The resistance that many people have towards cannabis law reform is fear based. Like a panicky chicken, the prospect of any change at all is met with terror. One of the fears that people have at the thought of cannabis legalisation is that it will lead to carnage on our roads. As this article will examine, these fears are misguided.
As with many of the misgivings that people have about cannabis law reform, the fear of an increase in drugged driving deaths is based on a misconception about how dangerous cannabis is. This is partially based on ignorance, and partially based on the idea that being high on cannabis is like being drunk on alcohol.
The idea seems to be that perfectly otherwise normal people will smoke some cannabis and, because cannabis makes you go crazy, they will get in a car and drive like a crazy person. This perception has been stoked by sensationalist media reporting involving headlines such as “Stoned driver faces jail” when the driver in question had also been smoking methamphetamine.
The idea that cannabis legalisation will lead to more road deaths is not accurate for three major reasons.
The first is that it ignores the substitution effect (for the sake of argument, let’s agree here with the lazy assumption that legal cannabis will lead to more use). An individual driving under the influence of cannabis might not be as safe as a sober person. But evidence from elsewhere shows that, if cannabis was legalised, a proportion of incidents of drunk driving will be replaced with incidents of stoned driving, which are safer.
Research has shown that rates of alcohol use fall in places where recreational cannabis is made legal. This is because cannabis and alcohol serve as substitutes to a large extent. Because rates of alcohol use fall after cannabis legalisation, rates of drunk driving also fall, and this means that traffic fatalities also fall – significantly.
It’s better for a driver to be sober, but if they aren’t going to be sober, it’s better for them to be stoned than to be drunk. It’s a grim calculus, but if legalising cannabis would lead to twenty extra drugged driving deaths but would prevent fifty drunk driving deaths, it would be a worthwhile move.
The second is that the actual science is inconclusive as to whether being stoned impairs driving safety. Various studies have provided contradictory results. The lazy assumption is that being under the influence of any psychoactive drug, including cannabis, will make a person worse at driving. The reality is that stoned drivers take a variety of measures to reduce their risk of crashing.
Part of the problem is that unregulated cannabis contains a great variety of various cannabinoids, and these cannabinoids can be present at a great variety of frequencies. Studies appear to be clear that high doses of THC impair driver safety, which follows logically from the fact that THC is known to have a psychotogenic effect, but there is no such evidence suggesting the same about high doses of CBD.
It also appears to be true that, unlike alcohol, cannabis tolerance has an effect on whether it impairs driving performance. For many cannabis users, cannabis is merely a background substance that quietens distracting thoughts. All these reasons mean that, although no responsible person would advocate driving after using cannabis, a person who has just smoked it is not necessarily unsafe to drive.
The third is that it is irrelevant. Like with many arguments against cannabis law reform, focus on the specifics misses the bigger picture.
Not everyone trusts the Government when it says that cannabis is a substance that isn’t safe to drive on. As the linked articles above demonstrate, there are indeed instances when a person who has consumed cannabis is not safe to drive. But why would a person trust a Government public safety notice on the subject, when they have previously lied about cannabis full stop?
Over recent decades, governments all over the world have denied that cannabis was medicinal. But because people all over the world knew that it was medicinal, the end result has been decreased trust of governmental pronouncements, particularly when they relate to cannabis. So if the a government would give the perfectly reasonable advice to avoid driving within two hours of smoking, it might well be ignored.
If cannabis was legal, and if the Government spoke to the public honestly about it instead of lying, users might trust them when giving intelligent and prudent advice about smoking cannabis and driving. This would save many more lives in the long run than could possibly be saved by putting cannabis growers and users in prison.
The idea that cannabis legalisation will lead to a spate of fatal traffic accidents is fearmongering. It’s the same kind of fearmongering that claimed that legalising homosexuality would lead to everyone dying of AIDS. The experience of overseas territories that have legalised cannabis shows that these fears are little more than hysteria.
This article is an excerpt from The Case For Cannabis Law Reform, compiled by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.