Misinformation About Driving Stoned: The Fight for Legalization
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted as stating that “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” He’s speaking against the misinformation that claimed African-Americans were inferior to Caucasians, so-called scientific studies that proved superiority and eugenics.
Misinformation has been used for decades to control and sway public opinion in a variety of matters, and the legalization of marijuana is just one of them. Unfortunately, even as the public is becoming more and more removed from the Reefer-Madness-esque position it has historically clung to, misinformation is still hindering legalization efforts.
The February 2014 NBC headline “Pot Fuels Surge in Drugged Driving Deaths” is one such piece of misinformation. The article cites a Columbia University study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology that states:
“…researchers assessed trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in drivers who were killed within 1 hour of a motor vehicle crash in 6 US states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and West Virginia) that routinely performed toxicological testing on drivers involved in such crashes.Of the 23,591 drivers studied, 39.7% tested positive for alcohol and 24.8% for other drugs. During the study period, the prevalence of positive results for nonalcohol drugs rose from 16.6% in 1999 to 28.3% in 2010. The most commonly detected nonalcohol drug was cannabinol, the prevalence of which increased from 4.2% in 1999 to 12.2% in 2010. These results indicate that nonalcohol drugs, particularly marijuana, are increasingly detected in fatally injured drivers.”
In layman’s terms, between 1999 and 2010, 8% more of drivers involved in a fatal accident had cannabinol in their system, a chemical that can stay in a cannabis-user’s system for up to 14 days after last use. The problem with using this study to try and prove that cannabis use is “fueling a surge in drugged driving deaths” is that the study literally proves nothing of the sort.
One of the study’s authors, Guoha Li, elaborated on the point for the Denver Post: “The most likely explanation is that use of marijuana in the general driver population has been increasing, which may reflect increased use in the overall population,” he says. He also goes on to remind that the study didn’t look at whether or not the driver testing positive for marijuana was actually at fault for the crash, and that a positive test may indicate use up to several days prior.
Control Through Fear
Despite this bit of verifiable science, opponents of legalization are latching on to drugged driving as the next vehicle to fight the spread of marijuana. Even if cannabis becomes legalized nationally, you can bet there will be those still seeking to impose harsh punishments on its beneficiaries, and one way they will do that is through DUID laws.
Riding off the fear incited by studies that “prove” cannabis use is the sole cause of an increase in fatal auto accidents, the White House has encouraged states to pursue “per se” (zero tolerance) laws. These types of policies advocate for blood testing drivers that appear under the influence, despite the fact that even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that it is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone.
Nevertheless, 17 states have already adopted laws that may prosecute based on having THC present in blood samples. Some states have set a nanograms-per-milliliter of blood limit, much like the .08 blood alcohol content limit. Fortunately, some court cases have set precedence that puts the burden on the state to prove that a driver is actually inhibited, regardless of amount of THC detected via the blood test.
“In every state already, it is a criminal violation to drive under the influence of a substance that can impair judgment,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There is no need to amend those laws in a manner that is entirely arbitrary and unscientific,” he adds. “If we’re concerned about individuals driving impaired, then the last thing we ought to do is amend the traffic safety laws so that a guilty conviction is divorced from any evidence of impairment.”
Context is Key
It’s important to keep context in mind when looking at the current issue of driving under the influence of marijuana as well. In 2013, a Columbia University study found that the relative risk associated with marijuana use and driving is an estimated odds ratio of 1.83–this means that you are as likely to get in a fatal accident driving 10 miles stoned as you are driving 18 miles sober.
According to the same study, alcohol alone holds a relative risk of approximately 13, while that number jumps up to 23 when drugs and alcohol are mixed. While this still proves that driving under the influence of marijuana is dangerous, it also proves that it is generally no more dangerous than activities that the majority of Americans already participate in.
“You shouldn’t be driving stoned,” says Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert and professor at UCLA, “But there are many things that will degrade driving just as much if not more—having a 4-year-old in your back seat, sleepiness, texting.” In fact, the National Safety Council estimates that you are four times as likely to crash while using a cell phone, while other sources claim that one in five fatal car crashes involve drowsy driving–and yet, you don’t see a crusade in support of legislation that allows officers to check recent call history and text messages, let alone a push for development of drowsy-driving testing.
“It’s almost impossible not to be guilty of driving while stoned if you smoke. The fact that THC is fat soluble and then comes back out in your bloodstream means you can be THC positive when you’re not impaired at all,” says Kleiman. “There’s no way to tell if you’re breaking the law—that seems unjust.”
Kleiman mentions that THC saliva swabs are being developed that may actually provide a scientific way to measure impairment, but until then, it seems the public is at the mercy of inexact science–which is truly no science at all.
The best way to fight misinformation is to educate yourself and those around you. Familiarize yourself with your state’s DUID laws and be on the lookout for misinformative studies and figures. The only way that fear-mongers who nationally tout inaccurate claims will win is if they are received with blind faith and open arms.
Revile apathy, seek truth, and question everything–under these conditions misinformation will never flourish.
Andrew Heikkila is a Millennial that likes to write about issues he considers pressing to this generation. One of the founders of Boise-based artist and humanitarian collective Earthlings Entertainment, he's always looking at how to better the lives of those around him.