Findings in a new study indicate that the legalization of marijuana in Oregon didn’t cause an increase in THC-related fatal car crashes.
According to a new study by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), legalizing recreational marijuana did not cause an increase in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-related intoxicated traffic fatalities.
“To this point, as a result of legalization, we haven’t seen a large spike or epidemic… of THC driving,” said T.J. Sheehey, official of the OLCC and author of the study.
Oregon voters approved a recreational marijuana measure in 2014, allowing adults aged 21 and older to legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana in public, or up to 8 ounces of homegrown marijuana at home. The law took effect on July 1, 2015, with retail sales beginning October 1, 2015, and so far the state has pulled in more in sales and tax revenue than originally estimated.
Many had thought that legal access to marijuana would increase the number of fatal traffic accidents, as it would lead to more impaired drivers on the road. The OLCC study, however, which examined the number of THC-related traffic fatalities and the tendency to drive after marijuana use, found that the number of THC-related fatalities rose by just three between 2004 and 2015, up from 13 to 16 incidents, respectively.
THC, the mind-altering compound found in marijuana that produces the “high” sensation, can temporarily impair motor coordination and reaction time. The National Institute on Drug Abuse claims that driving a vehicle with THC in the blood stream does increase the risk of accidents and the OLCC report cites that driving while intoxicated with THC causes motorists to drive below the speed limit.
Marijuana DUI laws vary state-by-state. While adult use states Colorado and Washington established marijuana blood concentration limits for drivers, in Oregon, police officers are given discretion to request a drug recognition expert to ask questions and take samples if they suspect a motorist is driving while intoxicated with marijuana. Unlike alcohol, which is metabolized within a couple of hours, THC is fat soluble and can stay in the body for weeks, making it nearly impossible to accurately test whether a driver has recently used marijuana with a blood or urine test. Scientists are working on developing a device to quickly test for the psychoactive compound.
The OLCC study did find that teenagers, while using alcohol at a higher rate than marijuana, are more willing to drive under the influence of marijuana than alcohol. The OLCC subsequently recommended a public education campaign focusing on understanding the risks of driving after marijuana use.
“The body of evidence that does exist indicates that while attitudes towards driving after marijuana use are considerably more relaxed than in the case of alcohol, the risk of crashes while driving under the influence of THC is lower than drunk driving,” concluded the report.
A separate study conducted last winter by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Health, found the frequency of traffic fatalities in Oregon to have actually dropped significantly since the state legalized marijuana for medical purposes in 1998. The study found the rate of traffic fatalities per 100,00 people in Oregon was 20.6 in 1985 and only 8.5 in 2014. The researchers hypothesized that people in Oregon were swapping out alcohol use for marijuana use.
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