Driving While High: Does Weed Really Improve Your Driving Skills?

Is driving while high a bad idea? It depends on who you ask.
Is driving while high a bad idea? It depends on who you ask. / Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Some marijuana consumers claim driving while high doesn’t affect their ability to operate a motor vehicle. No, it makes them better at it. Or at the very least, it inspires caution, making them safer behind the wheel.

Anyone who’s been high, however, would likely admit that marijuana can make driving a challenge. But that doesn’t stop the cannabis advocacy community from lashing out whenever a new study emerges claiming that driving high poses a threat. 

This is a strange reaction. 

After all, even the alcohol industry admits that drunk driving is a no-no. So, why are advocacy groups always prepared to go to war when the data finds that driving impaired on pot might be problematic?

The official stance from NORML on driving while high

We reached out to NORML, one of the largest cannabis advocacy groups in the world, to find out.

“To be clear, NORML has never shied away from discussing issues specific to cannabis and traffic safety, which includes acknowledging how cannabis exposure can influence psychomotor skills and motor vehicle accident risk,” Paul Armentano, Deputy Director for NORML told The Bluntness

The organization simply doesn’t agree with the naysayers. “NORML has criticized opponents' claims that changes in marijuana laws are causal factors in alleged increases in motor vehicle accidents because the data does not support this sensational and fear-mongering claim,” he said. 

Mr. Armentano asserts that the organization’s opposition is not to dissuade laws against driving high, but to encourage effective policy. “NORML has a long history of…calling for additional and more accurate tools and methods to both identify and discourage DUI cannabis behavior,” he recalls. 

Regardless of this stance, NORML doesn’t believe driving while high is as dangerous as drunk driving.

“Drivers under the influence of alcohol tend to engage in greater risk-taking behaviors, such as accelerating speed, making more frequent lane changes, and exhibiting an overconfidence in their driving abilities,” Armentano said. 

“This is why data consistently show that alcohol-positive drivers (at or just below the 0.08 BAC limit) possess a far greater risk of motor vehicle accident (about a four-fold increase according to NHTSA) as compared to drug-free drivers, while THC+ drivers possess only a marginal increased risk over drug-negative drivers.” 

Mixed views on marijuana motorists

Dr. Aaron Weiner, licensed board-certified clinical psychologist and master addiction counselor tells The Bluntness that, in spite of the shoddy evidence, it’s just a myth that stoned people drive slower and are more cautious. “The reality is that it lowers your reaction speed, lateral control of the vehicle, your ability to see all visual cues on the road, and also to judge speed,” he said. 

Some of the cannabis consumers we spoke with on the issue don’t necessarily think they are better drivers in a post-consumption state, just safer than someone who’s lit up on the hooch.  

“If you’re drunk, you drive to a stop sign and blow through it,” 32-year-old Blaine told The Bluntness. “If you're high, you get to a stop sign and wait for it to turn green!” 

Another man, Daniel, seconds that: “Maybe not better, but a hell of a lot safer than drinking and driving,” he asserts.

Others we interviewed believe being stoned actually makes them safer drivers. “I’ve driven high accident free for over twenty years,” claimed Aaron, a 35-year-old from Indiana. 

Another guy, Felix, believes cannabis keeps him and others protected on the road. “It enhances my senses,” he declared. 

And then there are those who once believed they were better drivers after consuming marijuana and then learned that wasn’t the case. 

“I thought I was good but rear ended the car in front of me because I got distracted looking for a bathroom,” said 29-year-old Robert. “Now I only smoke when I know I don't have to be anywhere.”

The controversy of cannabis-infused driving

Stoned driving is a controversial aspect of legalization. Lawmakers have long argued that legalizing the leaf will lead to an uptick in high drivers and kill innocent people. 

Some studies published over the years show they might be right, while others suggest they are off base. The data is sketchy.

We know that millions of Americans are getting behind the wheel stoned every day because, as a 2019 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey revealed, most marijuana consumers don’t consider driving high as risky as driving drunk or texting. To the ones we asked, that sounds about right.

 “I'd take the stonedest mofo in the world over a texting moron,” argued Roman, a 53- year-old from Georgia.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time.” So, even if marijuana impairment is different than alcohol impairment, roadway safety is still a concern. 

It’s not, or at least it shouldn’t be a question of whether driving high is safer than driving drunk. It’s whether stoned motorists can actually navigate the roadways safer than those doing it sober. Impairment is impairment, right?

Making sense of it all

To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Ashley Brooks-Russell, associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health - CU Anschutz Medical Campus. She’s the lead researcher of a recent study examining the effects of cannabis use on simulated driving performance. 

She tells The Bluntness there’s not any proof that high humans are safer drivers than sober humans. “To my knowledge there is not any evidence that people who use cannabis are better drivers than their sober counterparts,” she said. 

The doctor admits, however, that not every stoned driver is equal. “It’s possible that people who use cannabis frequently (multiple times every day) may be less impaired than counterparts who use less frequently,” she added. “However, this doesn’t mean they are better drivers than being sober.”

Dr. Brooks-Russell also concedes that there are far too many variables connected to the question of impairment for any side of the argument to claim victory. 

“It all depends on the individual and how much they were to use – either of alcohol or cannabis,” she affirmed. She went on to say that in her research, she’s seen little effect of cannabis on driving performance. 

Yet she’s skeptical. 

“But this is not necessarily representative of the real world because people are coming to our research space and driving in a driving simulator,” she said. “They are probably trying to do their best at the tasks we give them. In the real-world, people may be distracted or more impaired.”

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