Marijuana Traffic Deaths

Chart appearing in Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area’s recent report.

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a program of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, has issued a report about marijuana use in Colorado. HIDTA asks people to read the report and then decide whether they think marijuana is good or bad for people, Jennifer Brice wrote for CBS Denver 4.

The 180-page report, “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact, Volume 4” is based on data from dozens of studies, including national drug usage studies, highway transportation statistics, and police investigations. Its mission is to report on the impact of Colorado’s legalization of medicinal and recreational use of marijuana.

Increasing Marijuana-Related Traffic Deaths

The report groups the information into what it calls three different eras in the state’s legalization history:

  • Medical marijuana pre-commercialization (2006-2008)
  • Medical marijuana commercialization and expansion (2009 to present)
  • Recreational marijuana (2013 to present).

The report notes that Colorado traffic deaths related to marijuana use rose 48 percent on average, 2013-15, since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. The number was compared to the three-year average before recreational use was legalized, 2010-12. Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 62 percent, from 71 to 115 people, after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2013.

Marijuana Screening Inconsistent

In 2009, 10 percent of traffic deaths in Colorado involved operators who tested positive for marijuana (an operator is defined as anyone in control of their own movements, such as a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist). By 2015, that number had more than doubled to 21 percent. The report says that since 2013, there has been a 67 percent increase in operators who tested positive for marijuana being involved in a fatal traffic accident.

However, in 2015 (consistent with the past), only 49 percent of operators involved in traffic deaths were tested for drug impairment, and among those, approximately 1 in 4 tested positive for marijuana.

In another statistic, there was a 29 percent increase in the three-year average (2013-2015) in the number of toxicology screens positive for marijuana (primarily DUID) since Colorado legalized recreational use, as compared to the three-year average (2010-2012) before legalization. The 2015 data shows that 77 percent (665) of the 862 DUIDs involved marijuana, and 40 percent (347) involved only marijuana.

The year 2015 saw 115 marijuana-related traffic deaths. Of those, 75 were drivers, 20 were passengers, 17 were pedestrians, and 3 were bicyclists. And also in that year, one out of three of the operators who tested positive for marijuana had only marijuana in their system. From 2013-2015, there was an 87 percent increase in drivers who tested positive for marijuana who were involved in fatal crashes.

Fewer DUI Prosecutions

Colorado State Patrol “made” 1,000 fewer DUI and DUID cases in 2015 than they did in 2014. But marijuana comprised 15 percent of the total cases in 2015, as compared with only 12 percent of the total in 2014.

The report quotes Jake Nelson, the director of traffic safety advocacy and research at the American Automobile Association (AAA):

Marijuana use in driving is a growing, contributing factor to fatal crashes. It’s a highway safety problem that we should all be concerned about.

Marijuana and Alcohol’s Impacts on Driving

Here is the report’s overview of the major issues regarding the impact of alcohol and marijuana on driving:

  • Because THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana) concentrates in fatty tissue (which includes the brain), it is not as evenly distributed throughout the body as alcohol. Thus, a person’s blood level may not reflect central nervous system effects, including the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
  • Once a person is impaired from marijuana, that impairment continues for two to four hours after intake (at least in smoking research), even when THC blood levels drop rapidly to low levels. After a person has orally consumed marijuana, the absorption is slower, with much later and lower peak blood concentrations, but the impairment is still substantial.