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Driving And Marijuana: A Tale Of Two Studies

This week, two studies were released examining the effects of driving fatalities in states that have legalized marijuana. The reports presented two wildly different conclusions. What’s going on here? Is cannabis killing people on the the road or isn’t it?

First, here’s some friendly advice: If you’ve been consuming marijuana and feel even slightly impaired, give your keys to a friend or simply chill for another hour or so and see how you feel. Seriously, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Now that we’ve got the public service announcement out of the way, let’s take a look at this week’s confusing headlines.

On Thursday, an analysis conducted by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) claimed:

“Legalizing recreational marijuana use in Colorado, Oregon and Washington has resulted in collision claim frequencies that are about 3 percent higher overall than would have been expected without legalization.”

The news created a bit of a buzz as media outlets were quick to tease the results. Buried in the reporting was this key caveat: “Researchers haven’t been able to definitively connect marijuana use with more frequent real-world crashes. Some studies have found that using the drug could more than double crash risk, while others, including a large-scale federal case-control study, have failed to find a link between marijuana use and crashes.”

Also on Thursday, another study — this one from the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) — offered up an entirely different conclusion:

“Three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”

So, what should you make of this discrepancy? The best course of action is to take both reports with a grain of salt — and refer back to the public service announcement above and stay off the road if impaired.

And also take a look at this deep-dive report of the issue published by NORML. Yes, NORML is a pro-marijuana legalization group, but just follow the research provided.

“These conclusions ought to be reassuring to lawmakers and those in the public who have concerns that regulating adult marijuana use may inadvertently jeopardize public safety”, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. “These results indicate that such fears have not come to fruition, and that such concerns ought not to unduly influence legislators or voters in other jurisdictions that are considering legalizing cannabis.”

Don’t believe NORML? How about the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)? According to the federally funded agency: “Although we know marijuana negatively affects a number of skills needed for safe driving, and some studies have shown an association between marijuana use and car crashes, it is unclear whether marijuana use actually increases the risk of car crashes.”

Here is the takeaway after all the eye-catching headlines: What we do know is that road safety has remained stable in states that have legalized marijuana. Data from Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska (the first 4 states to legalize marijuana) show that traffic fatality rates have remained statistically unchanged post-legalization.

Clearly, more research would help. When California voters passed Proposition 64: the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in November 2016, they also voted to dedicate marijuana tax revenues to researching how to define and measure marijuana impairment in drivers.

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