Getting High Vs. Getting Hammered: Which Is More Dangerous?

December 6, 2011
Cheech Marin

Cheech Marin

'Tis the season to be jolly, so now is as good a time as any to look at the dangers of holiday overindulgence. Through countless education programs, we already know a good deal about the dangers of drinking and driving, but how does smoking marijuana affect our abilities behind the wheel? A new study indicates that sparking up may not be as dangerous as some fear.

In a review of past research on the topic, Slate points out that drunk drivers are far more likely to be the cause of fatal car accidents than stoned drivers are -- 10 times more likely, to be precise. In fact, one study suggested that sober drivers are actually more dangerous than their pot-smoking peers. Countless intrepid reporters have come to similar conclusions.

The newest research comes from Dr. Daniel Rees and Dr. D. Mark Anderson, who examined traffic fatality statistics across the country. Those statistics are good fodder for research because they contain detailed information about the probable causes of accidents.

What Rees and Anderson found  was fairly surprising: in the 13 states that legalized the use of medical marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic-related deaths fell 9%. Part of the reason for this may be the fact that in those states, alcohol consumption among young people between 20 and 29 declined. In fact, beer sales dipped a not-insignificant 5%.

However -- and this is important -- Rees and Anderson also point out that the way people consume pot is different than the way in which they consume alcohol, and that may have an effect on the study's findings.

Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, the laws surrounding its usage are strict: people tend to smoke it in very private environments, typically their own homes. Booze, however, is social, the oil of conversation in thousands of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and private parties. People drink alcohol when they're out on the town, meaning that eventually, those folks have to find their way back home again.

In other words, because it's less socially (and legally) acceptable, smoking pot may keep users at home, while tipplers can roam the streets as they please. And if they're on the streets, it stands to reason that they're more likely to be involved in car accidents. If the restrictions on marijuana usage were eased, the statistics on traffic fatalities might begin to balance out.

What's interesting about Rees and Anderson's study is that it seems to indicate that marijuana and alcohol are somewhat mutually exclusive: people tend to smoke or drink, but not both. If the studies surrounding pot's less-damaging effects on driving skills are accurate, that alone may explain the dip in traffic fatalities. 

If you'd like to read Rees and Anderson's study in its entirety, you can find the PDF here. Or if you'd prefer something a little more lighthearted, there's this tongue-in-cheek piece about how the legalization of pot changed the U.S. for the better. And if you'd like to watch someone get high on camera, then drive a car, well, here's a video that's right up your alley. (Note: the saucy uploader of the clip built it at 420 pixels wide. Dude.)

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