Fatal Crashes in Colorado Linked to Pot Up Sharply, New Data Show

Marijuana and Stoned Driving

A new government-funded study of Colorado’s experience with marijuana legalization has revealed some startling truths. In the three years since marijuana became commercially available, traffic fatalities in Colorado linked to consumption of the drug have increased substantially. In addition, the number of adolescents and college-age adults who have used marijuana products in the previous month has risen by a significant percentage.

The Rocky Mountain High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) office, a subsidiary of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, recently published a comprehensive report called “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” It was this study that revealed the disturbing statistics about marijuana’s increasing popularity among underage youth, along with its apparent connection to a high number of automobile fatalities.

The Rocky Mountain HIDTA Study: A Closer Look

In the first three years of recreational marijuana legalization (2013-2015), the number of fatal “marijuana-related” car accidents jumped by 48% from the previous three-year period. The phrase “marijuana-related” in this instance refers to drivers involved in automobile crashes who tested positive for the drug in post-accident toxicology reports.

As the Rocky Mountain HIDTA researchers note, testing positive for marijuana does not necessarily mean a motor vehicle operator was intoxicated or impaired. Traces of marijuana may stay in the bloodstream for several days after initial consumption, meaning drivers could be perfectly sober yet still register positive for marijuana use if tested immediately after an accident.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to conclude that a good portion of these drivers were, in fact, legally impaired at the time of their accidents. A 2015 report from the Colorado State Patrol stated that 77% of those arrested and charged with “driving under the influence of drugs” (DUID) during that year had consumed marijuana exclusively, or as part of a larger “drug stew.”

And there is little doubt marijuana use will impair a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. As revealed in a meta-study published in the October 2011 edition of the journal Epidemiologic Reviews, the existing research literature demonstrates a clear connection between marijuana use and an increased risk for automobile accidents. The data showed that drivers who’d used the drug within three hours of getting behind the wheel were twice as likely to be involved in a car crash than those who hadn’t been using the drug — and the higher the concentration of marijuana in the bloodstream, the greater the risk.

Not surprisingly, marijuana use among every demographic group in Colorado, including teens, college-age youth and adults, has increased since recreational marijuana was legalized. Colorado adolescents had the highest rate of previous-month usage of marijuana of any state in the country, and that rate rose by 74% between 2010 and 2014. The rate of previous-month usage among young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 jumped by 62% during that time period, while the numbers increased by a remarkable 104% among adults.

These statistics certainly explain why fatal marijuana-related traffic accidents have been on the upswing in Colorado due to drugged driving. Significantly, the number of Coloradans who lost their lives in automobile crashes, regardless of the cause, was more than 20% higher in 2015 than 2011, which makes it difficult to dismiss the marijuana-unsafe driving connection as statistical noise.

It is also notable that emergency room visits related to marijuana consumption have nearly doubled in the state since 2011, which contradicts the common assertion that marijuana is a benign substance with relatively mild effects on the body. When used to excess, marijuana is a dangerous, mind-altering drug.

Effects of Marijuana Legalization as a Public Health Priority

For some people, the general idea of marijuana legalization appears to have merit. In Colorado it has led to more jobs and economic growth, increased tax revenues, lower costs for policing, prosecuting and incarcerating and a boost in profits from tourism. But there are negative aspects that inevitably accompany any form of drug legalization, and Colorado is not immune.

When the state’s voters decided to legalize recreational marijuana, it was hoped that use among underage youth would not rise much, since the drug is still illegal and not available for legal sale to members of this group. It was also hoped rates of driving under the influence of marijuana would not increase, as most assumed adults would be responsible enough in their usage to prevent that from happening.

Unfortunately, each of these hopes appears to have been in vain. The legal status of marijuana in Colorado is not going to change, but public policymakers, educators and interested nonprofit groups do have a responsibility to address these developments and offer solutions that have a chance to work.

Good models can perhaps be found by examining the public campaigns against youth alcohol abuse and drunk driving. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), both binge drinking and alcohol use in general among youth have dropped by about one-fourth since 2002. Meanwhile, the rate of fatalities traceable to drunk driving has plummeted by an astounding two-thirds over the last three decades, as the social stigma attached to drunk driving has grown stronger over time.

The problems discovered in the new Office of National Drug Control Policy study are amenable to solution. But first their existence must be acknowledged and treated as serious public health issues worthy of attention.

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