How has the legalization of recreational marijuana use affected the number of fatal traffic accidents? Supporters of pot prohibition warned that the numbers of pot smokers on the road would increase along with the number of fatal crashes. To determine if that has happened let's look at statistics from two states who have legalized recreational pot smoking - Washington and Colorado.
Statistics in Washington State show that the number of drivers in fatal crashes, testing positive for marijuana, increased from 8% to 17%, equating to an increase of 50 percent. Does this mean that the marijuana use is causing more accidents or that more people are smoking marijuana, so more were involved in accidents? Are more tests being performed for cannabis by police since its legalization has been called into question?
The metabolites in marijuana can be detected a week or more following use. Unlike alcohol, where a blood level of .08 is considered driving under the influence, there is no scientific test to accurately determine at what level tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) causes impairment. Both Washington and Colorado have placed the DUI threshold for THC at 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood.
In Colorado, where recreational pot smoking was legalized in 2012, the number of fatal accidents was at an historic low in 2014. Despite that fact, the fire of concerns about drugged drivers on the road has been fanned by stories, such as the one where a stoned driver slammed into two patrol cars parked on the ramp of an interstate highway in Colorado. While the driver did have some THC in his system, his blood alcohol level was off the charts. Although the alcohol was far more likely to have led to the crash, the anti-pot groups, along with the highway patrol, placed emphasis on the driver being high on pot.
A report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, a collaboration of federal, state and local drug enforcement agencies, shows that marijuana related traffic deaths increased in Colorado by 77%, during the first full year of recreational use legalization (2013-2014). The Rocky Mountain HIDTA also states that the terms, such as "marijuana related" or "tested positive for marijuana" do "not necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the accident." Marijuana related could also encompass "anytime marijuana that shows up in the toxicology report [of drivers]. It could be marijuana only or marijuana with other drugs or alcohol."
A driver who is suspected of driving while under the influence of marijuana, following a car accident, is tested similarly to one who is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol. It could take up to two hours to get a warrant to take blood and move the driver to a facility where a blood test is given. At that point, the level of metabolites in the blood can decrease a great deal. On the other hand, THC could be present in the system from smoking pot the day before. Either way, there is no way to determine if the marijuana caused impairment leading to an accident.
"There is no number that we can use to reliably predict impairment," said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy research at the Automobile Association of America. "Alcohol and cannabis are two very different drugs. They behave in the body in very different ways, and trying to use the system from alcohol is not the way to go."
"One strategy would be to pass a law that says that if any marijuana is found in the body, the driver, or the drivers lawyer, would need to prove that marijuana was not the cause of the persons impaired judgement." Nelson said.
Some lawmakers at a recent congressional meeting, to discuss the issues of marijuana legalization, suggested that a driver found with any amount of THC in their system should be charged with DUI. That would mean anyone who smoked pot recreationally, or used medical marijuana, could not drive for at least a week.
As other states wrangle over the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, all eyes are on Washington and Colorado. But until the development of scientifically accurate testing, which appears to be years away, accident statistics will remain open to debate. There is no question that marijuana use affects motor skills and impairs judgement, but the real question is how much and for how long.
Anyone who is involved in a motor vehicle accident, especially where drugs or alcohol are suspected as the cause, needs to be represented by an experienced attorney. These cases are extremely difficult and only an attorney with experience in personal injury and DUI litigation is qualified to provide counsel. Contact Vititoe Law Group today for a free case evaluation.