cruisin' on cannabis
Putting tha brakes on doped-driving misconceptions.
By Paul Armentano
NOBML publications director
Policy debates regarding marijuana-law reform, including those involving the legalization of med i cinal cannabis, invariably beg the question:
"What about marijuana and driving?" The concern is a valid one. In fact, NORML's own "Principles of Responsible Cannabis Use" invoke a "no driving" clause, stating: "Although cannabis is said by most experts to be safer than alcohol and many prescription drugs with motorists, responsible cannabis consumers never operate motor vehicles in an impaired condition."
Nevertheless, concerns regarding doped dri ving should not be an impediment to pot-law lib eralization. Alcohol is legal in America, yet every state maintains tough laws punishing those who choose to drive impaired by it. There is no reason why similar principles should not regulate cannabis consumotion.
Moreover, emerging research indicates that the illegal herb actually has far less effect on the psychomotor skills needed for driving than alco hol does, and is seldom a causal factor in auto mobile accidents. A pair of studies released this past spring bolsters this argument.
The first, conducted by Britain's Transport Research Laboratory, found that people per formed better on a driving simulator under the influence of pot than they did after consuming alcohol. According to the study, marijuana only adversely affected subjects' ability to maintain a constant speed and control while driving around a figure-eight loop. Reaction time and all other measures of driving performance remained unaf fected. Researchers also noted that the subjects who had smoked marijuana-unlike alcohol users-were aware of their impairment, and tried to compensate by driving more cautiously.
Similar results were also reported last March by a South Australian team at the Department of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide. Their epidemiological review of automobile accidents found that alcohol "overwhelmingly plays the greatest role in road crashes" and "marijuana has a negligible impact on culpability." The study was a follow-up to a 1998 analysis of 2,500 injured drivers that had determined cannabis to have "no significant effect" on drivers' fault in accidents.
In fact, most marijuana-and-driving experi ments give pot a relatively clean bill of health, particularly when compared to alcohol. A review of two decades' worth of driving-simulator and on-road studies by Alison Smiley for Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health concluded that although marijuana temporarily impairs dri ving behavior, "this impairment is mitigated in that subjects under marijuana treatment appear
to perceive that they are indeed impaired [and] where they can compensate, they do.
"In contrast to the compen satory behavior exhibited by sub jects under marijuana treatment, subjects who have received alco hol tend to drive in a more risky manner," Smiley's assessment concluded. "The more cautious behavior of subjects who have received marijuana decreases the impact of the drug on perfor mance, whereas the opposite holds true for alcohol."
Studies of accident victims say likewise. A 1997 examination of
motor-vehicle injuries by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute concluded that alcohol is "the major drug associated with injury," and found no evidence to support the accusation that illicit drugs are a major factor in auto crashes. An earlier analysis of 1,882 dnvers killed in acci dents, published by the US National Highway Trans portation Safety Administration, also determined that alcohol, not pot, was the "dominant problem" in drug-related traffic accidents.
That said, are we to believe that it's ever safe to get high and drive? Not at all. However, what is apparent is that pot's slight impairment on psy chomotor skills generally falls within the range of safety Americans accept for prescription medica tions and other legal, potentially debilitating fac tors, such as fatigue or cell phones. As such, the question of marijuana and driving should remain a concern for drug-law reformers, but not a seri ous political obstacle to marijuana-law reform.