Assume that you drink two bottles of beer while watching a baseball game at home on a Saturday. Then, while driving home from work the following Thursday, you’re pulled over for a broken tail light. At his own discretion, the police officer decides to test you for alcohol impairment. The beer you drank five days prior are detected. As a result, your car is impounded, you’re dragged away to jail, you lose your license, and you suffer a hefty fine.
Think this sounds far-fetched? Think again. Increasingly widespread “drugged driving” laws are doing exactly this: testing for trace amounts of THC and cannabinoid metabolites that can exist in the human body for weeks, or even months, after all behavioral effects have disappeared.
“I don’t know anybody who thinks it’s acceptable to drive when you’re impaired, whether the impairment is caused by prescription drugs, fatigue, marijuana, or anything else,” Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, DC, told Cannabis Culture. “But we have a huge educational job to get the public to understand that these laws literally make it a crime to drive stone cold sober.”
Politicians often compare drugged driving initiatives to existing drunk driving laws, treating them as nearly identical. However, there’s a basic logic to all drunk driving laws: alcohol consumption at a certain rate equals impaired driving performance, which in turn increases the chance of accidents. While the nuances of individual laws and enforcement techniques will always remain a point of contention, the basic public policy of preventing drunk driving is sound.
This is where the similarity between policies to combat drunk driving and drugged driving ends. Alcohol use has been shown to impair driving ability in hundreds of studies. However, studies into pot and driving show little or no reduction in driving ability even immediately after use.
Further, a conventional breathalyzer ? or even the more stringent blood alcohol analysis ? tests for a current level of impairment. However, drugged driving laws test not only for recent marijuana use, but also consumption that occurred weeks prior to the test. Levels of THC in the bloodstream have little to do with how high a driver might be.
Worldwide weed wars
The UK, Australia, and many states in the US currently have drugged driving laws on the books. The federal governments of Canada and the US are currently considering such laws.
Victoria, the second largest state in Australia, recently began random roadside tests for illicit drugs using a controversial saliva swab method. This imperfect technology caused significant embarrassment to the Victorian government when, during the December 1, 2004, launch, the first positive test was a well-publicized false positive for truck driver John De Jong. Subsequently cleared by independent and police lab tests, De Jong may now sue the government and Victoria police for the slur to his reputation.
The Royal Automobile Club of Victoria has voiced opposition to the roadside testing program. “The whole episode on day one and its results were a fiasco. If it continues, it will be a disaster for road safety,” said public policy director Dr Ken Ogden.
In the US, new drugged driving laws are being adopted at the state level at an alarming rate. A federal measure is also being considered. If it becomes law, federal transportation funds will be withheld from states that do not comply (as has been done in the case of drunk driving laws).
Despite federal budget deficits, a poor economy, and soldiers in Iraq lacking basic flack jackets, the Bush administration’s drug czar, John Walters, is spending $10 million on a single anti-drugged driving TV ad specifically aimed at teens who use marijuana.
Zero tolerance fraud
Society would consider absurd any law that criminalized drivers who consumed two ounces of beer and got behind the wheel, because, quite simply, such small amounts of alcohol don’t impair driving skills. However, the most frightening variety of drugged driving policies, called zero tolerance laws, do exactly this.
Zero tolerance laws test for extremely minute quantities ? often any quantity ? of THC or cannabinoid metabolites in a driver’s body. Thus, friends of medical marijuana users who are exposed to second-hand smoke, or someone who attends a rock concert or rave club, could ingest enough trace levels of THC to criminally implicate themselves.
12 US states currently have such zero-tolerance laws on the books: Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin. Each of these states criminalizes drivers who are found to have either very minute or any amount of cannabis in their bodies. Thus, a joint smoked three weeks ago ? for which absolutely no degradation of current driving skills exists ? could result in a suspended license, hefty fines, or jail time. A zero tolerance bill is also currently passing through the state legislature of Ohio.
“The prohibitionists have been very clever in choosing this as a topic to emphasize. Nobody wants impaired drivers on the road. Zero tolerance actually sounds good,” explained Mirkin. “But we must explain why these laws criminalize people who are not impaired and waste resources that could do good in other ways. It’s a good way to stir up fear. Prohibition depends on fear.”
Med-pot and prescriptions
Another shortcoming of current drugged driving initiatives around the world is the lack of consideration for the often significantly debilitating effects of prescription drugs. A recent study revealed that 44% of Americans take prescription medication. Yet these drugged driving laws test only for illegal drugs, not prescription or over-the-counter medications.
“Some of these laws do make an exception for prescription drugs such as Marinol,” said Mirken. “But it’s no different than if you were smoking the natural herb. In fact, oral THC is somewhat more psychoactive. So we have this bizarre attempt to make criminals out of a particular class of citizens using a natural substance because they are socially disfavored and a good whipping boy for politicians.”
Canada and 10 states in the US permit licensed use of medical marijuana by their citizens. Sponsors of drugged driving bills don’t seem to consider that sufferers of chronic pain, wasting syndromes, and spasticity disorders actually increase their driving skills after consuming moderate doses of cannabis to alleviate their debilitating symptoms. Policy makers also do not consider that many pharmaceutical drugs cause side effects that are markedly more detrimental and dangerous than a standard dose of cannabis.
Sadly, these drugged driving laws have little to do with traffic safety; their true purpose is to persecute pot smokers for their lifestyle choice. If left unchecked, this trend could result in total prohibition from the roads, with regular drug tests required to get and keep any sort of driver’s license.
Stoned drivers are safe drivers
By Curt Robbins and Dana Larsen
Two decades of research show that marijuana use may actually reduce driver accidents.
The effects of marijuana use on driving performance have been extensively researched over the last 20 years. All major studies show that marijuana consumption has little or no effect on driving ability, and may actually reduce accidents. Here’s a summary of the biggest studies into pot use and driving.
A 1983 US National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study concluded that the only significant affect of cannabis use was slower driving ? arguably a positive effect of driving high.
A comprehensive NHTSA study in 1992 revealed that pot is rarely involved in driving accidents, except when combined with alcohol. The study concluded that “the THC-only drivers had an [accident]responsibility rate below that of the drug free drivers.”
Another NHTSA study performed in 1993 dosed Dutch drivers with THC and tested them on real Dutch roads. It concluded that “THC’s adverse effects on driving performance appear relatively small.”
A 1998 study by the University of Adelaide and Transport South Australia examined blood samples from drivers involved in 2,500 accidents. It found that drivers with cannabis in their systems were slightly less likely to cause accidents than those without.
In Canada, a 1999 University of Toronto meta-analysis of studies into pot and driving revealed that drivers who consumed a moderate amount of pot typically refrained from passing cars and drove at a more consistent speed. The analysis showed that marijuana taken alone does not increase a driver’s risk of causing an accident.
A major study done by the UK Transport Research Laboratory in 2000 found that drivers under the influence of cannabis were more
cautious and less likely to drive dangerously. The study examined the effects of marijuana use on drivers through four weeks of tests on driving simulators. The study was commissioned specifically to show that marijuana was impairing, and the government was embarrassed with the study’s conclusion that “marijuana users drive more safely under the influence of cannabis.”
According to the Cannabis and Driving report, a comprehensive literature review published in 2000 by the UK Department of Transportation, “the majority of evidence suggests that cannabis use may result in a lower risk of [accident]culpability.”
The most recent study into drugs and driving was published in the July 2004 Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention. Researchers at the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research analyzed blood tests from those in traffic accidents, and found that even people with blood alcohol levels between 0.5% and 0.8% (below the legal limit) had a five-fold increase in the risk of serious accident. Drivers above the legal alcohol limit were 15 times more likely to have a collision. Drugs like Valium and Rohypnol produced results similar to alcohol, while cocaine and opiates showed only a small but “not statistically significant” increase in accident risk. As for the marijuana-only users? They showed absolutely no increased risk of accidents at all.
? For links to these studies: www.cannabisculture.com/news/driving
A better way to test
By Dana Larsen
Performance testing provides a valid alternative to zero tolerance drugged driving tests.
A better way of keeping impaired drivers off the road, or out of a safety-sensitive workplace, is to use performance testing.
A performance test doesn’t measure what is in your bloodstream, it measures your hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and other indicators of your current driving ability.
Drug tests can only pick up on substances they test for, so someone impaired on an unusual drug, or a prescription, will typically escape detection. Also, a performance test will detect any kind of impairment, including that which doesn’t relate to substance use, such as fatigue, hangover or emotional upset.
Roadside performance testing is already common. When a police officer asks a driver to walk a straight line, touch his nose or count backwards, the driver is being tested for his ability to perform, regardless of what may be in his bloodstream. However, this kind of testing is subjective and not standardized.
One standardized performance test gaining popularity in the workplace is a computer-based “critical tracking test.” This test has the user operate a knob to try to keep a randomly veering cursor centered on a video screen. This kind of testing is cheaper, faster and more accurate than urine testing for determining current impairment. This kind of simple test could easily be adapted for roadside use, and given by police to drivers suspected of any sort of impairment.