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  • The Coalition Connection

Driving Under the Influence of Cannabis

Between driving drunk and driving high, there is a serious knowledge gap. Maybe more of a chasm, really. Consider this: You would be hard-pressed to find a teenager who is not aware that driving after drinking alcohol is unsafe and unacceptable. Decades of well-funded public health education campaigns have elevated this message to common knowledge status, and medical research and traffic safety statistics confirm it as an inarguable reality. Now “don’t drink and drive” is an accepted social norm, as well as the law.

Yet in teen focus groups conducted by the Coalition last year, Tamalpais Union High School District students told us consistently, “A lot of people won’t drive drunk, but will drive high.”

So what is it about driving high on marijuana or other cannabis products that gives it a “pass” when driving after drinking alcohol resides decidedly in the “just don’t do it” category? An early glimpse into attitudes about driving high reveals that the social norms are entirely different. Many people perceive driving high as being pretty safe.

And no wonder, as it turns out there is very little public health education, few statistics, and inconsistent laws and enforcement on driving high. So this leaves us operating on myths and misperceptions. In fact, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has conducted focus groups and documented how young adults assert that they are even safer drivers when driving high.

Here’s what we do know:

  • In our local communities, more teens are using marijuana today than a few years ago. According to California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) 2018 data, past 30-day use of marijuana for both 9th and 11th graders in Tamalpais Union High School District rose by 4 percentage points from 2016 to 2018 (18% to 22% and 36% to 40% respectively).

  • According to the same CHKS data, 38% of 11th graders reported either driving or being a passenger in a car driven by someone under the influence.

  • Nationwide, an increasing number of high school seniors reported driving after using marijuana, even as fewer reported they had driven after drinking alcohol.

  • Drug-impaired driving can result in a DUI conviction. In California, penalties for a first-time conviction can include probation, fines and license suspension. Across the nation, law enforcement agencies are improving officers’ training for identifying drug-impaired driving.

The National Institutes of Health tells us that “marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving ability.” Yet it can be difficult to directly link marijuana impairment to

crash statistics, in part because data are difficult to collect. Many factors contribute to the complexity of identifying the influence of cannabis, including that alcohol and marijuana are often used together, THC can be detected in the body long after use, and there is no standardized drug-level test protocol as clearly defined as the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) test. Studies are finally now underway, especially in Colorado where marijuana has been legal since 2014. And efforts are increasing to change people’s perceptions about driving high. So, while what we know about the frequency and consequences of driving high is unfortunately not enough, we do know that locally more teens are using marijuana and there are significant risks connected to driving or riding in a car with a driver who is high. This is an important conversation to have with teens.

Here are some conversation starters and tools to consider:

  • Does the teens’ experience in this brief video reflect your experience? How or how not?

  • Do you relate to this statement by a local teen? “We’ve received all the messages about driving drunk and seen the consequences with crashes, etc., and we know better. People will drive high though; we don’t have a big problem with driving under that influence.”

  • What do you think about getting into a car with a driver who has used marijuana? If you don’t want to, and you need to get home, what is your strategy?

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