Testing Inconsistency Prevents Definitive Link
Could legal marijuana in Colorado be at the root of the spike in the state’s traffic deaths? Pot and anti-pot advocates have been wrestling over the possibility since even before the state legalized its recreational use in late 2012 and sales in 2014.
New analysis of state road death data, by The Denver Post, shows a strong, but not definitive, correlation between the two trends.
The number of drivers in fatal auto accidents in Colorado who tested positive for cannabis has more than doubled since pot legalization, according to state and national data analyzed by The Post. The research sources included coroner reports in addition to published fatality numbers.
The number of Colorado roadway deaths rose by more than 26 percent, from 481 deaths in 2013 to 608 in 2016, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, coroners in Front Range counties were finding higher levels of THC, the intoxicating chemical in marijuana, in the bodies of drivers in fatal accidents, The Post reports. Some drivers had levels five times the legal limit, and one had 22 times the allowed amount.
In 2016, all of the drivers who tested positive for pot after surviving fatal crashes had levels indicating they had used marijuana shortly before their tests, CDOT reported.
No Clear Link Between Pot and Fatality Trends
Colorado transportation and public safety officials, however, claim the increase in marijuana-related auto accident deaths cannot be definitively linked to legalized marijuana. That’s because test results, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, don’t tell whether drivers were high while driving. Trace amounts of THC, from use weeks before, can trigger positive results.
But even if it can’t be blamed with certainty, pot’s presence in fatal accidents is exploding.
The number of Colorado drivers involved in fatal crashes rose from 627 to 880, from 2013 to 2016, a 40 percent increase, NHTSA reported. From 2013 to 2015, the number of drivers who had been using alcohol increased from 129 to 151, a 17 percent increase. The 2016 results haven’t been published.
Marijuana cases, however, rose 145 percent between 2013 and 2016, from 47 to 115 drivers.
CDOT spokesman Sam Cole told The Post:
“We are discouraged by the rising numbers. We had awareness campaigns four months after legalization and thought we were getting out ahead of it.”
Lack of Statewide Standards Plagues Trend Analysis
Testing is inconsistent, the newspaper’s reporters found out. Colorado law doesn’t mandate testing deceased drivers for pot. Police may or may not seek pot tests for surviving drivers, especially if they’re already tested positive for illegal levels of alcohol.
Marijuana industry representatives point to inconsistencies in the data and to other pot-neutral studies.
Although the effects of alcohol and marijuana wear off in a few hours, marijuana traces stay in the blood for days or weeks, Taylor West of the National Cannabis Industry Association told The Post.
“So all those numbers really tell us is that, since legal adult-use sales began, a larger number of people are consuming cannabis and then, at some point … (are) driving a car,” he said.
Among The Post’s Other Findings:
- The number of fatal crashes in which one or more of the drivers tested positive for marijuana rose from about 10 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2016.
- Drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for pot but no other drugs or alcohol rose from 52 percent from 2014 to 69 percent in 2016.
- 35 years old: The average age of pot-positive drivers in fatal crashes.