Will the Legalization of Marijuana Lead to More Deadly Crashes?

The legalization of recreational marijuana may result in a spike in motor vehicle accidents caused by impaired drivers. Studies from Colorado and other states that have legalized recreational marijuana show that in the years immediately following legalization, motor vehicle accidents and fatalities increased. 

Legalization of Marijuana

Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states. Current studies have shown that states with legalized marijuana have an increased fatality rate of 2 deaths per billion miles traveled. It is estimated that if every state legalized marijuana for recreational usage, an additional 6,800 people would die in motor vehicle accidents each year.

In Washington, the number of accidents involving marijuana-impaired drivers have increased significantly. In 2012 prior to legalization, the percentage of drivers who tested positive for marijuana was just 8.8%. In 2013 when legalization occurred, that rose to 14%. As of 2017, it had skyrocketed to 21.4%. 

THC’s Impact on Driving Ability

The THC contained within marijuana products slows a driver’s reaction time, negatively impacts their hand/eye coordination, and impairs the driver’s ability to concentrate and judge distances. Nationwide, marijuana is the most common illicit substance cited in motor vehicle accidents.

Studies conducted in Europe showed that individuals with THC in their system were twice as likely to cause a fatal motor vehicle accident than drivers who did not use any drugs or alcohol. Often, marijuana-related accidents are accompanied by alcohol use which further reduces an individual’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

The Difficulty in Determining Whether THC Played a Role

Unlike alcohol, THC stays in the bloodstream for several days following consumption. This makes it difficult to determine whether a driver was impaired at the time of a fatal crash, or whether consumption occurred days before the accident. 

Further, states have different marijuana per se blood limits. in Colorado, Illinois, Montana, and Washington, the limits are 5 ng/ml. In Nevada and Ohio, the limit is 2 ng/ml, and in Pennsylvania, it’s just 1 ng/ml. Drivers who have positive tests beyond these limits can be arrested and charged as driving while impaired. 

It’s Not Worth the Risk

It is very difficult to determine the impact marijuana consumption will have on each individual. Ultimately, it is never safe to assume that “If I wait x amount of time, I’m safe to drive.” Drivers who wish to consume recreational marijuana products should always assume that even a little puff or hit can have deadly consequences.