Marijuana-Involved Traffic Death Report Shows Mixed Results For Colorado

By Paul Gaita 09/04/18

The number of fatal crashes in which the driver tested positive for cannabinoids rose from 75 in 2014 to 139 in 2017.

marijuana and car key

A new report on traffic deaths involving marijuana in Colorado has presented what seems like contradictory information: the number of fatal vehicular accidents involving Centennial State drivers who tested positive for marijuana rose in 2017, but the number of such fatalities in which the driver could be considered legally impaired by marijuana experienced an even greater decline.

The dichotomy between the results underscored, as Reason noted as one of the primary challenges of ascribing marijuana use with traffic fatalities: that THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis, can be detectable in the system for up to 30 days, depending on a number of factors, so drivers who test positive at the time of a crash may not be legally impaired.

The CDOT study essentially summed up the conundrum by noting, "The presence of a cannabinoid does not necessarily indicate recent use of marijuana or impairment."

According to the CDOT report, the number of fatal crashes in which the driver tested positive for cannabinoids rose from 75 in 2014—when legal recreational sales began in Colorado—to 139 in 2017.

However, the number of fatalities in which the active THC level in the driver's blood concentration could be considered legally impaired—which by state law is five nanograms per milliliter or more—dropped sharply during the same time frame, from 19 "cannabis-involved fatalities" in 2014 and 2015, which rose to 52 in 2016 before dropping again to 35 in 2017.

CDOT spokesperson Sam Cole said that the department regards the number of traffic deaths in which the driver was legally impaired to be the most accurate means of measuring how the drug is impacting road safety in Colorado. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted, that would indicate that marijuana-related deaths as a whole were on the decline.

And while Cole reiterated the study's assertion that the presence of THC does not necessarily indicate impairment, he told the Denver Westword, "Marijuana and driving is still a huge problem in Colorado. About 10% of our fatalities involve a driver who was at or above the legal limit for active THC, and we need to get that number way down. Any fatality above zero is one fatality too many."

Henny Lasley, co-founder of Smart Colorado, a non-profit that formed after the passage of Colorado's recreational marijuana law, essentially echoed statements by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which noted, "The science of impairment is lacking."

What concerned Lasley in the report was an increase in the number of traffic fatalities involving drivers with more than one substance in their systems; drivers that tested positive for cannabis, alcohol and any other drug tripled from eight in 2016 to 25 in 2017.

"The combination is very concerning," she said.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.