Colorado: Highway Fatalities Reach Near-Record Lows Since Marijuana Legalization
By Steve Elliott
The "stoned driving" laws that accompany recreational marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington were sold to us as being necessary for public safety; the specter of stoned drivers was presented as something dangerous and potentially deadly. Many weed-hating cops were quite happy to find there's still legal reason to arrest potheads. Reality, meanwhile, is telling another story, as highway fatalities in Colorado are nearing record lows since pot was legalized.
Marijuana opponents have darkly warned of a scourge of "high drivers," but the fact is, we can only test for the presence of marijuana metabolites, not for being actually high on cannabis, reports Radley Balko at The Washington Post. Because everyone metabolizes marijuana (and other substances) differently, all a positive test tells us for sure is that the driver has smoked pot at some point in the past few days or weeks. (This reporter once tested positive for THC metabolites 63 days after last using marijuana.)
With the loosening of laws on marijuana, you'd naturally expect to see more pot use in the general population, including a higher percentage of drivers involved in fatal auto accidents who had used pot in the the past few days or weeks. You would, Balko points out, expect a similar result in any large group of people -- but that doesn't mean that marijuana caused -- or was even a contributing factor -- to accidents, traffic violations or highway fatalities.
In other words, a post-accident test for marijuana metabolites tells us almost nothing about whether cannabis contributed to the accident.
Law enforcement officials in Colorado and Washington are warning that they're seeing more "drugged drivers," and clueless U.S. Congress critters like Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) have made dire predictions such as "We are going to have a lot more people stoned on the highway and there will be consequences." Of course, anybody who's been paying attention knows that there have been huge numbers of stoned drivers on American highways since at least the 1970s.
Some have even called for a zero tolerance policy, which means if you have any trace of pot in your system, you're automatically guilty of a DUI. That effectively bans most pot smokers from ever driving at all, including medical marijuana patients, many of whom are already over the 5 nanograms per milliliter limit in Washington and Colorado when they wake up in the morning, unimpaired.
A month-by-month comparison of highway fatalities in Colorado through the first segfen months of this year and last year shows that deaths are down from last year, and are down from the 13-year average, Balko reports. Of the seven months so far this year, five months saw lower fatalities than last year, two months saw a slightly higher figure this year, and one month was equal to last year.
If these numbers, Balko points out, were calculated as rates, such as in miles driven per highway fatality, Colorado would be at lows unseen in decades of record keeping. Highway fatality figures have also gone down in states which have legalized medical marijuana.
Some researchers have suggested that better access to cannabis is making the roads at least marginally safer. The theory is that people are substituting marijuana for alcohol, and are thus less impaired while driving.