Some people think they drive better after a joint. The science says otherwise. Here are the facts on driving high
From the second-story window of the High Life Social Club in Halifax, which is planted discreetly above a café serving all-day breakfast, the owner Chris Henderson points to the bus stop across the street. Until a few weeks ago, it displayed a poster for every departing patron of his cannabis-friendly lounge to see, part of a citywide public-education campaign to prepare for the legalization of marijuana on Oct. 17.
“Drive better on weed?” the poster asked, with a touch of snark, as if you’d have to be on drugs not to know the right answer. As it happens, that’s a question easily answered on a warm Tuesday evening in July, doused in the sweet, skunky perfume of pot, with club members drinking bottled water between hits on a water bong.
Turns out, they think they do. The science, however, begs to differ.
A retired telecom technician in his 60s wanders over and joins the conversation. While he now bikes everywhere, he describes driving stoned regularly, with no problems. (Not so with alcohol, he notes, which resulted in an impaired-driving conviction three decades ago, and one accident.) Compared to drinking, he says to general agreement, pot keeps you more chilled out on the road – and less likely to rage at other drivers.
Later in the evening, a 19-year-old engineering students fields questions about his own habits at the counter where chocolate is for sale. He would never drink and drive, he explains, and wouldn’t have driven when he first started using cannabis. But six months in, he figures he knows his limit – today, he says, he wouldn’t take a road trip without a joint. It’s not dangerous, he claims. Among his evidence: He always stop at stop signs.
Collectively, they are candid and amiable – and working hard to convince a stranger that they’re upstanding, clearly aware that their drug of choice suffers from some bad PR.
But none of these assertions are supported in the growing research on cannabis. The sum of all the science – the driving simulations and on-road experiments, the cognitive testing, even the albeit mixed crash-collision statistics – shows clearly that there are far from “zero problems” with driving high.
Marilyn Huestis, a leading American expert who has been studying cannabis for 30 years, including offering advice on driving issues to Canadian policy makers, says that for non-daily users, it takes six hours for the effects of one joint to completely disappear. That’s even if your blood level of THC, the drug’s psychoactive ingredient, is low – an issue that creates additional complications for police testing suspect drivers for legal limits, and a public trying to abide by them. Needless to say, if you’re “too stoned” behind the wheel, don’t expect a 15-minute pause to make you safe. Occasional users perform more poorly than regular users in studies. But even for the pros, the danger exists – though, as it happens, familiar stop signs may be the least of it.
At the same time, research does suggest that people who are stoned are more aware of their impairment than those who’ve been drinking – a self-safety check, undeniably, in their favour. Traffic collision statistics show that driving high increases the risk of a crash or collision, although by how much is still the subject of debate, and the overall risk is nowhere near as high as alcohol. For instance, a French study of drivers in fatal collisions, found those with cannabis in their blood were twice as likely to be found culpable for the crash than sober driver, compared to nine times for those with alcohol in their system.
According to a 2016 study by Norwegian researchers, which updated earlier findings and analyzed 13 international crash-collision studies between 1982 and 2015, cannabis use increases the risk of a crash by about 30 per cent, compared with a sober, attentive driver. Drunk drivers over the legal limit, on the other hand, are more than 600 times more likely to crash, according to report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States.
In 2016, the NHTSA was also behind what is considered one of the most comprehensive – and controversial – experiments to assess the risk of marijuana and driving. Researchers investigated crashes in real time in Virginia, 24 hours a day for 20 months. They compared the crashed drivers with THC to a control group of drivers stopped in the same location, at the same time as the crash, who agreed to be screened for cannabis. Once researchers adjusted for age and gender – particularly, young and male – and the presence of alcohol, they found no increased risk of collisions compared with drug-free drivers. But despite its great design, there were some flaws in the study’s execution, says Mark Asbridge, the MADD Canada professor in impaired-driving research and prevention at Dalhousie University. The location was near a military base, which regularly tested soldiers for the presence of drugs, an external influence on driving behaviour, and the control-study drivers could refuse to participate, reducing the sample of those with drugs in their system. As with most cannabis studies, there was a delay or problem in getting blood samples, especially for more serious crashes. Even the authors of the U.S. study warned not to interpret their findings – one sample of drivers in one location – to be saying it was safe to drive high.
One of the complications of studying cannabis is how often it is combined with alcohol, a particularly dangerous driving cocktail, the research suggests. In the French study on fatal crashes, for example, drivers who had consumed both alcohol and cannabis were 14 times more likely to be found responsible for the crash when compared with sober drivers – much higher than those who had consumed either drug on its own.
Still, these mixed results suggest why, according to a September 2017 survey commissioned by Public Safety Canada, a hearty portion of Canadians believe that driving high isn’t so bad. Twenty-eight per cent of the 2,132 respondents said they’d driven high, and of those, 17 per cent said the influence of cannabis “posed no real risks.” Nearly one in 10 of all respondents believe cannabis makes a person “a better driver.” For Canadians under the age of 24, risk was perceived to be even lower. In a 2017 large-scale Ontario survey, 8 per cent of teenagers admitted to driving an hour after using cannabis – compared with 4 per cent who said they had driven drunk. The good news is that the driving-high figure has fallen slowly since 2011, when the question was first asked. The bad news is, in the Public Safety survey, 43 per cent of Canadian said they didn’t know how long to safely wait after a joint before driving, with young people more likely to predict shorter wait times.
“We used to say the same thing about drinking and driving. ‘I can have a few drinks and it relaxes me.’ ‘I can have one for the road,’” says Robert Mann, a researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Hopefully, he says, changing attitudes about marijuana won’t take as long. “The clear message is that using cannabis increases your risk of an accident.”
Collision stats clump drivers together to see a highway of cars. They aren’t measuring the safety of individuals, on their own route home. Occasional users appear to score worse when acutely stoned than more frequent users who may have developed a tolerance. (Although, Dr. Heustis notes that the cognitive deficits that result from chronic use may also lower driving skills.) New drivers are likely to be more challenged than veterans. An issue with all marijuana research to date, is that it’s usually focused on smoking the drug, typically at lower THC levels than today’s versions. It’s not clear the difference that newer forms of consumption will have on driving, including edibles, which make a user high more slowly, and can lead to people ingesting too much.
So on a quiet ride on a familiar route, a driver under the influence of cannabis may be able to get home without incident. But driving, as Dr. Heustis notes, is marked by unexpected events – a kid riding their bike into the street, an elderly man dropping his key on the crosswalk, another swerving car. Being high, she says, makes it harder for drivers to compensate for surprises – in simulations, marijuana slows reaction times, divides a driver’s attention and makes decision-making foggy. For example, she says, in lab tests, cannabis users can add a row of numbers as well as a sober person – but throw in a complicated problem and they falter. With driving, Dr. Heustis says, they may be concentrating so hard at the just-getting-it-done task, that a sudden rush of complex information is overwhelming.
Back at the High Life Social Club, Chris Henderson, the businessman with a smoking angel tattoo dancing up his neck and a devil staring from his back, tries to navigate the views of his patrons, and the fears of a worried public. He has a marijuana prescription to deal with chronic pain – he could consume up to six joints a day, although he usually takes much less. Even a few hours after using, he is “100-per-cent confident” he is safe on the road. He’d have no problem taking a roadside test, he says, but he worries about being charged for having THC in his blood, even when he is not impaired.
The new law is “better-safe-than-sorry legislation,” by his way of thinking. “But the most important thing is that the roads remains safe,” he says. “If that means people taking a cab because they smoke a joint, that’s probably not a bad thing.”