High Driving Is Safer Than Sober

Professional athletes are always trying to optimize their performance.  That’s their job.  Training helps performance.  Diet helps performance.  Meditation helps performance.  And, drugs help avoid potholesperformance.  For every honest athlete, there’s a Lance Armstrong just waiting to be caught doping.  Yes, how we love to see them rise, just to see them fall.

The simple fact is, some drugs enhance performance, so there will always be someone out there trying to gain an edge. We all know how poorly we behave when drinking, and that’s why there are laws against driving under the influence of this drug.  But, Florida driving under the influence laws have deemed several other drugs detrimental to our driving abilities, contrary to scientific studies.   For example, some athletes claim that a little bit of weed before a game enhances their performance.  My guess is that half the NBA and/or NFL players have marijuana in their system.  Well, maybe half is an understatement, but you get my drift (do we still say drift? I do, I’m white and in my late 40’s).  Almost every professional sport I can think of demands more than driving, so if athletes can enhance their performance–or, at least not diminish it–with marijuana, why should it be illegal to drive under the influence of weed?

You’ve heard my weed vs. alcohol rant before, so I’ll spare you a 1,000 words here, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of domestic violence battery cases involve alcohol.  The vast majority of bar violence, resisting officers, and overall disorderly conduct arrests come from alcohol–not marijuana.  The vast majority of DUI cases come from alcohol, not marijuana.  The vast majority of DUI manslaughter cases come from alcohol, not marijuana.  Rarely do we hear of a wife calling 911 regarding her violent husband after they both smoked some weed.  Not gonna happen.  Now, I’ve used the vague term “vast majority” several times, but are there statistics to back up these assertions?  

I hate to begin with the cliche “recent studies have shown”, but I have no other interesting way of putting it.  Recent studies have shown that some drugs, like cocaine and similar stimulants (amphetamines), actually create a lower crash risk than driving sober.  Yes, you heard me.  Not only can drugs make athletes perform better, they can make you a better driver as well.  The only problem is, driving under the influence of cocaine is a crime, just like driving under the influence of alcohol.  Can you imagine traffic judges prescribing stimulants to sleepy, accident prone drivers?  Not going to happen.   That being said, the roads would be safer.  Studies have shown that marijuana consumption reduces risky behavior in drivers, and alcohol increases risky behavior.

There are (at least) two ways you can study how drugs effect driving.  One way is to get some kids high, and test their ability to drive versus when they’re not high.  Simple enough.  But, the most common way to study drugs and safety is to examine raw crash statistics (technically entitled “population-based case control studies”).  As far as marijuana goes, one study found “no increased risk of crash involvement for those drivers testing positive for THC” [NHTSA “Drugs and Alcohol Crash Risk”, Feb. 2015, citing a 2014 study by Romano, Torres-Saavedra, Voas, & Lacey, a pdf is attached NHTSA Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk Feb 2015].

Statistics don’t tell the whole story here, because it’s hard to say whether the weed found in a driver’s blood after an accident was actually psychoactive at the time of the crash, or smoked a few weeks prior.  That being said, some studies were able to tease out those drivers who tested positive for for active cannabinoids–the stuff that makes you high, versus inactive cannabinoids–the stuff that makes you test positive for weed weeks after you’ve smoked. The NHTSA study estimated that THC positive drivers had slightly higher crash risk than cannabis-negative drivers, “but that adjustment for demographic characteristics associated with both cannabis use and crash involvement reduced the adjusted odds ratio to 1.01 (p=0.65), thus providing no evidence of a causal relationship between having detectable levels of THC and risk of crash involvement.” [cited in “An Evaluation of Data from Drivers Arrested for Driving Under the Influence in Relation to Per se limits for Cannabis“, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, May 2016]

The NHTSA’s article further reasoned that “caution should be exercised in assuming that drug presence implies driver impairment.  Drug tests do not necessarily indicate current impairment.” [“Drugs and Alcohol Crash Risk”, page 4]. This statement is significant, as most DUI law is based on this notion that the presence of a substance implies impairment.  Several DUI trials have been won when the driver has blown over a .08 because of this very truth–having drugs or alcohol in your system doesn’t mean you were driving impaired, and driving with your normal faculties impaired is a crime.   As stated in the United States Department of Transportation’s NHTSA report–drug presence does not necessarily indicate impairment.

Everybody knows that Florida’s DUI laws presume impairment for a BAL above 0.08.  Is there a similar presumption for marijuana?  Some states have passed laws that create a presumption of impairment by marijuana if the THC level is above 5ng/mL.  What can science tell us about setting an arbitrary level of impairment for weed?  Recently, a landmark study answered this very question.  A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that “[t]here is no evidence from the data collected, particularly from the subjects assessed through the DRE exam, that any objective threshold exists that established impairment, based on THC concentrations measured in specimens collected from cannabis-positive subjects placed under arrest for impaired driving”. [“An Evaluation of Data from Drivers Arrested for Driving Under the Influence in Relation to Per se limits for Cannabis“, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, May 2016]  In other words, “[b]ased on this analysis, a quantitative threshold for per se laws for THC following cannabis use cannot be scientifically supported.” id., page 2.  (emphasis added)

And there you have it.  Science, siding with the weed smokers.  Do you think our government will listen?  Don’t hold your breath.