Since Colorado voters legalised pot in 2012, prohibition supporters have warned that recreational marijuana will lead to a scourge of “drugged divers” on the state’s roads. They often point out that when the state legalized medical marijuana in 2001, there was a surge in drivers found to have smoked pot. They also point to studies showing that in other states that have legalized pot for medical purposes, we’ve seen an increase in the number of drivers testing positive for the drug who were involved in fatal car accidents. The anti-pot group SAM recently pointed out that even before the first legal pot store opened in Washington state, the number of drivers in that state testing positive for pot jumped by a third.
The problem with these criticisms is that we can test only for the presence of marijuana metabolites, not for inebriation. Metabolites can linger in the body for days after the drug’s effects wear off — sometimes even for weeks. Because we all metabolize drugs differently (and at different times and under different conditions), all that a positive test tells us is that the driver has smoked pot at some point in the past few days or weeks.
It makes sense that loosening restrictions on pot would result in a higher percentage of drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents having smoked the drug at some point over the past few days or weeks. You’d also expect to find that a higher percentage of churchgoers, good Samaritans and soup kitchen volunteers would have pot in their system. You’d expect a similar result among any large sampling of people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that marijuana caused or was even a contributing factor to accidents, traffic violations or fatalities.
This isn’t an argument that pot wasn’t a factor in at least some of those accidents, either. But that’s precisely the point. A post-accident test for marijuana metabolites doesn’t tell us much at all about whether pot contributed to the accident.
Since the new Colorado law took effect in January, the “drugged driver” panic has only intensified. I’ve already written about one dubious example, in which the Colorado Highway Patrol and some local and national media perpetuated a story that a driver was high on pot when he slammed into a couple of police cars parked on an interstate exit ramp. While the driver did have some pot in his system, his blood-alcohol level was off the charts and was far more likely the cause of the accident. In my colleague Marc Fisher’s recent dispatch from Colorado, law enforcement officials there and in bordering states warned that they’re seeing more drugged drivers. Congress recently held hearings on the matter, complete with dire predictions such as “We are going to have a lot more people stoned on the highway and there will be consequences,” from Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.). Some have called for a zero tolerance policy — if you’re driving with any trace of pot in your system, you’re guilty of a DWI. That would effectively ban anyone who smokes pot from driving for up to a couple of weeks after their last joint, including people who legitimately use the drug for medical reasons.
It seems to me that the best way to gauge the effect legalisation has had on the roadways is to look at what has happened on the roads since legalisation took effect. Here’s a month-by-month comparison of highway fatalities in Colorado through the first seven months of this year and last year. For a more thorough comparison, I’ve also included the highest fatality figures for each month since 2002, the lowest for each month since 2002 and the average for each month since 2002.
As you can see, roadway fatalities this year are down from last year, and down from the 13-year average. Of the seven months so far this year, five months saw a lower fatality figure this year than last, two months saw a slightly higher figure this year, and in one month the two figures were equal. If we add up the total fatalities from January through July, it looks like this:
Here, the “high” bar (pardon the pun) is what you get when you add the worst January since 2002 to the worst February, to the worst March, and so on. The “low” bar is the sum total of the safest January, February, etc., since 2002. What’s notable here is that the totals so far in 2014 are closer to the safest composite year since 2002 than to the average year since 2002. I should also add here that these are total fatalities. If we were to calculate these figures as a rate — say, miles driven per fatality — the drop would be starker, both for this year and since Colorado legalised medical marijuana in 2001. While the number of miles Americans drive annually has leveled off nationally since the mid-2000s, the number of total miles traveled continues to go up in Colorado. If we were to measure by rate, then, the state would be at lows unseen in decades.
The figures are similar in states that have legalised medical marijuana. While some studies have shown that the number of drivers involved in fatal collisions who test positive for marijuana has steadily increased as pot has become more available, other studies have shown that overall traffic fatalities in those states have dropped. Again, because the pot tests only measure for recent pot use, not inebriation, there’s nothing inconsistent about those results.
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Having been reclassified in 2009 from a Class C to a Class B drug, cannabis is now the most used illegal drug within the United Kingdom. The UK is also, however, the only country where Sativex – a prescribed drug that helps to combat muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis and contains some ingredients that are also found in cannabis - is licensed as a treatment
2/12 North Korea
Although many people believe the consumption of cannabis in North Korea to be legal, the official law regarding the drug has never been made entirely clear whilst under Kim Jong Un’s regime. However, it is said that the North Korean leader himself has openly said that he does not consider cannabis to be a drug and his regime doesn’t take any issue with the consumption or sale of the drug
MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images
In the Netherlands smoking cannabis is legal, given that it is smoked within the designated ‘smoking areas’ and you don’t possess more than 5 grams for personal use. It is also legal to sell the substance, but only in specified coffee shops
Although in some states of America cannabis has now been legalised, prior to the legalisation, police in the U.S. could make a marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds, according to US News and World Report. The country also used to spend around $3.6 billion a year enforcing marijuana law, the American Civil Liberties Union notes
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
Despite cannabis being officially illegal in Spain, the European hotspot has recently started to be branded, ‘the new Amsterdam’. This is because across Spain there are over 700 ‘Cannabis Clubs’ – these are considered legal venues to consume cannabis in because the consumption of the drug is in private, and not in public. These figures have risen dramatically in the last three years – in 2010 there were just 40 Cannabis Clubs in the whole of Spain. Recent figures also show that in Catalonia alone there are 165,000 registered members of cannabis clubs – this amounts to over 5 million euros (£4 million) in revenue each month
In December 2013, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill legalizing and regulating the production and sale of the drug. But the president has since postponed the legalization of cannabis until to 2015 and when it is made legal, it will be the authorities who will grow the cannabis that can be sold legally. Buyers must be 18 or older, residents of Uruguay, and must register with the authorities
Despite the fact that laws prohibiting the sale and misuse of cannabis exist and is considered a habit only entertained by lower-income groups, it is very rarely enforced. The occasional use of cannabis in community gatherings is broadly tolerated as a centuries old custom. The open use of cannabis by Sufis and Hindus as a means to induce euphoria has never been challenged by the state. Further, large tracts of cannabis grow unchecked in the wild
In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize the use of all drugs, and started treating drug users as sick people, instead of criminals. However, you can still be arrested or assigned mandatory rehab if you are caught several times in possession of drugs
9/12 Puerto Rico
Although the use of cannabis is currently illegal, it is said that Puerto Rico are in the process of decriminalising it
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
The US state became the first in the country to legalise marijuana in January 2014. In February 2015, President Obama recently said he expects to see more states "looking into" legalisation. However, it is illegally to grow more than six cannabis plants and to possess more than 28 grams of the drug
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis. If you are court in California with anything up to an ounce of cannabis, you will be fine $100, but you will not get a criminal record, nor will you have to appear in court
Cannabis is grown in the wild and has been used to treat conditions such as gout and malaria. But, officially the substance is illegal to consume, possess and sell
Of course, the continuing drop in roadway fatalities, in Colorado and elsewhere, is due to a variety of factors, such as better-built cars and trucks, improved safety features and better road engineering. These figures in and of themselves only indicate that the roads are getting safer; they don’t suggest that pot had anything to do with it. We’re also only seven months in. Maybe these figures will change. Finally, it’s also possible that if it weren’t for legal pot, the 2014 figures would be even lower. There’s no real way to know that. We can only look at the data available. But you can bet that if fatalities were up this year, prohibition supporters would be blaming it on legal marijuana. (Interestingly, though road fatalities have generally been falling in Colorado for a long time, 2013 actually saw a slight increase from 2012. So fatalities are down the year after legalisation, after having gone up the year before.)
That said, some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that better access to pot is making the roads safer, at least marginally. The theory is that people are substituting pot for alcohol, and pot causes less driver impairment than booze. I’d need to see more studies before I’d be ready to endorse that theory. For example, there’s also some research contradicting the theory that drinkers are ready to substitute pot for alcohol.
But the data are far more supportive of that than of the claims that stoned drivers are menacing Colorado’s roadways.
CLARIFICATION: I wrote that “we can test only for the presence of marijuana metabolites, not for inebriation.” That isn’t quite accurate. This is true of roadside tests. But a blood test taken at a hospitals can measure for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. That said, even here there are problems. Regular users can have still have remnant THC in their blood well after the effects have worn off. Regular users can also have levels above the legal limit and still drive perfectly well. In Colorado, a THC level of 5 nano grams or more brings a presumptive charge of driving under the influence. However, references to “marijuana-related” accidents in studies, by prohibitionists, and by law enforcement could refer to any measure or trace of the drug. So when officials and legalisation opponents talk about increases in these figures, it still isn’t clear what any of this means for road safety.
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