TEEN
12/17/2013 06:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Riding High: Teens Talk Smoking Weed And Driving Stoned

Lisa Peardon via Getty Images

By Julia Rubin

"It was the scariest thing ever." That's how 16-year-old Ashley, a high school junior in Nevada, describes her experience driving high. It was the first time she had ever smoked pot, and the friend she was with pressured her to drive home.

"My vision kept going in and out, and I couldn't focus," she continues. "It was so hard, and we didn't get very far. I told my friend we had to pull over because I didn't want to get us hurt. We ended up outside her house, and I slept it off in the car. I was like, 'You know what? I'm not driving any farther.'"

Way before we're old enough to get a license, the dangers of drunk driving are hammered into our consciousness thanks to school, parents, and TV (it's basically required that teen dramas tackle the subject at least once during their run). But driving high? It's something that's only recently become a cultural talking point, which is why plenty of high school and college students find themselves behind the wheel after smoking weed.

According to a study by Liberty Mutual Insurance, one in five teens admit to driving high; 41% said marijuana had no effect on their ability, while 34% claimed being high actually made them drive better.

Kansas high school senior Gaby felt confident about her driving abilities after smoking on 4/20 ("a cliché, I know!") with some friends. "I totally trust my own judgment, even when I'm under the influence," she says. "I'm very aware of myself and how I'm feeling. I know that if I felt like I shouldn't be driving, I definitely wouldn't have." The 17-year-old "felt a little fuzzy," but made the five-minute drive back home safely.

"At my school, smoking isn't a big deal. We're all really desensitized," she explains. "People are weird about smoking cigarettes, but not pot." And has she ever driven drunk? "Oh my god, no. And I would never get in a car with someone who was drinking. It's so terrifying—it's so not worth it."

Ashley echoes Gaby's sentiments: Though she's driven high, she's never driven drunk, nor would she get in a car with a friend who's been drinking. Why the distinction? Driving high is risky, but driving drunk is worse. Robin Salomon, an information specialist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, puts it simply: "Driving drunk can be more dangerous than driving high because overuse of alcohol leads to impacts that are much more noticeable."

A 2009 article in the American Journal of Addictions found that marijuana affects users variably according to personal tolerance and how (and how much) people smoke, while alcohol has a much more uniform effect. And while high drivers are more likely to try and compensate for their impairment, drunk drivers tend to be reckless.

That's not to understate the effects marijuana can have on driving abilities. As 18-year-old Madelyn explains, "When you're high, you're supposed to be relaxed. But when you're driving, you technically can't be! I went numb. I wasn't sure if I was pressing the gas or the breaks or if I was moving at all. It was really intense, and the colors from the cars and the headlights were all blurring."

In fact, a recent review in medical journal BMJ found that high drivers are twice as likely to get in a serious accident than sober drivers, debunking anecdotal evidence and prior research to the contrary.

And while impairments to reaction time and perception are among the chief concerns when it comes to driving under the influence of marijuana, there can be legal implications too. "Marijuana is still an illegal drug in most states," says NIDA's Salomon. "Getting pulled over can be a big deal beyond the DUI charge."

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