Today I got a negative comment on the Washington State I-502 initiative, which has just now officially been sent to the legislature that can make it law, send it to the people, or offer a different version along with the initiative to the people. For those who don’t know, I-502 proposes to legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana, maintain the ban on home growing, establish state-run marijuana stores as the only legal outlet, establish a 5 ng/mL THC in blood per se DUID (automatic DUI, like a 0.08 blood-alcohol level), and establish zero-tolerance DUI standards for people under 18.
It’s still a tough thing for me. What is “legalization”? I grew up reading Isaac Asimov and was reminded of his “Three Laws of Robotics” when I formulated my “Three Laws of Legalization” below. It is not an inclusive list (all conditions must be met), it is a hierarchical list (1 supersedes 2 supersedes 3):
- An adult must be allowed to possess cannabis for personal use.
- An adult must be allowed to cultivate cannabis for personal use.
- An adult must not be discriminated against because of cannabis.
We can quibble about how old an “adult” is and what limits, if any, are reasonable for “personal”, but that’s the general outline. If an adult can possess some cannabis for personal use legally, it is legalization. But if they can cultivate, it is “legalization-er” and if they aren’t discriminated against it is “legalization-est”. So, when I’m presented with an initiative that improves #1, then maintains #2 and makes worse #3, it puts me in a bit of a quandary. I love legalization and I like home grow and I dislike state monopoly and I hate per se DUID… so now what?
Fortunately, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has a proposal to modify the initiative by establishing protection for medical marijuana patients against the per se DUID provision, but that’s still only 10% of Washington State’s tokers. Still, all tokers now can get marijuana DUIDs if they demonstrate impairment; all per se does is make the case a slam dunk for the prosecutor. If you were driving poorly and test at any ng/mL, that can be used against you to get the DUID conviction. The problem is the toker not driving poorly and not even having recently toked being convicted of being impaired behind the wheel when he or she was not impaired (a.k.a. innocent).
But is protecting that toker worth voting down freedom for all tokers to hold an ounce? That same innocent toker can be arrested driving, walking, riding, standing, or sleeping anywhere in the State, even his own bed, just for having marijuana. So do we continue to sacrifice every marijuana smoker to the injustice of merely having any pot anywhere to save the tiny minority of marijuana smokers from the injustice of merely having a certain amount of pot in their system while they’re driving?
Most frustrating is being put in this quandary in the first place, for this fear-mongering about the stoned drivers is more prohibitionist reefer madness. From The Natural Mind by Dr. Andrew Weil (last half of chapter four pg. 86-97) (hat tip to DeOxy.org)
Because marijuana is such an unimpressive pharmacological agent, it is not a very interesting drug to study in a laboratory. Pharmacologists cannot get a handle on it with their methods, and because they cannot see the reality of the non-material state of consciousness that users experience, they are forced to design experimental situations very far removed from the real world in order to get measurable effects. There are three conditions under which marijuana can be shown to impair general psychological performance in laboratory subjects. They are:
- by giving it to people who have never had it before;
- by giving people very high doses that they are not used to (or giving it orally to people used to smoking it); and
- by giving people very hard things to do, especially things that they have never had a chance to practice while under the influence of the drug.
Under any of these three conditions, pharmacologists can demonstrate that marijuana impairs performance. And if we look at the work being done by NIMH-funded researchers, all of it fulfills one or more of these conditions. In addition, the tests being used by these scientists are designed to look for impairments of functions that have nothing to do with why marijuana users put themselves in an altered state of consciousness. People who get high on marijuana do not spontaneously try to do arithmetic problems or test their fine coordination.
What pharmacologists cannot make sense of is that people who are high on marijuana cannot be shown, in objective terms, to be different from people who are not high. That is, if a marijuana user is allowed to smoke his usual doses and then to do things he has had a chance to practice while high, he does not appear to perform any differently from someone who is not high. Now, this pattern of users performing better than nonusers is a general phenomenon associated with all psychoactive drugs. For example, an alcoholic will vastly outperform a nondrinker on any test if the two are equally intoxicated; he has learned to compensate for the effects of the drug on his nervous system. But compensation can proceed only so far until it runs up against a ceiling imposed by the pharmacological action of the drug on lower brain centers. Again, since marijuana has no clinically significant action on lower brain centers, compensation can reach 100 percent with practice.
This reminds me of the marijuana and driving study* from 2010. It studied 85 people with an age range of 18 to 31, with a mean** age of 20.5 (so we’re talking more young twenty-somethings and adult teens than the pushing thirty crowd) who described themselves as “occasional” marijuana smokers, defined as strictly 1-10 times per month. They also couldn’t be recent users of other illicit drugs or anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds.
The point of the study was to investigate differences in simulated driving by gender for those young people who smoke pot. What they found was not much difference, not just between men and women, but between people who smoke pot and people who don’t.
As shown in Table 2, participants receiving the active and placebo cigarettes performed similarly on the baseline “uneventful” segment of the driving task and no sex differences were observed. No group differences were seen in the means or standard deviations of the mean speed or steering wheel position.
Translated from geekspeek: During regular driving simulations, people who smoked pot and people who didn’t drove similarly. There was no difference between men and women, either.
The next portion explains how “eventful” driving (or “PASAT performance”) – a sudden yellow stoplight, a dog running into the road, a driver running an intersection, an emergency vehicle, and being distracted by stuff in your car – differs between pot smokers and non-pot smokers who drive in a simulator.
During the “eventful” segments of driving, a within-subjects comparison of PASAT performance prior to smoking and during driving showed a trend in the interaction between placebo vs. active marijuana and practice vs. driving PASAT performance [F = 3.36, p = 0.07)]. Persons smoking the placebo cigarette showed an improvement in performance of the PASAT during the driving task, likely attributable to practice effects. Under the influence of marijuana, however, no differences were found between PASAT performance during practice testing and while driving.
It’s a weird logic train to follow. What they are saying is when they put the pot smokers through the simulator in “eventful” driving situations, they did just as well on the test high as they did in practice sober, while the non-pot smokers did better on the test sober than they did in practice sober. In other words, pot smokers drove just as well after smoking pot as they did before smoking pot, while non-pot smokers drove a little better.
That brings me back to Dr. Weil’s point – it’s not like we’re lighting up to see how well we do on the “oh shit, dog in the road!” test later. There are no “practice” runs in real driving; you assume every drive could be “eventful” but the reality is almost all drives are “uneventful”. Few drivers are actively thinking, “OK, I know I must be ready for a dog to run out, because it happened on the previous drive I took,” so how in real life would they benefit from this “practice effect”?
Participants who smoked active marijuana decreased their speed during this section of the drive, suggesting additional compensatory skills were used. While women performed significantly worse than men on the PASAT during both practice and driving administrations***, no sex differences were observed in respect to driving performance or practice effects. No differences during the PASAT were seen in the standard deviation of speed, the mean steering wheel position or the standard deviation of the steering wheel position, suggesting the decrease in speed allowed participants to successfully compensate for the effects of marijuana.
So the high drivers slowed down in order to drive as safely as the people around them? Do we want people to be driving faster when there are the threats of dogs, yellow lights, emergency vehicles, bad drivers, and things bugging them in the car?
All participants safely went through the Go/No-Go task intersection while the light was yellow. No group differences in speed, steering position, time to first reaction or type of reaction were observed in response to passing the emergency vehicle. The frequency of dog and car incursions and the tactics used to avoid collisions were similar between groups, as was the mean speed of impact for those colliding. No sex differences or interactions of sex and drug were observed.
Now, while this all makes the “What About the Stoned Drivers?!?” scaremongering out to be much ado about nothing, it should be noted that
- we’re talking about US Gov’t schwag weed of 2.9% THC in 0.8 gram joints;
- we’re talking about smoking just one or less-than-one joint****;
- we’re talking about video game driving;
- nobody’s mixing the weed with booze, which multiplies the impairment.
Nobody should smoke pot and drive impaired, but nobody should drive impaired, period. This crusade to set per se limits to catch stoned drivers seems like a solution in search of a problem, and that problem isn’t catching impaired drivers, it’s winning votes. People who smoke pot know when they are too impaired to drive and generally do not. Alcohol, in contrast, deludes its users into believing they are not impaired when they are.
Plus, there is a reliable dose-dependent correlation between one’s blood alcohol level and one’s impairment. Yes, the alcoholic will drive better at 0.08 BAC than the social drinker will at 0.08 BAC, but both of them will drive better at 0.00 BAC as well. Meanwhile, stoned drivers present as much risk on the road as drivers at 0.05 BAC – a level we do not automatically deem a crime if you’re driving home after wine at dinner or a beer at a ballgame and don’t demonstrate impairment. Stoned drivers are no more a risk factor than retired persons.
To date, “[The] role of [illicit] drugs as a causal factor in traffic crashes involving drug-positive drivers is still not well understood.” While some studies have indicated that illicit drug use is associated with an increased risk of accident, a relationship has not yet been clearly established regarding the use of psychoactive substances and crash severity. Some reviews of traffic fatality data indicate that, in general, drivers with the presence of illicit drugs in their system possess an enhanced fatality risk compared to sober drivers. However, this risk is far lower than the fatality risk associated with drivers who operate a vehicle with the presence of alcohol in their system above or near the legal limit for intoxication. According to one review of the literature: “The risk of all drug-positive drivers compared to drug-free drivers is similar to drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. The risk is also similar to drivers above age 60 compared to younger drivers [around age 35].”
** Not “mean” angry, by “mean” average (though average is, technically, something different.)
*** “Significantly worse”… to the delight of every “women are bad drivers” joke writer alive. This writer is married to a woman with a poorer driving record and, thus, will withhold judgment for my own well-being.
**** This was the only sex-related difference they could find. Almost all men smoked the entire real joint but only a little more than half of the women did. Interestingly, all the men and all but one woman smoked the entire fake joint. I think the real joint difference probably attributes to body weight (lighter bodies – women – feel high sooner and stop). That everyone but one completes the fake joint makes me wonder how something that doesn’t get you high can be a placebo for something that does?
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