Opponents of legalization often point to an increase in auto accidents in legalized states as a reason to not legalize (“Transportation leaders to Legislature: Hit the brakes on legal recreational marijuana,” Feb. 10). That’s very irresponsible if you don’t consider other factors. Is cannabis legalization contributing to an increase in auto accidents? Let’s look at some facts that the opponents often omit when they make their argument.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some of the legal states are experiencing huge increases in population. Common sense would tell you that when the population goes up, more vehicles are on the roads, which in turns increases the probability of accidents. Estimates from the Census Bureau show that Colorado’s population has seen a 14.5% increase from 2010 to 2019, the actual number being 729,540. Now, we know all those people don’t drive, but a large portion of them do. Washington has seen an increase of 13.2% from 2010 to 2019, the actual number being 890,353. In addition to those two states, Oregon has seen an increase of 10.1% from 2010 to 2019, the actual number being 386,663. That’s a lot of new-resident drivers on the roads in those states, and not all of them are cannabis consumers. In addition to the population explosion, those states have seen a significant increase in tourism, which adds even more vehicles on the road.
The 24th Annual High Report published by the Reason Foundation in August 2019 (which included data from 2016), showed some interesting facts. I will focus on Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, the only states to legalize before 2016.
• Almost one-third (31%) of the rural interstate mileage in poor condition is in just three states: Alaska, Colorado and Washington.
• In terms of lowest overall fatality rates, Washington ranks eighth; Colorado, 23rd; Oregon, 34th, and Alaska, 47th. Other than Alaska, 15 states have a higher overall fatality rate than Oregon does. To the date of this article, none of the states with a higher fatality rate than Oregon (other than Alaska) have legalized cannabis.
• Washington, Colorado and Alaska rank 46th, 47th and 48th, respectively, in terms of rural interstate pavement condition. In terms of urban interstate pavement condition, Alaska comes in at 19th; Colorado, 28th; and Washington, 38th.
Could the condition of the roads in these legal states be contributing to an increase in accident rates? Could it be opiate use, alcohol use, texting, eating cheeseburgers, applying makeup or yelling at the kids in the back seat? Many different factors cause accidents, but cannabis becomes a focus when it’s found in someone’s blood system, even though it may have been consumed days earlier.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety performed a study and found that collision claim frequencies in the states that have legalized have increased; however, those include all claims, even fender-benders in parking lots. We don’t argue that accidents are up, but we do argue why it’s happening and what type are occurring. A second study published in the American Journal of Public Health found no increase in vehicle crash fatalities in Colorado and Washington, relative to similar states after legalization.
Most often when people mention accidents, they don’t reference the types of accidents, the conditions of the roads in those states or other factors. Cannabis legalization could be indirectly related to an increase in auto accidents, but saying that people consuming cannabis and driving high is the cause is a talking point. In case you need to be reminded, detection does not equate to impairment — you can’t even compare alcohol and cannabis. Believe me, driving drunk is way different from driving high. Cannabis legalization is being used as a scapegoat to explain the increase.
Jeremy Sankey is the founder of Minnesota Veterans for Cannabis.