Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use and sale marijuana (cannabis) during November 2012.  Oregon followed in 2015. In addition, 29 states – including Washington, D.C.— legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. About half of the United States now has legal access to cannabis. Does legal access to marijuana mean an increase in the number individuals driving under the influence- thus an increase in the number of DUI-related car accidents?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in 2014, there were 7,000 new marijuana users per day. Second to alcohol, marijuana is the substance most often linked to impaired driving. Alcohol and marijuana impair the brain by interfering with the ability to function properly. This could slow down the driver’s reaction and result in an auto accident.

The CDC advises that there is no clear evidence that marijuana use can increase the risk of an auto accident. This is because:

  • There is no accurate roadside test for drug levels
  • Marijuana can remain in a person’s system for days or weeks, depending on use
  • Drivers often have alcohol in their system in addition to marijuana which makes it difficult to tell which substance contributed to the accident
  • Drivers are not always tested for drug use after a crash, especially if their blood alcohol level is over the limit

While there is no clear evidence to show that marijuana use can cause an auto accident, a June 2017 Washington Post article reported on a study that found a correlation between the legalization of marijuana and an increase in car accidents.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety analyzed car accident claims between January 2012 and October 2016 in Colorado, Washington and Oregon. The researchers found that car accident claim frequencies increased three percent in states with legalized marijuana.

The study focused on recreational marijuana usage, not medical. But, medical marijuana legalization makes it easier for people to obtain the drug, and may increase the number of users driving under the influence, even if within the legal limit. Colorado Department of Transportation suggests that any amount of marijuana could put a driver at risk for impairment. If a substance impairs ability to operate a motor vehicle it is illegal for the patient to drive, even if that substance is prescribed or legally acquired.

Whether it’s legal or illegal, recreational or medical, marijuana use is increasing. This leads to more users driving with the drug in their system. The CDC reported that 13 percent of nighttime and weekend drivers have marijuana in their system in 2015 – this is a 9% increase from 2007. Coincidentally, the number of car accidents per year also increased.  According to The New York Times, 42,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2016. This was the first time that car accident deaths reached 40,000 in a single year since 2007. As more states legalize marijuana and make it more accessible, more drivers will be on the road with it in their system. Will this further increase the number of car accident injuries and deaths nationwide?

Posted by Legal Lookout Editor