THURSDAY, Dec. 19, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Millions of Americans, teens and young adults in particular, are driving while high on pot and other illegal drugs, U.S. health officials report.
According to a new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 million drivers aged 16 and older said they had driven while stoned in 2018, and more than 2 million said they drove after using other illicit drugs.
In the same year, nearly 21 million Americans drove drunk. Although that's nearly double those driving under the influence of marijuana and other drugs, driving while stoned is becoming an ever-increasing concern, the researchers noted.
"Driving under the influence of marijuana is a huge concern, and it's a huge public health problem that we have such young people using marijuana," said Helen Witty, national president of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
Part of the problem, according to Witty, is that many teens and young adults think marijuana is harmless. "It's natural, they say. But so is snake venom. Natural doesn't mean that it's good for you," she said.
Witty knows of what she speaks. Nineteen years ago, her 16-year-old daughter was killed rollerblading on a bike path when she was struck by a car driven by a 17-year-old girl who was high on pot and alcohol. The driver was sent to prison. "My daughter's life ended, and the other girl's life was altered," she said.
"Unfortunately, there's way too many stories out there like mine," Witty said. "I meet people all across the nation who have been tragically hit by that lightning bolt."
Witty thinks the problem is only going to get worse with the legalization of marijuana. "There's this idea that it's not harmful, but it's very harmful," she said, because it impairs response time, which can lead to crashes.
The primary responsibility to keep kids off marijuana lies with parents, Witty said.
"We know that parents are the number one influence on their children as to what drugs they might or might not use," she said. "And it's important for them to say 'no, marijuana is a drug.'"
The teenage brain is maturing and developing, and alcohol or marijuana use can alter the development of their brain, Witty said.
"We know that the younger the person using either of those substances, the more likely they are to have a lifetime of addiction," she said.
For the study, CDC researchers led by Dr. Alejandro Azofeifa used data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The investigators found that men were more likely to drive after using marijuana (6%) than women (3%). Also, white people and black people were more likely to drive high than Hispanics.
In terms of age, less than 1% of those 65 and older drove while stoned, compared with 12% of those aged 21 to 25, the findings showed.
When it came to driving after using other illegal drugs, about 2% of those aged 21 to 34 said they did, the authors noted.
Research has shown that using marijuana and illicit drugs along with alcohol increases the risk of driving impairment.
These drugs can compromise psychomotor and cognitive (mental) functions, the researchers said. Some studies have also found an association between using marijuana and the risk for car crashes, they noted.
Although how much marijuana is dangerous isn't known, it's possible that how marijuana is ingested may make a difference. That is, whether it's smoked, eaten or vaped, and if it's been used with other drugs and alcohol.
Because these data were self-reported, Witty thinks that the problem is much bigger than what this study reveals.
At the moment, no simple roadside test -- like a breathalyzer -- exists that can tell if someone is high on pot.
"The increased use of marijuana and some illicit drugs in the United States, along with the results of this report, point to the need for rapid and sensitive assessment tools to ascertain the presence of and impairment by marijuana and other illicit drugs," the researchers concluded.
The report was published Dec. 20 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
For more on marijuana and driving, head to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.