Political freakout over stoned driving is reefer madness

Driving high is about as dangerous as driving with kids in the back seat

By Kyle Carruthers

As Canada gears up for marijuana legalization mid-next year, I think it is time for us all to take a sober look at the subject of stoned driving.

This particular subject requires a willingness to accept some nuance and complexity, and to think clearly about the relative risk it presents. Some of what I am going to say in this column may strike some as heretical, even dangerous. They are going to say that I am minimizing the risks of a very hazardous activity.

That certainly isn’t my intention, and I can state categorically here at the outset that people shouldn’t smoke marijuana and drive. Full stop. In fact, any time a person sits in the driver seat of a motor vehicle they should be sober, well-rested and completely focused on the task at hand.

That said, the moral panic surrounding this dimension of legalization and the calls to delay until we “figure out” what to do about the problem of stoned driving requires that it be put into some perspective. To hear some skeptics of marijuana legalization, talk of this issue one might be lead to believe that come July 1, 2018, the roads will suddenly become inundated with red-eyed stoned drivers and an epidemic of horrific car crashes will ensue. I think that is doubtful.

It is commonly said that the danger of stoned drivers is the same as, or on par with, the risk associated with drunk drivers. It is certainly a superficially appealing notion as both substances have an intoxicating effect. And we are always cautious with the “message” that we might inadvertently send if we cede any ground or acknowledge any shades of grey in our public discourse. It is easier to just say “they’re both just as bad” out of fear that impressionable ears might be listening than to be fully honest about the evidence.

As with so many other things that might appeal intuitively it just isn’t true that stoned driving and drunk driving are the same. In fact, the relative risk of the two are not even on the same scale.

The research suggests that using marijuana and driving approximately doubles your risk of being involved in an accident.

That might sound like a lot until you hear how bad drinking and driving, not to mention some more mundane activities, are. Among adults over 35 years of age (the more careful, responsible cohort of drivers), having a blood alcohol level just cracking .08 — the legal limit in this country — increases your risk by a factor of almost seven and half. For younger people the increased risk is even higher.

And it gets worse. Even a legal .05 blood alcohol level among that same 35-and-older cohort increases the risk by about three and a half times — almost double the risk of stoned driving (again, with younger drivers the numbers are higher).

In the Yukon, driving with a .05 blood alcohol level is currently legal, and in those provinces where that lower limit has been adopted the penalty is typically to have your vehicle impounded without any sort of criminal sanction.

So, stoned driving is dangerous. Is it on par with drinking and driving? Certainly not.

How do other activities affect your risk of being involved in a car crash? You might be surprised. Having a telephone conversation, even one using a hands free device, increases your risk by a factor of four.

And texting? According to the National Safety Council, texting and driving — an activity that we have come to recognize as dangerous but have made only half-hearted efforts to combat — hasn’t been studied enough to come up with any firm numbers but that estimates “range from eight to 23 times increased risk.”

What does stoned driving compare with? Dr. Mark Kleiman — a drug policy researcher with New York University — has said that the increased risk of stoned driving is about the same as driving with children in the backseat.

So where does that leave us? After all we are still talking about a doubling of the relative risk of an accident which is not something that can be easily ignored.

We have to confront what I might have thought was self-evident but apparently comes as news to some people: People are out there on the roads toking and driving as we speak. It’s perplexing to me why, on the occasion of marijuana legalization, this issue is suddenly acquiring an urgency as if it was a brand-new phenomenon society is facing for the first time. If stoned driving is indeed a pressing issue of public safety, it is something we ought to have tackled decades ago because people have been doing it for that long.

But, so the argument goes, legalization will increase availability and thus the number of people using it.

Maybe. Jurisdictions with legal cannabis have indeed seen an increase in adult consumption (although, interestingly, teen usage has gone flat). But these upward trends have been underway for some time and consumption rates also continue to rise in places that have not implemented legalization. There has been no notable increase in serious car accidents in Colorado. Those numbers continue to hover somewhere around historic averages.

Taken together, it seems doubtful that any predicted carnage on the roadways will actually materialize. Stoned driving, while dangerous and unwise, is lower on the scale of hazardous activities than one might intuitively expect. We know this, in part, because it is something that already takes place.

This isn’t to say that we should do nothing about stoned driving. But judging by the statistics, our enforcement dollars might be more wisely spent cracking down on drunk and distracted driving.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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