As Sophia* drove down her street on the way to a party, her excitement gradually turned into paranoia. It took a conscious effort for her to focus on the road, and the laughter of her three friends became distracting rather than encouraging. After only a few minutes, she decided to pull over.
“While I was driving, I was debating whether or not I should speak up,” Sophia said. “It was a really short drive to the party, and I couldn’t decide whether or not to tell [my friends] that, as their designated driver, I had messed up, and I actually shouldn’t have been driving.”
Sophia had smoked marijuana while her friends drank alcohol prior to leaving for the party. Believing that it was better to drive high than to drive drunk and that she would not become too intoxicated, Sophia volunteered to act as the designated driver for the night. However, she quickly realized that she was too high to make it all the way to the party safely, and she pulled over.
Sophia is not the only Harvard-Westlake student to drive while high. Ten percent of 424 students polled have also driven while high, and 27 percent of students have been in a car with a driver who was high.
According to an annual survey taken from 2001 to 2011 published in the American Journal of Public Health, 12.4 percent of 22,000 high school seniors polled in 2011 had driven while high in the past two weeks, an increase from 10.4 percent in 2008. In contrast, only 8.7 percent reported having driven while drunk in the past two weeks, a decrease from the peak of 16 percent in 2002.
Although 34 percent of students believe that driving drunk is more dangerous than driving high, 96 percent of students know that driving high constitutes as driving under the influence and can result in a DUI conviction.
According to California law, getting a DUI means the perpetrator was driving while “under the influence” of alcohol and/or drugs (legal or illegal). For a first offense, DUI sentencing can include a license suspension from 30 days to 10 months, fines up to $1,000 and jail time ranging from four days to six months.
The danger of driving high stems from the effects of the psychoactive, or mind-altering, chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a main component of marijuana.
When smoked or ingested through food or drink, THC travels through the bloodstream to the brain and other organs. THC affects the endocannabinoid system, a neural communication network that plays a significant role in brain development and function.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, THC over activates the endocannabinoid system, causing, along with the desired high, “altered perceptions and mood, impaired coordination, difficulty with thinking and problem solving, and disrupted learning and memory.”
Sophia experienced some of these effects before she pulled over and told her friends that she was too high to drive. Her friends were grateful for her honesty, Sophia said, and the friend who had the least to drink drove the rest of the way to the party.
Once they arrived, Sophia felt the effects of the marijuana begin to wear off and decided that she was sober enough to drive home. Although she mostly felt in control, and there were not any close calls, Sophia said that she “didn’t like the feeling” and that it definitely deterred her from driving high ever again.
“For me, it was just hard to focus and everything was kind of spacey, so I couldn’t play music and was just kind of staring at the road, and I had to make sure at every intersection that there weren’t any cars coming,” Sophia said.
Pediatrician Dr. Anita Sabeti (Nikta Mansouri ’15) said that the effects of marijuana can vary from person to person, depending on the baseline of brain function and the level of intoxication. However, she believes that any level of marijuana intoxication is dangerous and strongly discourages it.
“First of all, the cognition is poor,” Sabeti said. “[Teenagers] have poor judgment while they’re high. They can have poor hand-eye coordination and slow reactions. These are all things that are needed during driving. You have to think fast and act fast at times of emergency… sometimes you may get dizzy, you may feel like fainting, sometimes nauseous.”
Although most teenagers seem to know that driving while drunk can drastically increase chances of an accident, recently Sabeti has heard many say that they do not believe marijuana will affect the brain’s function enough to significantly impair their driving abilities, she said.
In February 2012, a study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that high drivers were almost twice as likely as sober drivers to be involved in a serious car crash.
Nate* smokes marijuana up to three or four times a week but tries to limit driving while high as much as possible, he said.
“[Driving high] affects your focus,” Nate said. “For me, I start to drift a little bit to the right and my friends get really mad. That’s why I don’t drive that often when I’m high, because nobody wants me to drive. Sometimes when I’m really high or take an edible, my vision gets kind of distorted. Everything seems a bit fuzzier. Reaction time is a lot slower. I’ll make more sudden stops. You become more paranoid. You’ll be worried that cops will be around, or if someone’s doing something dumb in the car it will affect you more than usual.”
Despite these effects, Nate said he feels in control enough to drive and that he does not believe he is putting other people in danger. However, he has had some experiences where he has not been able to drive right away after getting high.
He recently ate a Cheeba Chew, a chocolate taffy, marijuana-infused edible, which he was able to obtain from a friend who bought it with a medical marijuana identification card.
“Last week I took a fifth of a Deca Dose [a type of Cheeba Chew], and when I woke up, I was absolutely dying, feeling like I was gonna throw up,” Nate said. “I got in the car, and I had to sit there for like 20 minutes. Then I started driving, and it felt like I was looking at the world underwater. Everything was really – it was just insane. I got home safely, I didn’t have any close calls, but it was just ridiculous.”
Ashley Aminian ’15 is especially alert on the drive to school every morning, as she notices the red parking tags in smoke-filled cars around her that signal that the cars belong to her fellow Harvard-Westlake students.
When these drivers roll their windows down or Aminian turns on the air conditioning or heat, she can smell the marijuana drifting from their cars to hers, she said.
“I’ll look over and see that the windows are just fogged up,” Aminian said. “Just so much smoke that I can’t even see who’s in the car. But from experience and from time and time again I’ve seen who it is. And I get so deeply uncomfortable when I see them driving because it makes me feel responsible for them, because I have to pay extra attention to make sure that they don’t do anything to put me at risk. And it also just makes me concerned for that kid. And it makes me angry because as is, driving is such a huge responsibility, and this is another obstacle that I have to get through every morning.”
Aminian is very frustrated by these students whom she considers to be inconsiderate and dangerous, she said.
“Their attention is split between what they’re doing and driving, and that should not be the situation in the morning when you’re already tired, you’ve been up late, you have a lot of homework, you’re stressed, and you’re driving and your attention is split with smoking,” she said.
Sabrina Zaks ’15 also takes issue with people driving while high.
“I have a really strong problem with it because everyone treats weed differently than how they do alcohol, when they’re both drugs that influence your behavior and the way you’re able to perform certain tasks,” Zaks said.
Two years ago, Zaks found out that someone who used to drive her around daily had actually been high for most of the time he drove her.
“Until I found all of this out the summer that he graduated [high school], I had no idea, which goes to show, I guess, how oblivious everyone is to it,” she said. “But it really scared me that he had been lying to me and putting my life in danger just because he wanted to smoke and be high and be cool with his friends.”
Regardless of safety risks, both Sophia and Nate said that they are more concerned by the illegality of their actions than the physical danger. Sophia, who has not driven high since the night of the party, is not opposed to being a passenger in the car of a high driver.
“I’ve driven with a lot of people who were high since, and I don’t care,” she said. “I just don’t want to be the person behind the wheel and have to be held responsible in case anything happens. For me, I just didn’t like the feeling of being like, if I did get in an accident, I would be the person to blame.”
*Names have been changed.