Fewer students fear driving under dope's influence than alcohol

New data from Students Against Destructive Decisions and Liberty Mutual Insurance reveal that more young people are combining marijuana and driving, placing themselves -- and often their friends -- at risk.

New data from Students Against Destructive Decisions and Liberty Mutual Insurance reveal that more young people are combining marijuana and driving, placing themselves -- and often their friends -- at risk.

Perhaps this shouldn't be a surprise given that the University of Michigan's recent Monitoring the Future study pointed out that marijuana use among eighth to 12th graders rose in 2011 for the fourth straight year, as compared to substantial declines in the preceding decade, and that daily use of the drug among 12th graders is at a 30-year high.

But what may come as a surprise is the number of teens who report driving under the influence of marijuana -- 19 percent -- has surpassed those reporting driving under the influence of alcohol -- 13 percent.

Oddly, many teens don't see that as a problem.

Hazy logic


Indeed, more than one-third -- 36 percent -- of teens who have driven after using marijuana say the drug presents no distraction to their driving. Also alarming, among the teens who say they have driven after drinking, 19 percent of them believe alcohol use is not distracting.

Hazy logic or wishful thinking?

Regardless, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy notes that marijuana use affects alertness, concentration, perception, coordination, and reaction time -- all needed for the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

The office points to roadside study of reckless drivers in Tennessee that found that 33 percent of all subjects who were not under the influence of alcohol and who were tested for drugs at the scene of their arrest tested positive for marijuana.

Proof in point.

Beyond driving

But weed and cars are only part of the story. Among all Americans twelve and older who abuse or are dependent on an illegal drug, 60 percent abuse or are dependent on marijuana, according to Dr. Robert DuPont of the Institute for Behavior and Health and Former Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration Peter B. Bensinger, in a letter published in the New York Times. Nationally, they say, admissions for primary marijuana use to state-financed treatment have increased by 31 percent from 1998 to 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.

In addition, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a number of studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. And some of these studies have shown age at first use to be an important risk factor, where early use is a marker of increased vulnerability to later problems.


NIDA also reports that chronic marijuana use, especially in a very young person, may also be a marker of risk for mental illnesses -- including addiction -- stemming from genetic or environmental vulnerabilities, such as early exposure to stress or violence.

Sensible solutions

When it comes to impaired driving by youth, commonsense suggests that if teens aren't engaged in illegal behavior in the first place, they won't be driving under the influence in the second.

Yet beyond issues of zero tolerance lies an enduring truth -- young people themselves often hold the key to keeping their friends safe and alive. And where driving is concerned, that means when they see something they need to speak up to protect themselves and their friends.

Indeed, the SADD/Liberty Mutual study reveals that friends do play a significant role, as most teen drivers say they would stop driving under the influence of marijuana (90 percent) or alcohol (94 percent) if asked by their passengers.

Yet even teen passengers are seemingly less concerned about riding in a car with a driver who has used marijuana than with one who has used alcohol. While a significant majority, 87 percent, say they would speak up and ask the driver to refrain from getting behind the wheel after drinking, only 72 percent of them report they would do the same for a driver who has used marijuana.


Thirty years ago, students at Wayland (MA) High School responded to the impaired driving crash deaths of two classmates just days apart by forming a club to protect one another. They called it SADD -- Students Against Driving Drunk, now Students Against Destructive Decisions -- sparking a landslide of public attention aimed at the problem of impaired driving and saving many thousands of young lives.


Their model of peer-to-peer education and intervention is not dated; it stands today as a poignant reminder of what can be accomplished when we empower our children to say something.

Stephen Wallace, senior advisor for policy, research and education at Student Against Destructive Decisions.

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