Cannabis users put to the test on the road

SPE­CIAL RE­PORT/ With mar­i­juana’s re­cent le­gal­i­sa­tion in SA, vol­un­teers take part in an ex­per­i­ment to see how the drug im­pairs driv­ing abil­ity, writes De­nis Droppa

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

Dagga may be used in the pri­vacy of your home, but may it be used in the pri­vacy of your car? And does be­ing high make you a worse driver?

Af­ter the Con­sti­tu­tional Court’s Septem­ber 18 rul­ing ef­fec­tively de­crim­i­nalised the pri­vate use of cannabis in SA, it raised the prospect of more peo­ple driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of the drug. Would the rul­ing af­fect road safety as newly em­bold­ened dagga users came “out of the closet” and drove around stoned?

To try to an­swer the ques­tion, well-known pro-cannabis lob­by­ists, Fields Of Green For All, set out to de­ter­mine the ef­fects of driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of cannabis. They set up a driv­ing ex­per­i­ment at a closed test fa­cil­ity in which vol­un­teers drove un­der the in­flu­ence of cannabis.

The vol­un­teers were a mix of reg­u­lar cannabis users as well as semi-reg­u­lar users and first­timers, and Mo­tor News, along with Ig­ni­tion TV, were in­vited to wit­ness the so-called “Driv­ing High” ex­per­i­ment which was run at the Gerotek test cen­tre by pro­fes­sional driv­ing in­struc­tor Grant McCleery of Yoko­hama Driv­ing Dy­nam­ics.

The test took the form of a gymkhana where the vol­un­teers had to drive a car through a se­ries of cones on a wet and slip­pery skid­pan. They first drove the course sober, then again af­ter smok­ing a small amount of mar­i­juana, and fi­nally a third time af­ter smok­ing an­other, heav­ier dose.

Each of the three runs was timed to see how quickly the driv­ers were able to com­plete the cir­cuit, and time penal­ties were added for each cone that was knocked over. Of the 12 vol­un­teers, some com­pleted the course slower un­der the in­flu­ence of cannabis, and some got faster. Of those whose driv­ing im­proved, it may have been due to par­tic­i­pants get­ting more fa­mil­iar with the course due to rep­e­ti­tion, said McCleery.

How­ever, in the third run the re­sults were more con­clu­sive. Where the vol­un­teers were more heav­ily un­der the in­flu­ence of cannabis, five of the driv­ers knocked over cones, while in the first two runs, only one driver had done so.

Most of the reg­u­lar cannabis users in the test ac­knowl­edged that while they didn’t feel their driv­ing was im­paired while on a mild high, it de­te­ri­o­rated while they were very high, and that they wouldn’t nor­mally drive when in such a con­di­tion.

“My driv­ing does be­come im­paired when I’m very high, but I re­alise it and I don’t drive — un­like drunk driv­ers who think they drive bet­ter when they’ve had al­co­hol,” said one par­tic­i­pant.

A US study on the ef­fects of med­i­cal mar­i­juana on driv­ing by the Univer­sity of Colorado, Mon­tana State Univer­sity, and the Univer­sity of Ore­gon found that “drunk driv­ers take more risk, they tend to go faster. They don’t re­alise how im­paired they are. Peo­ple un­der the in­flu­ence of mar­i­juana drive slower, they don’t take as many risks.”

An­other vol­un­teer, a reg­u­lar cannabis user, said he reg­u­larly drives af­ter tak­ing a mild dose of mar­i­juana as it calms him down and re­duces road rage.

Au­thor­i­ties take a dim view of any­one driv­ing un­der any mind-al­ter­ing sub­stance, how­ever and, as with al­co­hol, the law doesn’t al­low cannabis users to de­cide for them­selves whether they feel fine to drive.

Sec­tion 65 of the Na­tional Road Traf­fic Act states that “no per­son may drive a ve­hi­cle or oc­cupy the driver’s seat of a mo­tor ve­hi­cle of which the en­gine is run­ning on a pub­lic road while un­der the in­flu­ence of in­tox­i­cat­ing liquor or drug hav­ing nar­cotic ef­fect”.

Prov­ing whether a per­son is un­der a nar­cotic ef­fect is the dif­fi­cult part, how­ever.

As tetrahy­dro­cannabi­nol (THC), the psy­choac­tive con­stituent of mar­i­juana, re­mains in a per­son’s sys­tem for much longer than al­co­hol — some­times for weeks — it’s tricky to es­tab­lish lim­its and laws around cannabis use.

“In the­ory‚ any per­son caught with even traces of mar­i­juana in their sys­tem while driv­ing can cur­rently be ar­rested and/or pros­e­cuted. But be­cause it can re­main in a per­son’s blood­stream for hours to days af­ter use‚ a per­son who tests pos­i­tive for mar­i­juana isn’t ne­c­es­sar­ily in­tox­i­cated,” said Rhys Evans‚ di­rec­tor at ALCO-Safe‚ which sup­plies drug and al­co­hol test­ing equip­ment in SA.

“At present‚ no limit has been es­tab­lished to de­ter­mine how much THC needs to be present in the blood­stream for a per­son to be con­sid­ered in­tox­i­cated.”

He said the like­li­hood of a driver be­ing tested for drugs in a road­block were min­i­mal due to a lack of test­ing equip­ment.

“The state has a lot of work to do now to con­trol the use of driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of THC. They will have to im­ple­ment an ac­cept­able limit in ei­ther blood, urine or saliva.”

Wayne Min­naar, spokesper­son for the Jo­han­nes­burg Metropoli­tan Po­lice De­part­ment, ad­mits mo­torists ar­rested for drunk driv­ing far out­num­ber those ar­rested for driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs. As there’s no breathal­yser for drug test­ing, traf­fic of­fi­cers can only vis­ually de­ter­mine whether they be­lieve a driver is un­der a nar­cotic ef­fect and ar­rest them if nec­es­sary.

A num­ber of over­seas tests have shown some in­creased road-safety risk as­so­ci­ated with cannabis use by driv­ers, but have also iden­ti­fied other le­gal med­i­ca­tions as pro­duc­ing sim­i­lar or in­creased im­pair­ments to driv­ing, in­clud­ing an­tianx­i­ety med­i­ca­tions, peni­cillin, an­ti­asth­mat­ics and sleep medicine.


Driv­ers took to the skid­pan af­ter smok­ing light and heavy doses of cannabis. Left: The driv­ing test took the form of a skid­pan gymkhana and par­tic­i­pants were rated on their tech­ni­cal skills and re­ac­tion times.

One of the vol­un­teers in last week’s ‘Driv­ing High’ test at Gerotek.

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