Written by Jessica Oshiro
January 1st, 2018 marked the legalization of marijuana for many states. The recognition of marijuana as “safe” has led to the ignorance of driving under the influence (DUI) becoming more common. DUI's are commonly associated with alcohol, yet marijuana is also hazardous. In America, 6% - 32% of traffic accidents involve drivers that test positive for marijuana, and 25% test positive for alcohol . Contrary to popular belief, marijuana can cause impairment in judgment just as alcohol can.
The active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), leads to cognitive impairment by decreasing the Blood Oxygen Level Dependent (BOLD) response in the brain. Such a response resulting from THC causes an increase of self-focused mental activity (rather than task-focused) and a decrease in saliency detection, the ability to focus on one particular object . Additionally, THC reduces the function of the brain, resulting in lethargy . Common behavioral side effects include driving slower, difficulty with complex tasks, increased lane weaving, and confusion . It is clear that marijuana affects a person’s neural activity enough to impair their driving ability and potentially, cause serious harm to oneself and others.
Although using marijuana while driving could cause serious damage, many see the drug as harmless with the side effects being those of a stereotypical “pothead”. This misconception can lead to risky behavior, causing an increase in preventative measures to educate the public. Neon freeway signs and billboards express the legal consequences of driving high. For instance, a “Drive High, Get a DUI” campaign in Colorado made efforts to educate the public . However, increasing public education on the laws associated with driving while high has not resulted in a significant decrease in the amount of people driving while high . The most persuasive factor is the perception of how safe driving while high really is . With this information in mind, future public measures should aim to educate people on the actual dangers of driving while high rather than the possible legal consequences.
As stated previously, the biggest way to persuade the public to avoid such risky behavior is to change their perception of its harm. The majority of the population believes that marijuana causes very minimal driving impairment that could easily be compensated for . In addition, long-term marijuana users are very confident in their ability to overcome any minor impairment that the drug might cause, making them highly resistant to a change of behavior . The only deterrent that has some effect is the possible legal consequence, but even this does not hold very much persuasive power. Drivers that have been reprimanded legally for driving while high are still very open to the idea of driving while high . Alternative public measures that play into empathy may be useful in persuading and educating the public of the dangers of driving while high. Including “innocent” people as victims of driving while high or celebrity endorsements could be powerful.
Moving forward, actions taken to dissuade the public from driving while under the influence of marijuana should be directed at specific cultural and demographic groups, targeting sympathy. The youth should especially be educated because they are at the highest risk of marijuana use. Such measures will loosen people’s strong belief in the harmlessness of marijuana and make them consider changing their actions to protect the lives of our community.
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2. Battistella, G., Fornari, E., Thomas, A., Mall, J., et.al. 2013. Weed or Wheel! fMRI, Behavioural, and Toxicological Investigations of How Cannabis Smoking Affects Skills Necessary for Driving. PLoS ONE. 8: e52545
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4. Davis, K.C., Allen, J., Duke, J., Nonnemaker, J., Bradfield, B., Farrelly, M.C., et.al. 2016. Correlates of Marijuana Drugged Driving and Openness to Driving While High: Evidence from Colorado and Washington. PLoS ONE. 11:e0146853
Edited by Myra Ali