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Culture » Smoke Signals

Stoners and Driving

Research uncovers surprising data about traffic deaths and weed consumption

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The word "billion" comes up a lot when discussing cannabis use in the United States these days. For starters, Colorado surpassed $1 billion in cannabis sales in 2016. In 2017, the newly-legal recreational cannabis market in Los Angeles is expected to exceed $1 billion. That's right, the size of the cannabis market in L.A. alone will equal the entire state of Colorado.

Americans are smoking, vaping and eating billions and billions of dollars worth of cannabis. Meanwhile, one of the biggest fear-mongering strategies of prohibitionists is saying that all these stoned people will cause carnage on the roads. Fears have been compounded by the fact that there is no way to effectively test for cannabis-related impairment when driving.

Scientists are working hard on a breathalyzer-style test that police can administer to drivers suspected of being impaired, but for now, only the most obvious cases can be effectively prosecuted. But despite this golden opportunity for stoners to run amok, evidence is showing that cannabis-related impaired driving has not become a problem. In fact, traffic deaths have decreased in states where cannabis is legal.

A new study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University finds that traffic deaths dropped 11 percent in the 28 states that have legalized medical cannabis since 1996. The study was published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health and analyzed over 1.2 million deaths on America's roads between 1985 and 2014.

The overall pattern of significantly fewer fatalities in cannabis-legal states is mirrored by the pattern seen with the most enthusiastic cannabis users. The study found that traffic fatalities dropped 12 percent among 25- to 44-year olds in cannabis-legal states.

These findings, of course, contradict one of the main arguments offered against legalizing cannabis. And this isn't the only study to find that cannabis legalization is associated with fewer traffic deaths. A 2013 study looking at data from 19 states, published in "The Journal of Law and Economics," also found an 8- to 11-percent decrease in traffic deaths in the first year after legalization of medical cannabis.

"Public safety doesn't decrease with increased access to marijuana, rather it improves," says Benjamin Hansen, professor of economics at the University of Oregon and one of the authors of the 2013 study. These studies do not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between cannabis use and better driving, so the big questions on researchers' minds: Why traffic deaths should go down after cannabis legalization.

Both studies suggest that cannabis users may be more aware that they are impaired and thus they choose not to drive at all while high, while drunk people are often oblivious to the danger they pose behind the wheel. Another idea is that people who have easy access to cannabis decide to stay home and get stoned rather than driving to bars and get drunk.

For now, the why question remains unanswered. The only thing that is clear so far is that the argument that stoned people will create a hazard on the roads appears to be false.

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