The white-knuckle terror of being driven by a dopehead


25th May 2015

‘Hidden menace of the drivers high on drugs,’ says the headline in today’s Daily Mail, revealing that – according to police – six out of 10 motorists are failing a new roadside test that can detect use of cannabis or cocaine.

If so, that’s worrying. But not as worrying as actually being driven by someone who’s stoned. Trust me on this.

Several times I’ve found myself in California bowling along the freeway at night, trying not to think about the spliff the driver smoked before turning the ignition key. A single puff induces terror in passengers, since all dope seems to be skunk these days and the Californian strain is wickedly strong. (Again, trust me on this.) It makes the journey ‘more fun’, it was explained to me. Which would make sense if driving on the freeway was a video game.

Forced to choose, I’d go for a (mildly) drunk driver every time. Yes, they’re a menace, taking loony risks and rabbiting on. But, unlike stoners, they don’t turn their heads to you for minutes at a time, while they expound on… well, whatever nonsense has just sprung into their mind. The menace of the Federal authorities is a favourite theme, though my chauffeurs were never worried about the imminent threat posed by the California Highway Patrol, county sheriff’s officers or municipal traffic cops.

The experience is doubly petrifying if you’ve had a drag on the joint yourself. Or so I’ve been informed.

The dangers of driving while stoned have been known for years. But the new tests pick up cocaine use as well. You’d be rash to assume that coke is safer than cannabis. A study published in 2008 found that both drugs – whose visible effects on people are so different – are dangerous behind the wheel. They cause ‘heightened nervousness, greater alertness and poorer concentration’ (note that concentration and alertness are not the same thing). The researchers did claim that cannabis users are more likely than cokeheads to drive ‘cautiously’. Its depends what you mean by caution, I suppose. In my experience it means occasionally breaking off from a conspiracy theory to glance at that thing called the ‘road’.

So, can we take comfort from the fact that ‘drug breathalysers’ arrived in this country in March? Hmm. As my colleague Daniel Jackson points out, ‘harassing car drivers is an easy job, and if there’s anything the police like it’s an easy job. They aren’t nearly as good at catching people who steal cars, for example’. And the reported figures do seem suspiciously high, even when you you take into account the Mail headline’s rounding up of 56 to 60 and that’s only in South Yorkshire. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the company of stoned conspiracy nuts, but I find it hard it believe anything British coppers tell the public these days.