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Insurance Helpline | Auto insurance coverage and the ganja smoker

Published:Sunday | July 3, 2016 | 7:00 AM

QUESTION: Does ganja smoking impair one's ability to drive a vehicle safely? Are there likely to be any negative effects in relation to motor insurance and this particular lifestyle choice?

- 'Herb smoker', Kingston 7

INSURANCE HELPLINE: Your questions are among the most fascinating that a reader has asked me in a very long time. I don't know the answers. Very few officials in the motor insurance business or the government bureaucracy could give quick replies. The probability is that even if they did, the answers would be very different.

The Police Traffic Division collects data about accidents. That data is compiled by the Road Safety Unit in the Ministry of Transport and Works. However, no information is publicly available about the extent to which the use of alcohol and substances like ganja, which until quite recently was prohibited, contribute to collisions and deaths. The National Road Safety Council speaks to driving "while intoxicated" on its website, but there is no explicit reference to ganja. Is the council being politically correct, as Donald J. Trump would ask?

I learnt many other things while conducting research for this article. Another is that while the new Road Traffic Bill a section of which was the subject of a piece that I wrote about two weeks ago makes it an offence to drive under the influence of "alcohol and drugs", persons who use the latter appear to have been given a bligh.

There is provision for testing either by way of breath analysis or a blood sample for the presence of alcohol.

However, the proposed law is silent about testing for the presence of drugs like those linked with the use of ganja. Do our lawmakers believe that herb smokers act "more responsibly" while driving than consumers of alcohol or that those who use both substances are at no greater risk on the roads than those who consume neither?

I found no evidence that lawmakers considered what impact the decriminalisation of small amounts of pot for personal use would have on the frequency of motor vehicle accidents.

The US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NDA) www.drugabuse.gov says that "marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving ability".

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. It is one of many compounds found in the marijuana plant.

Global insurance giant Munich Re says that THC "altered perceptions and mood, lack of coordination, impaired thinking and problem solving, and can impact memory and the ability to learn". On the other hand, regular users here disagree. They tell me they drive more safely after smoking a spliff.

"Two large European studies found that drivers with THC in their blood were roughly twice as likely to be culpable for a fatal accident than drivers who had not used drugs or alcohol. However, the role played by marijuana in accidents is often unclear because it can remain detectable in body fluids for days or even weeks after intoxication and because users frequently combine it with alcohol," according to the NIDA report.

 

HARMFUL TO DRIVERS

 

"Accident-involved drivers with THC in their blood, particularly higher levels, are three to seven times more likely to be responsible for the accident than drivers who had not used drugs or alcohol. The risk associated with marijuana in combination with alcohol appears to be greater than that for either drug by itself."

Last year, June Time magazine reported on a study conducted by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The study examined weekend night-time drivers. It found that 8.3 per cent of them had some alcohol in their system while 12.6 per cent, or one out of every eight persons, tested positive for THC. What would be the result if a similar survey was undertaken in Jamaica?

While there is agreement about what level of alcohol in the blood stream impairs driving, there is no consensus about what concentration of THC is harmful to drivers. Maybe this is one of many reasons why ganja users have been given a pass in the proposed road traffic legislation.

Another is probably due to its widespread use. I also learnt, courtesy of the German insurer, that when ganja is ingested, it is absorbed more slowly and its effects persist longer than when it is smoked.

The implications of using ganja in relation to insurance are murky. Munich Re says: "When a marijuana user is identified, an underwriter must determine whether the use is recreational or medical (in some situations there may be an overlap). If it is recreational, then frequency and quantity, as well as the manner of use, must be determined. Other risk factors related to alcohol, other drugs of abuse, lifestyle concerns, and hazardous avocations or occupations must also be identified. If abuse or multiple hazards associated with marijuana use are identified, the risk will likely be unacceptable."

Local insurers turn a blind eye to ganja smokers. They do not try to identify users from non-users during the application process much in the same way that users of alcohol are not singled out from teetotallers.

"For those that are using marijuana for medicinal purposes, the reason it is being prescribed must be identified and the mortality and/or morbidity implications related to that impairment understood as the risk may be uninsurable at the outset. If the risk is potentially insurable, again, how often, how much, and how the marijuana is delivered must be established," the Munich Re report says.

Word-of-mouth information here suggests that the use of ganja for medicinal purposes, which is very common, is most often self-prescribed.

Editorial deadlines prevented me from obtaining information from the Insurance Association of Jamaica on the subject. I will therefore use this medium to ask the association's executive director to provide this column with what is the association's policy position on this subject.

- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: aegis@flowja.com