in:

  • Alaska*
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado*
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon*
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington* [1]

That is a lot of states. Without repeating the ones that have legalized marijuana for both recreational and medical use, the list totals to 24, which is nearly half of the entire US. If you ask the experts, 11 more states could be joining the recreational list soon [2].

With all these states having some sort of law legalizing marijuana, it means a lot more people will be high. And as a result, it is inevitable that a lot more people will be driving while high.

According to Popular Science, 100 million Americans have used marijuana. That’s almost 1 in 3. Another 30 million have used it in the past year and another 14 million (or higher, excuse the pun) use it regularly [3].

Weed vs Alcohol: Field Sobriety

If you are pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, the police officer will more than likely ask you to complete a three part test called a Standard Field Sobriety Test. It consist of:

  • Follow a pen with your eyes while the officer moves it back and forth—this test is called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test. The officer is basically checking to see if your eye can remain steady while focusing through your periphery.
  • Get out of the car and walk nine steps, heel to toe, turn on one foot and go back—this test is called the Walk-and-Turn test and it’s looking to see if you stumble.
  • Stand on one leg for 30 seconds—this test is called the One-leg Stand test and it’s checking for, you guessed it, balance. [4]

If you “pass” these tests then there’s a very good chance that you are not drunk. This series of tests has been shown to catch 88 percent of drivers under the influence of alcohol (some dispute this number, but it’s generally agreed upon).

However, it is nowhere near as accurate at spotting a stoned driver.

This same standard of three test was shown by a 2012 study published in the medical journal Psychopharmacology, to only catch 30% of drivers under the influence of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana that makes you feel stoned) [5]. Although, this was dependent on how much tolerance the subjects had built up. The 30% group were more frequent smokers, while the more occasional smoker failed 50% of the time [6].

Playing Catch Up

Although more and more tests, research, and studies are being performed each day, the medical and scientific community are having to play to catch up to find the information as fast as it’s being legalized. Marijuana was originally, and still is, classified by the federal government as a Schedule I narcotic. In case you’re not familiar with this insanity, here it is, directly from the DEA’s website:

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote         [7]

To summarize, that means that marijuana—a drug that you cannot overdose on, cannot become physically dependent on, and has been proven to have medical benefits—is listed with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. For further comparison, cocaine is a Schedule II narcotic, meaning it is safer and has more benefits than a Schedule I (according to the DEA) [8].

81% of people polled by debate.org think marijuana should be reclassified to a less severe Schedule. And state laws are starting to reflect America’s growing acceptance of the plant. As those who were scarred by the Reefer Madness campaign die off and people realize that imprisoning humans for decades over possession of the substance is ridiculous and costly, the laws are struggling to keep up with the legalization.

For example, is it illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana? If so, how much is too much? How do you even test for such a thing? Is it as bad as driving drunk?

Well, it turns out some answers are starting to come in.

“Our goal is to put out the science and have it used for evidence-based drug policy,” said Marilyn A. Huestis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A 2007 study found that twice as many people were driving drunk than high when stopped randomly in 300 different places in the US (I guess they got away with an illegal stop because nobody was arrested, just driven home) [9]. Weed smokers were found less likely to be driving high because a majority of users smoke at home and just “chill.” Alcohol is often consumed socially at places like bars and restaurants, which people must travel home from. This difference is sure to decrease as marijuana becomes more legal and accepted; but what are the rules about driving on marijuana?

The simple answer: it’s illegal. In Colorado and Washington, were recreational use is allowed, the marijuana limit is 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. That’s 5 parts per billion. Some say this number is way too high and think it should be more-like 1 nanogram per milliliter [10]. Some argue that since marijuana is stored in fatty-tissue and released slowly, that these tests don’t say anything about how stoned the person was at the time they were stopped. But for now, that’s the indicator. In California, police use a combination of the field sobriety test mentioned above, along with saliva, urine, and/or blood samples. Because no medical testing or studies have been allowed until recently, this subject is just now being explored.

But how more likely are you crash on weed than driving sober? Or on alcohol?

The answer for how more likely you are to crash while driving high compared to driving completely sober is…2. You are two times more likely. If that number sounds high, compare that with a person who has a blood alcohol concentration of just .08% (the legal cut off point) at 20 times more likely. That’s right, you are twenty times more likely to crash while driving on alcohol versus completely sober [11].

“Despite our results, I still think that marijuana contributes to crash risk, only that its contribution is not as important as it was expected,” said Eduardo Romano, the study’s lead author and a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

Although the research shows only a small increase, the more weed someone smoked the more dangerous their driving became. This is because reaction time slowed down, inhibiting their ability to process changing data. For example, if someone were to be crossing the street, the marijuana-impaired driver could still predict the rate they will cross at and adjust their speed accordingly. If the pedestrian randomly stopped to pick up their cellphone, people high on weed would have a much harder time compensating for that change.

Romano did say that he is concerned about people mixing weed with alcohol, since it amplifies the dangerous effects of just alcohol alone. For this reason, he is against the implementation of places like weed bars and other public smoking establishments.

But the message he ended with sums up the argument well.

“I’m not saying marijuana is safe, but to me it’s clear that lowering the B.A.C. should be our top priority. That policy would save more lives.” [12]

Dolman Law Group

Regardless of the facts, the use of marijuana in any form is still illegal in Florida, so driving while high should not be an activity that you participate in any time soon. With that said, it’s best to be completely sober and alert when it comes to responsible driving. When you’re on the open roads, you play a role in the safety of more people than just your passengers; you have a responsibility to help keep those around you safe also.

For more information on legal issues like this one, or if you or loved one have been injured as a result of DUI, give us a call at (727) 853-6275.

Dolman Law Group
5435 Main Street
New Port Richey, FL 34652
(727) 853-6275

https://www.dolmanlaw.com/new-port-richey-auto-accident-attorney/

References:

  1. https://mic.com/articles/126303/where-is-marijuana-legal-in-the-united-states-list-of-recreational-and-medicinal-states#.Jq2fij7SP
  2. https://mic.com/articles/124276/the-11-states-most-likely-to-legalize-weed-next-in-one-surprising-map#.pixKNFZkZ
  3. http://www.popsci.com/survey-says-percent-americans-smoking-weed-has-doubled-since-2002
  4. http://gizmodo.com/5902852/the-secrets-of-field-sobriety-tests
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3456923/
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15619106
  7. https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml
  8. http://www.debate.org/opinions/should-marijuana-be-classified-as-a-schedule-i-drug
  9. http://www.nhtsa.gov/Driving+Safety/Research+&+Evaluation/ci.2007+National+Roadside+Survey+of+Alcohol+and+Drug+Use+by+Drivers.print
  10. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/18/health/driving-under-the-influence-of-marijuana.html
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24411797
  12. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/15/us/legal-limit-drunken-driving-safety-board.html
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