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Myth: Smoking Marijuana Harms Only the Smokers

Reality: Marijuana Use Harms Nonusers

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Updated September 21, 2013

We need to put to rest the thought that there is such a thing as a lone drug user, a person whose habits affect only himself or herself. Drug use, including marijuana use, is not a victimless crime. Some communities may resist involvement because they think someone else's drug use is not hurting them.

But this kind of not-my-problem thinking is tragically misguided. Ask those same people about secondhand smoke from cigarettes, and they'll quickly acknowledge the harm that befalls nonsmokers. Secondhand smoke is a well-known problem, one that Americans are becoming more unwilling to bear. We need to apply the same common-sense thinking to the even more pernicious secondhand effects of drug use.

Take for instance the disastrous effects of marijuana smoking on driving. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted, "Epidemiology data from . . . traffic arrests and fatalities indicate that after alcohol, marijuana is the most frequently detected psychoactive substance among driving populations."

Marijuana causes drivers to experience decreased car handling performance, increased reaction times, distorted time and distance estimation, sleepiness, impaired motor skills, and lack of concentration.

Driving While Impaired

The extent of the problem of marijuana-impaired driving is startling. One in six (or 600,000) high school students drive under the influence of marijuana, almost as many as drive under the influence of alcohol, according to estimates released in September 2003 by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). A study of motorists pulled over for reckless driving showed that, among those who were not impaired by alcohol, 45 percent tested positive for marijuana.

Those who patrol streets and highways, know that the consequences of marijuana-impaired driving can be tragic. For example, four children and their van driver-nicknamed Smokey by the children for his regular marijuana smoking-died in April 2002 when a Tippy Toes Learning Academy van veered off a freeway and hit a concrete bridge abutment. He was found at the crash scene with marijuana in his pocket.

Innocents Killed

Some such drug-impaired drivers will be detected through the Drug Recognition Expert program, which operates under the direction of the IACP and is supported by NHTSA. However, if we are to bolster cases against drugged drivers, greater protection for innocents on the road requires the development of affordable roadside drug detection tests, and some are in the testing phase now.

Secondhand smoke from marijuana kills other innocents as well. Last year, two Philadelphia firefighters were killed when they responded to a residential fire stemming from an indoor marijuana grow. In New York City, an eight-year-old boy, Deasean Hill, was killed by a stray bullet just steps from his Brooklyn home after a drug dealer sold a dime bag of marijuana on another dealer's turf.

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