By Peyton Majors
Christian Action League
February 9, 2024
The rapid legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana nationwide has left many users curious about how long it impacts their driving ability — and many medical experts warning that cannabis affects users far longer than they realize.
Marijuana is legal for medicinal use in 38 states and for recreational use in 24 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. A bill that would have legalized medicinal marijuana in North Carolina passed the state Senate last year but failed to gain any traction in the House. Opponents of the bill argued it would have been a stepping stone to recreational legalization statewide. The issue likely will come up again this year.
Critics of marijuana legalization say the issue of impaired driving has not received enough attention. A 2022 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that marijuana can negatively impact drivers for nearly five hours post-use. Even worse: Many drivers falsely believe the effect has worn off when, in fact, it has not.
The study comprised 200 people and gave one group THC — the psychotic ingredient in marijuana — and another group a placebo. The group of THC users was then placed in a driving simulator.
“While the THC group generally reported feeling impaired and hesitant to drive at 30 minutes, at 1 hour 30 minutes participants increasingly rated themselves as safe to drive, whereas simulator data indicated ongoing reduced driving performance including being more likely to leave their lane,” the study said. “Although performance was improving at 3.5 hours, recovery was not fully seen until 4.5 hours post smoking.”
The Wall Street Journal recently spotlighted the issue under the headline, “You Took a Pot Gummy. How Long Do You Have to Wait to Drive?” The answer: longer than you may realize.
“You may think you’re OK to drive an hour or two after you get high on marijuana. Researchers and doctors say you’re not,” the story said. “Pot affects you differently than alcohol, can linger in your system for longer, and it can be harder to figure out when it’s safe to drive.”
The percentage of car crash fatalities involving cannabis has skyrocketed nationwide, rising from 9 percent in 2000 to 21.5 percent in 2018, according to the American Journal of Public Health.
“It’s a big concern,” Jane Metrik, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at the Brown University School of Public Health, told the newspaper.
Tom Marcotte, co-director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California-San Diego, led the JAMA-published study.
“Even people who are very conscientious and say, ‘I’m not going to drive, I’m too stoned,’ start to believe it’s wearing off,” Marcotte told The Journal. “At least in our analyses, they’re still having issues.”
A separate study from the University of Michigan Addiction Center in 2019 found that 56 percent of medical marijuana users reported driving within two hours of using the substance. About half (51 percent) of medical marijuana users said they drove while a “little high” and 21 percent reported driving while “very high.” The report surveyed 790 Michigan medical marijuana users.
Erin E. Bonar, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study, said the findings are troubling. Unlike with alcohol impairment, she said, scientists are not yet able to easily judge whether a marijuana user is too high to drive.
“When it comes to driving, we haven’t yet figured out the best way to know how impaired marijuana users are at any given time,” she said. “With alcohol, you can do some quick math based on the amount you drank, and take an educated guess at your blood alcohol level. For marijuana, an estimate like this would be complicated. It’s hard to quantify because there is a lot of variation in marijuana dosing, THC potency, and route of administration. We also don’t have specific guidelines yet about when exactly it would be safe to operate a vehicle.”
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the scientific data should impact the political debate in North Carolina.
“Last year, during the debate over SB 3, the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act, concerns were raised by the North Carolina Troopers Association regarding the potential risks associated with the legislation, particularly regarding driving under the influence of marijuana,” Creech said. “Ben Kral, representing the association, emphasized the alarming trend of impaired driving fatalities across the country, with a significant portion of driver fatalities testing positive for marijuana. He pointed to a nationwide report indicating that 40 percent of driver fatalities tested for drugs had some form of marijuana in their system, and cited the doubling of drugged driving deaths in Colorado in recent years as a concerning example.
“In light of these statistics, the North Carolina Troopers Association opposed the legalization of marijuana in the state and stood in solidarity with parents, medical professionals, and Christian public policy organizations such as the Christian Action League, North Carolina Family Policy Council, North Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, and North Carolinians Against Legalizing Marijuana, in urging the defeat of SB 3.”
Additionally, Creech said, the organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action “has highlighted another aspect of concern, noting that car insurance rates have increased in every state that has chosen to legalize marijuana.”
“This underscores the potential financial implications and societal costs associated with legalization, adding further weight to the argument against the passage of SB 3 in North Carolina,” Creech added.