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Study: College students are more likely to drive stoned than drunk

Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

College freshmen could be much more likely to drive stoned than drunk.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 31.3 percent of college-attending marijuana users drove shortly after using marijuana, compared to 6.8 percent of alcohol users who drove shortly after using alcohol. Men in particular were roughly five times more likely than women to drive after using either substance.

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An even higher percentage of men and women rode in a car being driven by a marijuana-using or drinking driver, and both groups were much more likely to drive with someone who recently used marijuana than someone who recently used alcohol.

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While it's true less people use marijuana than alcohol, drugged driving was so prominent that college students overall were still roughly 43 percent more likely to drive after using marijuana than drive after using alcohol.

What's behind the difference?

Researchers suggest that college students in general perceive stoned driving to be safe.

The popular misconception is that, while alcohol demonstrably slows someone's reflexes, marijuana makes drivers more anxious and, therefore, more attentive to possible mistakes on the road. But the research shows that, while marijuana doesn't affect everyone in the same way, it does impair a person's ability to drive at some level.

What are some of the study's weaknesses?

For one, the study was based on a survey. It's unclear how truthful or accurate the students' responses were, even though students were told names would be kept confidential. It's possible, for example, that students were aware of the stigma surrounding drunk driving but not a similar stigma surrounding drugged driving; that could make respondents much more likely to admit to drugged driving but not drunk driving.

The study also didn't measure the time between substance use and driving, the level of impairment, or the incidence of car crashes. So it's impossible to gauge, based on the study's results, whether marijuana- or alcohol-using students were seriously impaired when they drove.

So why does this matter?

At the very least, the study strongly suggests drugged driving is more accepted than drunk driving. As public support grows and  more states move to legalize marijuana, the findings could help shape public education campaigns that typically follow legalization. The study's authors in particular called for further research into what kind of counseling and education could help bring down the rates of drugged driving as marijuana becomes more available across the country.

Correction: The headline originally misstated the rate of college freshmen who are drugged driving compared to drunk driving. This post was updated to correct the mistake and clarify the data within the story.