As more states embrace the seemingly inevitable conclusion of legalizing marijuana, you may have some questions about smoking weed while driving. This iconic rite of passage—burning a fat doobie with the car windows down, music blaring, friends in tow—is, despite any laws allowing stationary cannabis consumption, still strictly illegal. But does cannabis impair driving, or is this stance on driving high based on antiquated assumptions about people who smoke weed?
A study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that legalized marijuana is linked to increased collisions. The American Journal of Public Health published a study that concludes that states with legal marijuana laws have lower car-related mortality rates than those states that practice prohibition. The results of these studies have left stoners and teetotalers alike scratching their heads in temporarily united confusion.
Studying the effect of smoking weed while driving is tricky. Studies based on blood drawn post-accident can be misleading because marijuana stays in the bloodstream for days or weeks after consumption: someone who tests positive for marijuana after a crash may not have had any before they got in the car that day. The Center for Disease Control says that proving a conclusive link between marijuana and accidents is difficult because “an accurate roadside test for drug levels in the body doesn’t exist.”
The truth is out there, man
Some of the primary reasons why people enjoy smoking weed (body relaxation and mood alteration) are the exact same reasons why smoking cannabis while driving is illegal. Marijuana affects several key bodily systems, most of which are critical for safe driving. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists impaired judgment, diminished motor coordination, and slower reaction time as factors linking driving ability and marijuana consumption.
A study in The American Journal of Addictions says that automatic functions like tracking other vehicles will be affected by smoking as little as one-third of joint. On the other hand, it will take a heavy dose of THC to impair more complex functions needed while driving. It depends on what kind of cannabis user you are: pulling massive rips of shatter and chowing down on high-dosage edibles will have a stronger impact on your blood’s THC-concentration than taking a toke or two.
Alcohol vs marijuana behind the wheel
We know that smoking marijuana while driving is illegal—but so is drinking alcohol while driving. A common argument is that marijuana is an overall safer alternative to alcohol, and it certainly seems that may be the case when it comes to getting behind the wheel. Alcohol causes drivers to speed and make impulsive decisions, all while exhibiting less caution for themselves and their surroundings. Marijuana, on the other hand, causes some trepidation in drivers: reaction times may be slower, but this leads to safer following distances at lower speeds with less reckless behavior.
The current state of affairs
The Department of Motor Vehicles classifies marijuana as an illicit substance because it is still illegal on a federal level. Because of this, if you are caught smoking weed while driving or driving while high, you can be punished just as if you were drinking a beer while driving or driving while drunk. Jail time, license suspension, drug education and treatment programs, and fees are some of the possible punishments for getting busted driving while stoned.
Even in states where marijuana is legal at either medicinal or recreational levels, smoking weed while driving is illegal. Authorities consider marijuana and its paraphernalia being within reach of the driver a violation of open-container laws. More often than not, smoking weed in public is illegal regardless of state-approved indulgences elsewhere, and because your car is in the public eye and on public roads, smoking marijuana while driving remains a major no-no that can end up costing you more than the thrill and chill are worth.
Looking forward to the future
Until recently, securing funding for marijuana-related scientific studies has been difficult because of the legislature on the state and federal levels. Now that the laws are changing, we can expect laws surrounding driving while high to change, too. It’s unlikely that smoking marijuana while driving will ever be explicitly legal, but attitudes and laws regarding stoners behind the wheel may change as new studies about the effects of weed and driving come to light.
For the time being, however, it’s best to put to rest the daydreams of rolling around town with the windows down blasting loud music and smoking loud weed, too. Confine marijuana consumption to approved locations to keep yourself out of trouble… and time your munchy runs just right so as to not be blazed behind the wheel.