Taking the High Road: The myth of driving on marijuana


By Camille Kaufman

A few months ago, senior Jack got pulled over for not having a front license plate. When he pulled to the side of the road, the last thing on his mind was getting a DUI. After all, he wasn’t drunk.

“The officer claimed he smelled alcohol, then made me perform a sobriety test, then blow into the breathalyzer,” said Jack. “I blew a .01, and I had had one or two cups of beer two or three hours before.”

When thinking of DUIs, one usually thinks of being caught for driving under the influence of alcohol, like Jack did, but according to a recent Tam News survey of over 250 students, 42 percent have driven or have been driven by someone who was under the influence of marijuana, and 27 percent do it at least once a month.

“Driving high is not the same as driving drunk,” said Alex, a senior who drives under the influence of marijuana more than once a week. “When you’re high you’re more focused than when you’re drunk.”

“[Driving under the influence of marijuana] is equally as dangerous as [driving drunk],” said Mary-Jane Landolina, one of a Tam’s drug and alcohol counselors. “They both cloud your perception, they alter reality, they cloud your judgment, and your reaction time is slower.”

Of the surveyed students, 87 percent think that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

“Obviously, don’t do either,” said senior Emilia. “But if you’re going to do one, drive high.”

Although this is somewhat common advice at Tam, it’s completely wrong. There is no “safe drug” for driving.

The active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), affects areas of the brain that control the body’s movements, balance, coordination, memory, and judgment, as well as sensory perceptions.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), evidence from both real and simulated studies indicates that marijuana can negatively affect a driver’s attentiveness, perception of time and speed, and the ability to draw on information obtained from past experiences.

For instance, a study of over 3000 fatally-injured drivers in Australia showed that when marijuana was present in the blood of the driver they were more likely to be at fault for the accident.

“[Saying driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol] is a sad attempt to give you permission to do it even though you know you aren’t supposed to,” said Landolina. “The last thing on your mind should be getting behind the wheel.”

At parties, it’s not unusual for a student to hear something like “I can’t drink I’m driving – I’ll smoke instead.” Even a small amount of THC is dangerous; according to a survey conducted by the National Survey of Drug and Health (NSDUH), reaction time is reduced by 41 percent after smoking one joint and by 63 percent after smoking two joints.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve had one drink or a bunch of drinks, it still affects your reaction time,” said Mill Valley police officer Michael Lane. “The same goes for the amount of marijuana smoked.”

Not many surveyed students drive under the influence for the pleasure of it. In fact, most students said that they only do it when they need to get home.

“I was in a car with someone who was under the influence but I didn’t know they were high until we were already driving,” said junior Rachel. “It was the scariest experience of my life, and I ended up driving home with my permit because it felt safer.”

“[Being driven by someone who was under the influence] was probably not a good idea, but I really needed a ride home,” said freshman Zoe.

“There’s always an alternative to driving under the influence,” said Lane. “Don’t get behind the wheel.”

Those driving under the influence of marijuana also show the common signs of being a drunk driver such as impaired judgment, inability to concentrate, and delayed reaction time.

“When you drive high if you’re at a stop and you’re waiting for a car you think is so close but could be really far away,” said senior Chris. “You could wait there for like 10 seconds thinking the car’s hella close when he’s just hella far away.”

“High people drive a lot slower [than sober or drunk drivers],” said Julie.

Although only 5 percent of surveyed students have been caught by the police while driving under the influence, another 14 percent have been caught by someone else, such as a parent, relative, or friend.

“There is a zero tolerance policy when it comes to driving under the influence, whether it’s an adult or a juvenile,” said Lane. “[These cases] are usually dealt with by an arrest, and depending on if [the offenders] have a record or not, they may or may not be charged.”

Unlike alcohol, there is no accurate way to measure exact THC levels since it is difficult to know when the intake of marijuana actually occurred because the individual can test positive for the drug for up to thirty days after first using it.

However, the amount of THC in the driver’s system would be enough to indicate whether or not they had imbibed prior to driving, and if there was enough THC in their system to impair their driving abilities. The officer may even order the driver out of the car so that the officer can conduct Field Sobriety Tests (FSTs) on them.

“[I’ve never driven with] someone who was drunk, they were only high, and from my observations it impaired them,” said sophomore Nate.

People high on marijuana show the same lack of coordination on standard FST tests as do people who have had too much to drink, according to the NSDUH study and a member of the Mill Valley Police Department.

When the driver fails their sobriety test, they get a DUI for “driving under the influence of marijuana,” which is a crime under California Vehicle Code 23152 (a).

“For me, driving under the influence wasn’t worth it,” said Jack. “Since the DUI, I refuse to drive under the influence, and I think of every way to avoid further trouble with the police.”

“[Driving under the influence] was the worst decision of my life,” said senior Jane, another student who got a DUI. “I just wanted to go home, but it turned out really bad.”

Punishment for a California DUI marijuana varies depending on the facts of the individual case and the driver’s criminal history, with particular emphasis on drug and/or alcohol offenses.

If it’s the driver’s first time getting a DUI marijuana conviction, they face three to five years of informal probation, up to one year in county jail, a court approved DUI school, many fines, and a six month court-ordered California driver’s license suspension.

“The bigger thing that people tend to forget is that [driving under the influence] is a criminal act,” said Lane.

Besides being caught for driving under the influence of marijuana and getting a DUI, one can injure themselves or others around them.

According to national trends in the NIDA, about 38,000 high school seniors in the U.S. reported that they crashed while driving under the influence of marijuana in 2001.

“The use of any distraction while driving can have horrible consequences,” said Lane. “While you are still thinking of what to do your vehicle is still moving several feet per second.”

“When your perception is altered there is definitely a higher risk of harming yourself or others,” said Landolina.

Adults and police officers aren’t the only ones concerned with the safety of students who drive under the influence – many students feel just as strongly about it.

“Why would anyone be so selfish as to put not only their lives but potentially the lives of others in danger?” said Melissa.

Charles agreed, saying, “It’s bad that people don’t think driving under the influence is a big deal.”

Driving under the influence of marijuana is just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, but driving with any distractions should never be done. According to recent studies, texting, calling, or even fiddling with the radio, can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence.

Lane, who has seen the consequences of many bad decisions to get behind the wheel, said “People always think ‘it’ll never happen to me.’ Until it does.”

Written by Camille Kaufman. This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.