Recently one of my teenage patients asked me about driving under the influence of, not alcohol, but marijuana. He thought that his reaction time improved when he was “stoned” because everything seemed to “slow down.” He knew that drinking alcohol and driving was bad, that texting while driving was bad, but he thought that pot had a bum rap. So, he asked, what was my opinion?
Let me throw it back to you. What would you say? You don’t need a medical degree to answer that question. No one is going to tell a teenager to smoke weed. But I wanted to convince my patient and to do that I needed some hard evidence. Science behind my message might just make it stick. There is a lot of talk about drunken driving but almost no one talks about being stoned on pot while behind the wheel. We do breathalyzer tests for alcohol, but cops rarely look for pot because it’s harder to test for. (You need a blood test to be sure.)
Before I discuss the perils of smoking weed and driving, I’d like to rant a bit on alcohol. There are a lot of misperceptions out there. People say, “I only drink beer. It’s not as bad as the hard stuff.” Wrong! Alcohol is alcohol. Period. Other people say, “I only get drunk on weekends. I don’t have an alcohol problem.” Wrong! If you binge drink regularly, you have a problem – no matter what day of the week it is. We are way too cavalier about alcohol in this country. We need to be smarter!
Back to weed. A recent article in the British Medical Journal sheds some light on the pot problem. Researchers gathered together all the studies on marijuana and traffic crashes to see if there was a pattern. They used studies where cops either tested for marijuana with a blood test or the driver just admitted to smoking weed. The results were clear. Driving under the influence of weed is the same as driving while drunk. Intoxicants cause crashes. So, why write about this? It seems so obvious. As one of my colleagues laughingly said to me, “Who knew? Pot is bad!”
But what may be obvious to you is not necessarily to our teens and young adults. Research from our Canadian neighbors showed that in 1996 2 percent of the population drove within one hour of getting stoned on pot. In 2005, it had risen to 4 percent. And in roadside surveys in Europe, where you can be stopped by police at will with no cause needed and tested for alcohol or pot, the number is up to 7 percent. Driving under the influence of pot is going up dramatically.
My spin: Many who read this column are not pot smokers. You may have tried it when you were younger but gave it up. But nearly all of you know a young adult or teenager who may not know this information. They’re at risk. The cavalier attitude about pot is rampant among smokers. The word on the street is that it’s safe to smoke and drive. Well, guess what? It ain’t. Perhaps this should be one of those quality family discussions you should have with your kids.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular call-in program on WNED radio at 3 p.m. Saturdays.