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Driving On Cannabis Vs. Alcohol

Toxicology lawyerA Toxicology Lawyer Weighs in on DUIs

Road accidents occur every minute of every day, and unfortunately many are caused by people driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When this is the case, a toxicology lawyer will frequently be called in to ascertain how the chemicals in a driver’s body would have affected their driving abilities.

According to The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 25% of all motor vehicle crash fatalities the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.01g/dL, approximately one eighth of the legal alcohol limit. That translates to an average of 28 deaths caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. In comparison, the data for accidents caused by marijuana users is less specific, and statistics range anywhere from 6%-32%. But what actually happens when you drive under the influence?

Alcohol – A Shot of Reality
Once a person has their first drink, they will start to feel more confident, more relaxed and will start to find socializing easier to do. A few drinks in, they will start to feel the effects of alcohol – impaired judgment, blurry vision, drowsiness, difficulty interpreting stimulus and a plethora of other side effects that greatly reduce a person’s ability to function properly, let alone drive. However, alcohol decreases a person’s ability to assess risks properly, and often causes drinkers to become over-confident and engage in activities they might not otherwise do while sober, such as dangerous driving.

Cannabis – The Blunt Truth
Marijuana use has increased over the past decade, especially with the legalization of cannabis in certain states and the potential for legalization in many more in the future. However, although the stigma surrounding marijuana as a ‘gateway’ drug is slowly receding, it remains a mind-altering substance that can affect a user’s ability to operate motor vehicles. Yet marijuana does not affect users in the same way that alcohol does. The active ingredient in cannabis is a chemical known as THC, which is what makes people feel high. THC creates feelings of euphoria while simultaneously affecting attentiveness, perceptions of time and speed as well as decreasing reaction time.

Driving Drunk or High?
Both alcohol and marijuana affect people differently depending on their size, weight and even their psychological state. However, because of the chemical makeup of cannabis, it is possible for frequent marijuana smokers to develop a type of tolerance to the drug, particularly if it is used for medical purposes rather than recreationally, whereas alcohol drinkers will always be similarly affected by the same number of drinks. Although frequent drinkers may consider themselves unimpaired by certain amounts of alcohol because they cannot necessarily feel the effects, their driving capabilities will still be affected whether they know it or not.

Although one may assume that the side effects of both alcohol and cannabis would similarly impair a person’s driving abilities, studies have found that people who drive high tend to underestimate their abilities, and consequently attempt to compensate for their impairments. Unlike drunk drivers, who become emboldened by alcohol and tend to drive too quickly or overtake, high drivers tended to drive more slowly and stay in their own lane.

However, both alcohol and marijuana increase reaction time in users, which in turn affects a person’s ability to respond to sudden changes or emergency situations. For this reason, driving under the influence of any mind-altering substance is not advised, yet contingencies have to be made for those who use marijuana for medical purposes. Although the state of Colorado passed House Bill 1114, wherein anyone caught driving with more than 5 nanograms of THC in their blood can be prosecuted, these cases are not usually as simple as one might assume, as medical marijuana patients frequently have higher concentrations of THC in their blood. Consequently, it is important for a toxicology lawyer to be a member of any DUI case in order to properly understand the chemical circumstances of the situation.

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