Fatal Accidents Involving Marijuana Double in Washington After Legalization

The number of deadly car accidents involving marijuana doubled in the state of Washington after the drug was legalized, according to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

A separate AAA study found that legal limits for driving under the influence of marijuana were not supported by evidence and could lead to the wrongful conviction of some drivers.

“Marijuana can affect driver safety by impairing vehicle control and judgment,” AAA President and CEO Marshall Doney said in a press release. “States need consistent, strong and fair enforcement measures to ensure that the increased use of marijuana does not impact road safety.”

Washington legalized the recreational possession and consumption of marijuana in December of 2012. However, state law forbids driving under the influence of weed. Any person under the influence of marijuana or who has a THC concentration of 5.00 ng/mL or higher can be arrested for a DUI in the state.

The researchers discovered that:

  • One out of every six drivers involved in a fatal crash in 2014 had recently consumed marijuana.
  • The percentage of drivers involved in deadly accidents who recently consumed marijuana increased from 8.3 to 17 percent from 2013 to 2014.
  • The proportion of drivers testing positive for THC was stable in the years before marijuana was legalized. It began increasing significantly nine months after it Washington legalized it.

Three additional states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana consumption. At least 20 states are considering legalization, making the issue of traffic safety increasingly important.

“The significant increase in fatal crashes involving marijuana is alarming,” Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a press release. “Washington serves as an eye-opening case study for what other states may experience with road safety after legalizing the drug.”

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Legal Limits for Marijuana Consumption

States have not implemented a standard tool for enforcing drug-impaired driving. While the .08 BAC limit for driving under the influence of alcohol is common across the U.S., states where marijuana is legal vary in their approach to DUI enforcement.

Some states, including Washington, use per se limits, which specify the maximum concentration of THC that drivers can have in their blood. Colorado, Washington and Montana each use the 5.00 ng/mL threshold.

“There is understandably a strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment, in the same manner as we do with alcohol,” Doney said. “In the case of marijuana, this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research. It’s simply not possible today to determine whether a driver is impaired based solely on the amount of the drug in their body.”

AAA researchers claim the legal limits are problematic because:

  • There is no scientific evidence that proves drivers become impaired at a specific THC level.
  • THC levels can drop significantly between the time a driver is pulled over and the time a blood sample is collected.
  • Marijuana affects people differently.

With alcohol, the risk of being involved in a car accident significantly increases when the driver is above a .08 BAC, according to numerous studies. No similar standard exists for THC. Drunkenness is associated with alcohol accumulation in the blood stream, but marijuana impairment occurs when THC accumulates in brain tissue.

Researchers are working to develop more reliable tests for marijuana impairment, but medical research involving the drug is difficult to begin because it is classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I controlled substance.

“We are hamstrung by the fact that you can’t do legitimate scientific research unless you have a Schedule 1 license,” Sean O’Connor, faculty director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project at the University of Washington, told the New York Times.

The verdict is still out on how marijuana has impacted public safety in other states. A New England Journal of Medicine study revealed that growing numbers of Colorado tourists have been hospitalized for marijuana-related ailments.

An early state-sponsored report from Colorado found marijuana consumption increased among adults, DUI arrests involving the drug increased and hospitalizations involving the drug increased.

Medical Disclaimer: DrugRehab.com aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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