Driving Under The Influence of Drugs
Stimulants and Driving

Stimulants and Driving: The Effects of Common Stimulants, Fines & Penalties

Updated July 12, 2019

As discussed in our previous module, stimulants are a category of drugs that work on the central nervous system to “speed up” ordinary bodily functions. Some stimulants are legal and largely unregulated, such as the caffeine in your coffee. Others – like Adderall and other amphetamines - are legal when prescribed for medicinal purposes. There are also some incredibly potent and dangerous stimulants which are illegal for all uses besides scientific experimentation, such as cocaine.

When you take a stimulant drug, you may experience short-term feelings of euphoria and a false sense of well-being. You will certainly feel more alert and energetic; your senses will seem sharpened; your heart will beat faster, and your body temperature will rise. Higher doses of stimulants can result in anxiety, loss of focus, shaking, erratic behavior and violence.

How do stimulants work?

Stimulants alter brain function by intensifying the communication between nerve cells that send messages around the body. Taking a stimulant turns the “productivity dial” on every bodily process up to maximum speed. Your heart will beat faster, your mind will jump uncontrollably from one thought to another and your digestive system will be kicked into gear, often resulting in the urgent need to use the bathroom. You may also feel extremely energetic, hot, and will likely sweat much more than usual.

By overstimulating dopamine precursors and receptors, stimulants can flood the brain with dopamine, resulting in a temporary effect of extreme happiness and pleasure. When used repeatedly, stimulants disrupt the brain’s dopamine management system. This results in insufficient dopamine levels when not under the influence of a stimulant drug and can ultimately lead to depression and other low-mood disorders. Now, let’s check out some common stimulants to find out what effect they may have on your mind, body and ability to drive safely.

Nicotine

This stimulant occurs naturally in tobacco leaves and is chiefly responsible for the plant’s addictive, psychoactive effects. While small doses of nicotine are not particularly harmful on their own, many other substances within tobacco leaves are dangerous and carcinogenic (cancer causing). Thus, nicotine is primarily responsible for the chronic illness and death that results from habitual tobacco consumption.

 Nicotine’s legality is one of the biggest failings in the United States’ substance control system. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death around the world. A conservative estimate suggests that tobacco causes around 6 million deaths every year.

Did you know?

  • Nicotine is as difficult to give up as heroin.
  • On average, tobacco smokers live ten years less than non-smokers.

How is nicotine taken?

Tobacco is most commonly smoked in the form of cigarettes, allowing nicotine and other dangerous substances to enter the blood stream via the lungs. Tobacco can also be snorted (in “snuff” form) or chewed so that its chemical components are absorbed into the body via blood vessels in the mouth. Typically, more nicotine is absorbed via chewing and snorting than it is via smoking, leading to more dramatic short-term effects and more serious long-term consequences.

Effects of nicotine

In small doses (and when taken to relieve the pangs of addiction), nicotine can increase alertness, create a false sense of well-being, improve memory, increase blood pressure and calm anxiety. As soon as nicotine’s short-term effects wear off, the user is typically left less alert and happy, and more anxious than they were in the first place. They are immediately more inclined to smoke again to relieve these problems – this is nicotine addiction beginning to take hold.

High doses of nicotine can cause nausea, dangerously high blood pressure, confusion, anxiety and restlessness. Combined with the other substances found in tobacco leaves, regular or excessive nicotine consumption can be very harmful.

Long-term consequences

Consuming tobacco has a myriad of devastating effects on your overall health and can ultimately kill you in a dozen of different ways. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that each year, over 480,000 deaths in the United States are caused by tobacco use. That amounts to nearly 20% of ALL deaths. More people are killed by tobacco consumption they are from illegal drug use, alcohol abuse, traffic accidents, suicides, murders and HIV combined. Arguably, nicotine is the most dangerous and destructive drug on the planet.

Tobacco’s biggest threat to your health is its destructive effect on the heart and lungs. Most tobacco smokers who die as a result of their addiction are killed by heart disease, stroke, irreparable circulatory damage, lung cancer, emphysema (a deadly disease which destroys lung tissue) or some combination of these diseases. However, tobacco can ruin your health and end your life in a variety of other ways:

  • Chronic stress, impotence and infertility.
  • Cancer of the kidneys, throat, mouth, head, neck, skin, bladder, pancreas, stomach and bowels.

Nowhere in your body is safe from cancer if you choose to smoke cigarettes. Tobacco smoke is known to contain over 60 potent carcinogens which can cause dangerous cell mutations ANYWHERE in the body. Plus, nicotine has a disruptive effect on the immune system which renders your body less capable of protecting itself against dangerous growths.

Smokers are particularly susceptible to lung cancer as all the toxic substances contained in tobacco smoke must enter the body via the lungs. In the grips of serious nicotine addiction, a person may smoke 40, 60 or even 100 cigarettes every day! This will constantly bombard the lungs with lethal chemicals and offer almost no opportunity for them to clean and repair themselves.

Nicotine and your driving skills

Being a smoker and a driver is risky. Even if you choose not to smoke while driving, you may still be endangered by your addiction if nicotine cravings kick in while you’re behind the wheel. Withdrawal from the drug will leave you anxious, less able to concentrate and may lead you to take dangerous risks, like reaching over to the backseat to fish your cigarettes out of your bag.

If you do smoke while driving, your ability to steer the vehicle will be impaired as one hand will be occupied with holding the cigarette. There is also the risk that you drop the cigarette and end up in a collision while trying to retrieve it without burning yourself or the inside of the car. Even if none of these things happen, inhaling the nicotine and toxic chemicals in the cigarette will affect your body and mind, leaving you less fit to drive.

  • Smoke may irritate your eyes leaving you less able to spot hazards.
  • Your fine motor skills may be affected by muscle tremors.
  • You may experience nervousness, anxiety and will be more susceptible to distraction.

Cocaine

Cocaine is an incredibly addictive stimulant made from the leaves of the coca plant, native to South America. The drug also goes by the street names of blow, coke, crack, rock and snow. Cocaine does have common medical applications but is illegal to use for recreational purposes. Despite this, a 2013 report compiled by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that 1.5% of people in North American between the ages of 15 and 64 had used cocaine at least once in the previous 12 months.

Street cocaine is rarely “pure” and is often mixed with bulking agents such as flour, talcum powder, laundry powder and cornstarch, enabling dealers to turn over a larger profit. It is also quite common for cocaine to be mixed with other cheaper stimulant drugs, which are easier to come by, such as amphetamines or synthetic opioids. Adding opioids to cocaine makes it particularly toxic. This relatively modern practice is thought to be responsible for recent increases in the number of cocaine overdose deaths.

How is cocain taken?

Cocaine is most commonly snorted as a powder or rubbed onto the gums. It can also be dissolved in water and injected directly into the blood stream, resulting in an almost instantaneous effect. “Crack cocaine” is processed to form a crystal, which is then heated to produce fumes which the user inhales directly into their lungs. Some people also sprinkle crack cocaine into cigarettes rolled with tobacco or marijuana.

Effects of cocaine

The short-term effects of cocaine use include extreme energy, a false sense of happiness, a sense of being “indestructible”, acute mental alertness, irritability, paranoia and hypersensitivity to sound and light. High doses of cocaine can cause an array of dangerous and unpleasant effects, including twitching, restlessness, panic, heart attack, seizures, stroke, coma and sudden and inexplicable acts of violence.

Cocaine is incredibly addictive and with repeated use, it will permanently alter the chemistry of the user’s brain. Regular users find that even while the drug is not in their system, they experience mood swings, depression, insomnia, paranoia, confusion and restlessness. It can also alter the body’s response to pain and hunger.

In the long-term, cocaine will damage and destroy vital organs, leading to:

  • Heart damage – resulting in irregular heartbeat, heart disease and heart attacks.
  • Coughing up blood, acute respiratory damage and lung failure.
  • Strokes, seizures and comas
  • Deterioration of the nasal septum (the cartilage and flesh separating the nostrils)

Cocaine’s effect on driving skills

Even very small amounts of cocaine in your system will render you completely unfit to drive. As a stimulant, cocaine will create a sense of being alert and “switched on” which may lead you to believe you can drive safely. Unfortunately, this distorted and overwhelming sense of alertness will make it harder to focus on important driving tasks and prioritize actions while behind the wheel. You will be incredibly alert but incapable of pinning your attention down to a single task for more than a second or two at a time. In addition, cocaine can cause shaking, anxiety and panic, which would all leave you less capable of controlling your vehicle and more likely to overreact to imagined dangers.

The aggression and imperviousness to risk that cocaine users experience often leads them to drive in an extremely dangerous manner. Traffic accidents and collisions which involve cocaine-intoxicated drivers often occur at high speeds, or because the driver in question has completely disregarded another motorist’s right-of-way.

Penalties for possessing cocaine

Possession of cocaine is a serious crime which generally incurs harsher penalties than possession of other common drugs. Cocaine possession offenses are usually dealt with at a state level. The federal government may take over the case if an extremely large amount of cocaine was involved, or if the defendant is believed to have links to manufacturers or traffickers.

Most states issue penalties for cocaine possession based on the weight of the drug involved. The larger the quantity of cocaine you are caught with, the worse the punishment will be. Purity level and the way the cocaine is packaged can also influence sentencing. When the drug is very pure, the defendant may be issued a harsher punishment as it is more likely they are connected with people high-up in the supply chain. If the drug is divided into several packages, it may be assumed that the offender intended to distribute to other people, which would warrant more severe penalties.

Here are some examples of cocaine possession penalties in different states:

California: For possession of cocaine for personal use, offenders may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. With a guilty plea, the penalty may be 36 months of federal probation and drug therapy, instead of a custodial sentence.
Texas: For possession of less than one gram of cocaine, offenders may be sentenced to prison time of six months to two years. For possession of between one and four grams of cocaine, that potential sentence increases dramatically, from two years to 20 years (plus a fine).

Methamphetamine

Also known as speed, ice, crank, meth and crystal meth, methamphetamine is a powerful and addictive stimulant, with similar effects to cocaine. However, methamphetamine tends to take effect sooner and last longer than cocaine, as the body cannot filter it from the bloodstream so efficiently. As a result, it is also more harmful to the central nervous system.

In 2017, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that roughly 0.6 of the population of the United States (1.6 million people) had used methamphetamine within the past 12 months. That same year, the federal government estimates that methamphetamine was responsible for over 10,000 overdose fatalities around the United States. As the drug is generally cheaper and more readily available than opioid narcotics, instances of its misuse are increasing and becoming more widespread.

How is methamphetamine taken?

As it is available in several forms, methamphetamine can be smoked, snorted, orally ingested or injected. Smoking and injecting the drug produces the fastest results, as it enters the bloodstream in large quantities very quickly. For the same reason, it seems that these methods of administration most frequently result in addiction. Snorting and orally ingesting methamphetamine produces more gradual effects and is arguably less dangerous, though the user may inadvertently overdose by taking more of the drug, as they have not yet felt the full effects of intoxication.

Effects of methamphetamine

In the short-term, methamphetamine creates a feeling of euphoria, increased energy, extreme alertness and a decrease in appetite. It also has a number of dangerous cardiovascular effects including rapid heart rate, heightened blood pressure and irregular heartbeat. If too high a dose is taken, the user may experience dangerously high body temperature, convulsions and death.

Long-term use of methamphetamine will almost certainly result in physical dependence and has a plethora of other life-threatening effects, including:

  • Mood disturbances
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Violent, unpredictable behavior
  • Psychosis

Research has demonstrated that methamphetamine abuse can permanently damage the brain. By altering the structure of the parts of the brain responsible for emotions, learning, decision making and behavioral control, long-term use of this drug can effectively change you into a different (altogether more volatile and compulsive) person.

Methamphetamine’s effect on your driving skills

The immediate effects of methamphetamine abuse would make it impossible to drive safely, even when taken in incredibly small quantities. The drug’s powerful stimulant effect will prevent you from focusing on the task at hand and accurately collecting information about the roadway. You may also experience difficulty keeping still, muscle tremors and sloppy motor skills, which will make it harder to steer smoothly, brake gradually and maintain your position within a lane.

Long-term methamphetamine users make incredibly unsafe drivers. The drug’s effect on brain chemistry will lead to volatile moods, anxiety and paranoia. Behind the wheel, this could cause you to drive at high speeds, behave aggressively toward other motorists and disregard traffic control devices.

Penalties for possessing methamphetamine

As with most scheduled drugs, the penalties for simple possession of methamphetamine are considerably milder than possession with intent to distribute, or manufacturing of the drug. Whether you are charged with simple possession or possession with intent to sell depends on how much of the drug you are caught with. Note that the drug does not necessarily have to be on your person, or in your car, for a possession charge to hold up. Law enforcement simply need reason to believe that the drugs belong to you or are under your control.

While methamphetamine possession carries lesser penalties, it is incredibly likely that you will still be looking at a term of imprisonment. Depending on the state in which the offense was committed and the nature of the offense, methamphetamine possession will usually be treated as a felony. Under federal law, a first conviction for methamphetamine possession may result in a “term of imprisonment not more than 1 year”. This would depend on a very small quantity of the drug being involved. If you are caught with 5 grams or more, federal law stipulates a MINIMUM sentence of five years. If 50 grams of methamphetamine are discovered, that minimum sentence leaps up to ten years. Fines will accompany these sentences, which may range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

Note that each state has its own provisions for methamphetamine possession, which may affect your sentencing. Many states have also enacted laws which allow people to be charged with possession of methamphetamine, even if they are only found to possess precursor ingredients (i.e. the chemicals, drugs and equipment needed to produce meth). Some states offer prison-alternatives to first time or mild offenders, such as drug treatment centers and probation, whereas others do not.

Here are some state-specific laws regarding simple methamphetamine possession:

New Jersey: Possession of less than one ounce of methamphetamine will result in a fine of $35,000 to $75,000, up to five years in state prison, a mandatory drug rehabilitation program and loss of your driver’s license. If the offense was committed within 1000 feet of a school, you will also be given 100 hours of community service.
New Jersey does allow for pre-trial intervention, if you have never been spared a trial for drug offenses before and you are not charged with intent to sell. This would involve probation and drug rehabilitation.

Florida: Possession of up to 14 grams of methamphetamine may result in five years in prison, five years of probation, suspended driving privileges and a $5,000 fine.
Being discovered with 14 or more grams of methamphetamine will warrant trafficking charges and considerably harsher sentencing. The mandatory minimum prison terms for trafficking are:

  • 14 to 28 grams – 3 to 30 years in prison.
  • 28 to 200 grams – 7 to 30 years in prison.
  • 200 grams or more – 15 to 30 years in prison.

Life changing consequences

Taking cocaine or methamphetamine (or getting involved with anybody who does) is likely to have serious, life-changing consequences. The penalties incurred for simple possession, intent to sell or trafficking of these schedule 2 drugs are severe. If you associate with people who take or sell these substances, being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be enough to land you with a life-sentence in prison.

Even without the threat of imprisonment, taking stimulants can easily ruin or end your life! For example, nicotine and tobacco are legal yet they kill millions of people every year. Legality and long-term health effects aside, know that you cannot fulfill your responsibility as a driver to operate your vehicle safely, if you take stimulant drugs like nicotine, cocaine and methamphetamine.

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