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Driving High: A False Sense of Security After Marijuana Use

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Driving High: A False Sense of Security After Marijuana Use

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

Rising Marijuana Use in Florida: Illicit and Medical

Marijuana is the most frequently abused illicit drug in the country and in the state of Florida. Most of it is grown in Mexico or Jamacia, then smuggled into the Sunshine State in maritime vessels, private vehicles, and package delivery services. In addition, major Florida cities serve as a hub for the distribution of cannabinoid products throughout the South.

Our state’s legalization of medical marijuana has created a higher potential for misuse among the population. As of January 2022, there are over 640,000 patients eligible for medical cannabis prescriptions. This number has risen from about 455,000 in 2020. Additionally, while 2020 only saw 558,000 applications for medical marijuana cards, by November 2021, the state had received over 650,000 applications.

According to Christopher Ferguson, the director of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, “That’s just over a 125 percent growth between 2019 and 2021.”

This rapid expansion has resulted in easier access to medical cannabis, which in turn has led to increased rates of marijuana use in Florida. Unfortunately, this rise has created a new problem: more Floridians are driving high than ever before.  

Driving High: Why Do People Take the Risk?

The dangers of driving drunk are well-known – they’re the subject of school assemblies, televised PSAs, and driving test questions around the country. However, less attention is given to the issue of operating a vehicle after using marijuana. This lack of education, coupled with the sedative effects of the drug, can result in people getting behind the wheel while they’re still too impaired to drive.

To examine this phenomenon, researchers at the University of California San Diego put drivers to the test. In a two-year randomized trial, they asked 191 cannabis users to operate a driving simulator after smoking a joint. The simulator tests occurred at 30-minute intervals after initial consumption. The experimental group’s performance was then compared to a control group that had consumed a placebo.

The results were staggering. Compared to the placebo group, those who smoked:

  • Displayed more diminished driving skills,
  • Peaked in poor driving performance around the 90-minute mark, and
  • Could not match the placebo group’s performance until 4.5 hours into the test.

The researchers also noted an interesting trend: while marijuana users could tell that they were too impaired to drive at the 30-minute mark, by 90 minutes in, a significant percentage of the group believed the drug’s effects were wearing off. This is especially concerning since the data indicated that this exact moment represented the point of greatest impairment. The study’s senior author, Thomas Marcotte, Ph.D., believes that this represents a “false sense of safety” among those who use marijuana.

When You Feel Fine to Drive (But Aren’t)

Marcotte’s statement reflects what statisticians already know: Americans just don’t see driving while high as that dangerous. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 70 percent of people do not think they would get caught while driving under the influence of marijuana. In fact, a significant percentage of those surveyed found it acceptable to operate a vehicle after smoking.

Part of this could be attributed to the false sense of safety referenced by Marcotte. While the effects of cannabis vary from person to person, the drug is widely recognized to depress the central nervous system. This results in a feeling of calm or relaxation in a majority of cases. A person’s decision-making abilities will also be negatively impacted during this time. While in this altered state, it is natural that drivers would not be concerned about the potential outcomes of driving while intoxicated.

Marijuana’s sedative effects are also responsible for the loss of coordination experienced by those behind the wheel. Tracking, motor coordination, divided attention, and visual function are all incredibly important to driving safely. These are the same executive functions negatively impacted by consuming cannabis. Compounding this issue, inexperienced drivers are especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabinoid products.

The Dangers of Driving High: Young Drivers Beware

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of marijuana consumption is its impact on adolescents. According to a study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, early-onset cannabis use is associated with poor driving skills – even if the teen hasn’t smoked recently.

In a driving simulator test similar to the University of California San Diego’s, researchers at McLean Hospital at Harvard University analyzed drivers who began using cannabis early in life. They observed that those who heavily used marijuana before the age of 16 missed more stop signs and red lights, spent more time speeding, and hit more pedestrians than those who either did not use marijuana or began using it when they were older.

“Individuals who use cannabis look different from those who don’t… Almost exclusively, the difference between users and non-users is attributed to the early-onset group,” said study author Staci Gruber, Ph.D.

The study’s results indicate a potential relationship between cannabis use at a younger age and greatly impacted cognitive function. For this reason, it is recommended that parents of teenagers take action if they suspect their children of using marijuana.

Help for Marijuana Dependency

At R&A Therapeutic Partners, we understand the cycle of habitual marijuana use. It’s incredibly easy for teenagers to get into a pattern of smoking to alleviate stress, fit in with others, or combat boredom. However, continually misusing cannabis can have devastating consequences – especially if your child gets behind the wheel.

Our therapists are experts in helping teens to overcome marijuana dependency, identify healthy coping mechanisms, build self-esteem, and set ambitious goals for the future. To learn more about our services, please contact our office today.

References

Mammoser, G. (2020, January 17). Long after your high is gone, pot use may still affect your driving. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/cannabis-use-can-affect-your-driving-long-after-your-high-is-gone

Marcotte TD, Umlauf A, Grelotti DJ, et al. Driving Performance and Cannabis Users’ Perception of Safety: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(3):201–209. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4037

Morgan, I. (2022, January 14). FL’s growing medical marijuana program could lead to changes, from better access to stricter rules. Florida Phoenix. Retrieved from https://floridaphoenix.com/blog/fls-growing-medical-marijuana-program-could-lead-to-changes-from-better-access-to-stricter-rules/

Mravic, M. (2022, February 21). Marijuana’s false sense of security. Treatment Magazine. Retrieved from https://treatmentmagazine.com/marijuanas-false-sense-of-security/

Oxenden, M. K. (2019, July 11). AAA: Most people don’t think they’d get caught driving high. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/shop-northwest/aaa-most-people-dont-think-theyd-get-caught-driving-high/

At R&A Therapeutic Partners Raymond Estefania and Ana Moreno specialize in substance use and mental health disorder evaluations, treatment, intervention and therapeutic/educational consulting for clients throughout the greater South Florida area, as well as nationally and internationally. For more resources and information please visit Therapeutic-Partners.com or on Facebook.

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