Traffic Fatalities in Colorado Near-Historic Lows Post Legalization

By Victoria Kim 08/08/14

The hysteria over driving stoned is proving to be more and more unfounded.

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Opponents of legal marijuana often cite the danger of drugged drivers and warned of a “scourge” of stoned motorists if legal marijuana became available. Now that there are 23 medical marijuana states and two others that have legalized pot for recreational use, it is becoming easier to know if these claims are true or not.

Washington Post reporter Radley Balko looked to data from Colorado, where voters legalized marijuana in 2012. In a recently published blog for The Watch, Balko provided a month-by-month comparison of highway fatalities in Colorado through the first seven months of 2014 and 2013.

The graph showed that highway fatalities in 2014 are down from last year, and of the seven months that have passed so far this year, five of them saw a lower fatality figure this year than in 2013. Two months saw a slightly higher fatality figure this year. In addition, Balko noted that if these figures were calculated as a rate, e.g. miles driven per fatality, “the drop would be starker…the state would be at lows unseen in decades.”

Opponents to legalization have pointed to studies showing that in states where medical marijuana is legal, there has been an increase in the number of drivers involved in fatal car accidents testing positive for marijuana. Balko stated that the trouble with testing for pot in drivers has been that authorities are able to test only for the presence of marijuana metabolites, but not for inebriation. A post-accident test for marijuana metabolites would provide little information about whether or not marijuana contributed to the accident, since metabolites can linger in the body for days or even weeks after the drug’s effects wear off.

Since everyone metabolizes drugs differently, a positive test only whether or not the driver smoked marijuana at some point in the past couple of days or weeks.

However, a blood test taken at a hospital can measure for THC, marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient. But this test remains problematic, since regular users can still test positive for remnant THC in their blood well after the effects have worn off.

Thus far, the data has shown that traffic fatalities in Colorado are at historic lows. However, the data is only representative of seven months after the start of the country’s first ever legal marijuana experiment, and that’s not including Washington. Balko has been hesitant to make sweeping statements about whether legal marijuana contributed to or had little to do with the roads becoming safer.

“We can only look at the data available,” Balko wrote. “But you can bet that if fatalities were up this year, prohibition supporters would be blaming it on marijuana.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr