As a larger number of states legalize recreational cannabis — joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia — the issue of driver impairment is becoming a more hotly debated topic. Although libertarians may argue the rights of individuals to consume cannabis or operate vehicles under a variety of conditions, the issue of protecting innocent citizens and the dependability of safe roads obviously percolates to the surface.
What is Cannabis Intoxication?
The state legislature in Colorado has established a THC limit for “safe” drivers that is five nanogram-per-milliliter (ng/ml). If an officer suspects that a driver is impaired by cannabis, he or she may administer a blood test to determine the THC level. Other legal states obviously must also define and adopt legislation for issues such as “impaired driving” and “cannabis intoxication.”
The scant research and studies that have been conducted regarding the effects of cannabis on human motor skills like driving have revealed that average cannabis consumption mildly impairs psychomotor skills — but that the impairment is neither severe nor long in its duration. How does this minor impairment affect driving skills? According to NORML, during driving simulation tests, the loss of driving skill is typically manifested in decreased driving speed (arguably a good thing in most situations). However, it also typically results in slower response times to emergency situations (definitely not a good thing).
Considering that humans like to sling two-ton pieces of automotive metal down highways and freeways at legal speeds up to 85 MPH in the United States, driver impairment and the protection of society is no small issue for the cannabis community.
Molly Jansen, a progressive and curious defense attorney in Colorado questioned:
“It’s important for people to say: Alright, I may be a chronic smoker, but right now, can I drive?”
In unincorporated Adams County, Colorado, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are leveraging real life testing demonstrations to prove their point in court. Dubbed “green labs,” the tests involve volunteers from a local cannabis lounge who are given varying amounts of pot edibles. After the edibles have taken effect (typically 60-90 minutes), participants were asked to undergo a standard roadside sobriety test that included walking a straight line and following the tester’s finger with only their eyes.
Participants Overly Optimistic
Jansen orchestrated a green lab demonstration using volunteers from the iBake cannabis lounge in Adams County. Prior to testing, all participants — each of which admitted to being a regular cannabis user — stated that they believed the consumption of cannabis would have no detrimental effect on their driving skills. Said one participant: “I’ll drive after smoking.” A few went as far as declaring a perceived increase in driving skill after smoking cannabis.
Jansen posed the question:
“Even if I smoke all day, every day, for three years, can I get behind the wheel of that car and be safe in this community?”
Such questions are critical for not only regular lifestyle consumers, but also patients. Those undergoing chemotherapy or suffering serious, life threatening conditions like cancer, Crohn’s disease, or arthritis — who often have no choice but to medicate daily and sometimes almost hourly to manage pain or nausea — must also get behind the wheel of passenger and commercial vehicles. Such patients must seriously consider their fitness for driving and the safety of those around them.
Many patients, especially those with conditions like multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, are, unfortunately, so sick they are unable to work, housebound, or not permitted to hold a driver license. Most patients, however, must commute to their jobs or drive errands within their communities to provide for their families and manage their homes. Can patients consume cannabis throughout the day and still be capable of driving safely? How does tolerance influence the effect of potent medicinal cannabis on patients?
How Did They Fare?
How did participants fare, especially considering that all perceived they would experience no decrease in driving ability and safety? Each person failed their initial roadside sobriety test. Only one hour later, however, several of the participants passed the sobriety test, with experts deeming them safe to drive on the road.
“Oh, I’m really, really high,”
Said one young female participant who passed her second test with flying colors. The test administrator commented, “It’s surprising that, if she says she’s that high, that she actually passed the road sobriety test the way she did…’cause she did everything perfectly.”
The green labs test aptly illustrated the fact that states and cities cannot simply legalize medical or recreational cannabis and then abandon the issue. To ensure the safety of all drivers, both cannabis users and otherwise, more informal and formal studies like the green labs must occur, with large volumes of data gathered and analyzed in a science-based approach to the issue. Until this happens, patients, law enforcement officials, recreational cannabis consumers, and lawmakers in states where it is legal will find themselves confused by what is — and is not — legal when behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress has done everything in its power to prevent research of cannabis medicine, including the effects of pot on daily tasks like driving. Until more research is conducted on the efficacy of the kind herb, including human trials, ignorance will pervade among patients, lawmakers, and lifestyle users.
Hopefully other states like Oregon, Washington, and California will pursue their own green labs in an effort to better understand the real world effects of regular cannabis consumption for patients and lifestyle consumers when it comes to tasks like driving, performing one’s job, or raising children.