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Farrelly PC Blog & Case Results

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Driving While High -- The Effect of Marijuana vs. Alcohol When Getting Behind the Wheel

By: Sean Farrelly

A recent New York Times article took an in-depth look at the effects of marijuana on an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Specifically, the article cited a number of studies, including this one from 2012, that analyze the effect of marijuana versus alcohol on drivers.

The article examined the effects of marijuana on a driver’s ability to perform the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs), which are designed to detect impairment caused by alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.  Validation studies have revealed that the SFSTs can accurately predict intoxication from alcohol anywhere between 70-90% of the time, depending on testing conditions.  However, according to studies, the SFSTs only correctly identify individuals under the influence of marijuana 30% of the time.

Further, the studies show that how often an individual uses marijuana can also effect his or her performance on the SFSTs.  Almost 50% of people who use marijuana “less frequently” have trouble passing the SFSTs.  Comparatively, frequency of alcohol use does not impact an individual’s ability to pass the SFST. 

With a growing number of states, including D.C., passing legislation legalizing or decriminalizing possession of marijuana, more focus is being placed on collateral issues related to marijuana legalization.  Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana is one of the most important of those collateral issues.  As such, more time and research are going into understanding marijuana and how it impairs an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Most research seems to agree that while individuals impaired by marijuana still pose a threat to the safety of others, the risks caused by driving while stoned are significantly less than those caused by alcohol.  For example, a study from January shows that a 20 year old driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 (the legal limit) has almost a 20 times greater chance of being in a fatal car accident.  For individuals up to age 34, there is a 9 times greater chance.  However, once the statistics were adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana use did not statistically increase the risk of a fatal car crash.

Experts opine that the difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunk drivers.  Drunk drivers tend to drive more aggressively and often overestimate their driving skills.  The opposite holds true with stoned drivers, who tend to drive slower and often drive defensively.

Second, it was found that people who were high were able to pass simple tests of memory and addition and subtraction at a higher rate than individuals who were drunk.  The effects of marijuana did not show up in most individuals until the tests began to get much more complicated.  These results indicate that for the most part individuals under the influence of marijuana are better able to think clearly than those individuals under the influence of alcohol.

It is not advisable to drive under the influence of marijuana.  Anyone who thinks “I drive better when I am high” is wrong.  There is no doubt that marijuana impairs your ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.  However, government time and money is better used to combat the much more dangerous act of driving under the influence of alcohol.

If you have been arrested for DUI in Washington, DC please contact Farrelly PC to discuss your rights.  As a former DUI prosecutor, I know that the D.C. government vigorously prosecutes all DUI cases, whether you are accused of driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or any other substance.  Anyone facing a DUI charge needs representation by an experienced Washington, D.C. DUI defense lawyer.


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