By: Jarrod Mason
Last week I was driving down a rural road in Iowa. I couldn’t have been going faster than 35 when I happened to glance to my right to look at my ipad. In that split second I veered across the centerline of the highway into oncoming traffic..
On any other day you would have assumed what happened next could not have ended well. However this stories true setting was in a small house in Aurora, performing a study for the Colorado School of Public Health. I was at the helm of what I recognized to be a Chevrolet steering wheel attached to three large tv screens. I was driving a simulator developed by the University of Iowa. It was complete with the quintessential Iowa farm scene — red barns, bright green rolling hills and slow moving traffic, if any.
It was Michael Kosnett MD, MPH, Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, that pointed out I had veered into oncoming traffic. Part of the study had me glance to my right at an iPad to identify something on the screen. I quickly realized that even while sober, we are prone to split second mistakes at the wheel.
We understand that alcohol and driving don’t mix but we are still left in limbo of what that could mean for cannabis. Let’s look at this from one perspective to start.
It is no question that cannabis can alter our reality, for better or for worse. We experience those moments where we feel like 10 minutes was 1 hour or the progression into an uplifting mood from an anxious or worn out state. All things indicative of an altered state of reality. So how do these small changes in our state of mind affect our state of reaction while driving?
This is what researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz have set out understand. In 2016 they were part of a research cohort that received $2.35 million dollars to research various issues. More specifically being awarded $843,500 dollars for their in depth driving simulator study to research the effects of cannabis while driving.
This study is being performed in the name of public health and safety and rightfully so. According to Bactrack, 28 individuals lose their life daily to drunk drivers. This is an eye opening statistic that brings to light the reality of driving while intoxicated. However, with cannabis being a prohibited substance in the U.S still today there hasn’t been much attention given to cannabis intoxication while driving. Legal states have to take it upon themselves to dive into the science and understand the implications for their roadways and citizens safety.
Michael, with the help of Co-Principal Investigator Ashley Brooks-Russell, PhD & researcher Kyle Friedman, put participants through 3 main tests; an ocular test, an iPad-based neurocognitive test, and the driving simulator. Participants will perform these three tests first while sober then a second round while under the influence of cannabis. The researchers will then compare the data to look for any differences in reaction time, memory, driving impairment and eye movement, all things that can potentially affect driving performance.
One unique aspect of this test is that participants are allowed to bring and utilize their own cannabis. Why is this important? First of all, most studies performed in the United States using cannabis were historically only allowed to use cannabis from a federal partner such as the University of Mississippi. This cannabis has potency levels that are dramatically less than the cannabis we see in today’s regulated market. Today’s market see’s cannabis flower range in THC potency from 12% – 34% while the cannabis from federal partners is typically less than 10%. This presents a huge issue when trying to apply data from research studies to real life. By allowing participants to utilize their own cannabis this immediately allows researchers to apply data to real life scenarios.
Another bonus to participants using their own cannabis is the variable nature of cannabis flower and its effects with the unique biochemistry of each individual. You can have 10 people all consume the same products and all 10 can have dramatically different experiences. This is because of a number of factors such as weight, gender, fat composition, water composition, differing expression of neurological receptors etc. By allowing participants to consume a product they have legally purchased and tailored to their desires, this brings another level of reality to the study that is unmatched in most clinical settings.
Beyond the obvious implications for driver safety, this research also has a number of benefits for police officers and employers. The researchers are hoping that some of the tools they are utilizing for the study such as the ocular test or iPad tests of hand-eye coordination can be used by police officers to more accurately asses roadside sobriety. It is recognized that a simple blood test cannot accurately determine the level of intoxication for each individual. For example, in Colorado a driver would be presumed to be driving while under the influence if they had 5 nanograms per ml or higher of THC in their blood. The problem with this is that someone who consumes frequently may have developed a level of tolerance that is much higher than a less frequent user. They theoretically could consume the night before and wake up the next morning with a level higher than 5 nanograms while technically being sober.
By finding new novel ways to assess intoxication such as the ocular test or iPad test, officers and employers can have new tools to accurately assess individuals beyond standard urinalysis or blood tests.
The study is ongoing and is continuing to accept new participants.
How can you help progress cannabis science and public safety you ask? You can become a paid participant of this study by meeting a few requirements found here. The researchers will continue to collect data for the next 8 – 12 months and we will be sure to follow up on their results.
In the meantime, continue being a conscious cannabis consumer and do your part to make our roadways a safer place.