Will Legal Weed Increase Traffic Fatalities?

Matthew McConaughey Fast Times high driving weed legal

The Associated Press yesterday drew a thin, squiggly line between legalized marijuana use and traffic deaths, wondering whether, as legalization and decriminalization make their way across the country, drug-related traffic deaths will increase. The author cites the case of New York teen Joseph Beer, who in 2012, after smoking weed, crashed a Subaru Impreza into a tree at more than 100 mph, killing four of his friends. Beer plead guilty to aggravated vehicular manslaughter, and last week was sentenced to five to fifteen years in prison.

In July of this year, New York legalized medical marijuana use, but restricted its prescription use to a narrow set of rare diseases and prohibited its method of consumption—it cannot be smoked, only vaporized or ingested in oil or edible form. This is a far, far cry from the decriminalized recreational use of Washington State and Colorado, but already the wider availability of marijuana is raising concerns about concerns to come.

It’s certainly fair to ask what effect legalized weed, medicinal or otherwise, may have on the safety of the nation’s roads, especially if full decriminalization or legalization is on the horizon in New York. (If not Cuomo’s horizon, then maybe another gubernatorial hopeful’s? There’s gotta be a “2 Damn High” joke in there somewhere.) The bottom line seems to be, predictably, that impaired driving is dangerous, whether it’s alcohol, marijuana, or any other substance, and driving under the influence of marijuana is already legal in the U.S., though precise levels of impairment can be difficult to measure, and vary from state to state.

Beer’s case stands out, but compared to the more than ten thousand drunk driving–related fatalities across the country in 2012, reefer madness is a difficult case to make. A 2011 study actually found a decrease in traffic deaths in Colorado following its legalization of recreational marijuana use. According to Dr. Mehmet Sofuoglu, who testified at Beer’s trial, studies of high driving are “highly inconclusive.” According to the AP report, “Some studies show a two- or three-fold increase, while others show none, [Sofuoglu] said. Some studies even showed less risk if someone was marijuana-positive, he testified.”

This last statement is the sort of thing many habitual pot smokers may take away without a grain of salt. Indeed, I knew someone who claimed to be a better driver under the influence of marijuana. He was probably wrong, but even if he wasn’t, his self-assessment and thus-far victimless high driving does not make a case for or against the practice: Impairment is impairment, and comparing two different sorts runs the risk of determining one as the “safer” option. As hard science enters into the hot-boxed dorm rooms of common perception, the air is beginning to clear, changing understanding on both sides of the issue. Reefer madness is certainly overstated, but so, too, may be reefer competence. Whatever the fate of recreational marijuana in New York, we should be wary of both myths.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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