Note: Driving a car while intoxicated is never okay. If you’ve consumed cannabis, please refer to your doctor to understand when you can drive. Or, wait a recommended period of time (24 hours) before getting behind the wheel. If you’ve consumed alcohol, please refer to your local laws about drink driving.
Cannabis vs Alcohol And Driving
The question of cannabis vs alcohol and which is worse is almost constant these days. In an article entitled “vehicle crashes are a common factor in cannabis deaths”, published by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), the author along with sources allude to three things:
- Cannabis is a significant contributing factor in an increasing number of deaths.
- When mixing cannabis with other substances, the risk of death or injury increase (note: this is true).
- The risks of using cannabis and alcohol are similar.
While the stats provided in the article may be correct, it’s important to have context for the cannabis and driving, cannabis and death, and cannabis and alcohol conversations. When speaking about cannabis, we must compare the stats and facts alongside other ‘normalised’ drugs, like alcohol and opioids.
Alcohol, cannabis and driving were the focusses of the SMH article. In this article, we’ll give you the facts on cannabis, driving and alcohol, in a less alarmist manner.
When you speak or read about drugs of any kind, make sure you’re getting all of the context along with all the relevant facts.
Alcohol vs Cannabis Consumption
When looking at alcohol and driving facts, it’s important to understand the consumption rates of cannabis and alcohol in Australia.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) compiles statistics on alcohol and drug use. Their data shows that in 2017-2018, 77% of Australians aged 15+ had used alcohol, and there were 2820 alcohol-related deaths.
Their data also showed that 10% of Australians aged 14+ had used cannabis. If we were to say that cannabis can cause death at a similar rate, by population, then we would expect about 350 cannabis related deaths over the same period. There are currently zero known cases of death that are directly caused by plant-based cannabis. And, there were only 559 cannabis-related deaths between 2000 and 2018, a total of 19 years.
Cannabis and driving facts
The SMH facts came from a study published by lead author Emma Zahra. The study looked at the period between 2000 and 2018. Here are the facts
- There were 559 cannabis-related deaths (data from the National Coronial Information System).
- 30% (167) of those deaths were caused by accidental injury.
- 125 of accidental injury deaths were related to motor vehicle crashes.
- 0 deaths were due to cannabis toxicity alone.
- 47% (264) of the total deaths also involved alcohol.
One stat published in the study, but left out of the SMH article, is that cannabis was the only substance listed in the cause of death for 19% (104) cases. Now we’ll take a look at these numbers with more context.
Cannabis and driving facts dissected
When we compare data on road crash fatalities and cannabis on cannabis-related road crashing fatalities, cannabis-related fatalities are quite rare.
There are about 1200 road crash fatalities per year in Australia according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). The study, quoted in the SMH article, covered 19 years and cited 559 cannabis related deaths.
We can look at these stats from two views. First, where alcohol was present and secondly where no alcohol was present.
Alcohol & Other Drugs Present
Now we’ll look at the effects of alcohol compared with cannabis and other drugs on driving. Of the total cannabis related deaths, 125 were related to motor vehicle crashes. This means there were about seven cannabis related motor vehicle fatalities per year. Assuming that about half of those deaths had alcohol or other drugs involved, the likelihood of cannabis being the leading cause of fatality is very low.
A meta-analysis of cannabis and crash studies showed that the risk of crashing after using cannabis, as indicated by the presence of THC in blood or oral fluid, is increased by less than 50%. The same analysis showed that the risk of crashing with amphetamines in your system increased by almost six times. It is widely accepted, and documented by Austroads, that driving at a BAC of 0.05 approximately doubles (i.e., increases by 100%). The risk of crashing and the likelihood of crashing increases as BAC increases.
Want to know about how cannabis impacts driving? Read the “Everything You Need To Know About Cannabis & Driving” article.
If alcohol or other drugs were present, then there was a possibility that about four road-crash fatalities per year were attributable to cannabis. This means that cannabis may have been a cause in .3% of Australia’s road crashes each year.
There were 104 cases where cannabis was the only substance listed in the cause of death. Therefore, there were about six road-crash fatalities per year attributable to cannabis.
In this scenario, cannabis may have been a cause in .5% of Australia’s road crashes each year.
Any substance that may lead to death should be a concern for the general population. Cannabis, however, is nowhere near the top of the list when looking at driving fatalities or death in general.
Alcohol and Driving Facts
The ABS reported that in 2017 Australia had the largest number (1,366) of deaths as a direct result of alcohol since the 90s. There were an additional 2,820 alcohol-related deaths, where alcohol was mentioned as a contributing factor to mortality.
When looking specifically at alcohol related driving incidents, the National Road Safety Partnership Program states that drink driving is a contributing factor in about 30% of Australian road crash fatalities.
According to BITRE, in 2018 there were 1146 road related deaths which equates to over three people a day. This means that 344 road related deaths, greater than one a day, were alcohol related.
While alcohol is a legal drug, it is having a worse impact on Australian loss of life than cannabis.
In conclusion, when we look at plant based cannabis related deaths in general, the number is very low. This may come as a surprise to some because the majority of Australian cannabis still comes from the black market. There are still zero deaths solely attributed to plant based cannabis, ever.
Research shows that even after having consumed cannabis, you are much less likely to crash than after having consumed alcohol. You also have to wonder why media is so alarmist about cannabis. Normalised drugs like opioids and alcohol have a much higher dependency and addiction rate, and kill many more people than cannabis, every year.
If you’d like to share a story about cannabis use for medicinal or adult use purposes, please feel free to share your story with us.