Medical marijuana offers a host of health benefits, but states where legal weed is available for a select list of ailments are also registering a drop in another threat to public safety: traffic deaths.
A November study from the American Journal of Public Health tracked traffic deaths from 1985 to 2014 and found that in most states that allowed medical marijuana, the number of fatalities dropped.
“On average, MML states had lower traffic fatality rates than non-MML states. Medical marijuana laws were associated with immediate reductions in traffic fatalities in those aged 15 to 24 and 25 to 44 years, and with additional yearly gradual reductions in those aged 25 to 44 years. However, state-specific results showed that only 7 states experienced post-MML reductions. Dispensaries were also associated with traffic fatality reductions in those aged 25 to 44 years.”
Still, the study’s authors don’t claim that consumption of marijuana itself, for medical or recreational purposes, is what is bringing down deaths on the road. Correlation between weed legalization and safer highways doesn’t, of course, mean that sparking up makes people better drivers.
Alternatively, the study’s authors suggest that more law enforcement on the streets post-legalization could be a factor. They also don’t discount the possibility that legal weed keeps people from drinking or at least makes them more likely to stay home while doing so. Those high on marijuana, medical or otherwise, also might be more aware of their altered state than their drunken counterparts.
Some states, such as California and New Mexico, also saw a slight increase following the drop, but still, the number of deaths on the road did not rise back to pre-medical marijuana levels. California and New Mexico, lowering their rates by 17 and 16 percent respectively, had also seen more significant changes than the 11 percent average noted elsewhere in the study.
A separate study would have to be carried to find out how states with legal recreational weed — California, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, Alaska, Washington D.C., Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — have responded at the wheel to their changes in marijuana prohibition laws.
Colorado saw a substantial 10 percent increase in fatal traffic accidents in 2015, and according to the latest numbers from the Colorado Department of Transport, that number was even higher in 2016. Both totals were the highest in the state since 2008. Authorities who spoke to the Denver Post last year did not, however, name legal marijuana as one of their primary concerns in curbing these deaths. CDOT executive director Shailen Bhatt instead pointed to general driving safety habits and an uptick in the economy that allowed people to spend more on gas.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic. We know that we need to be doing a lot of education with folks around not using their phones. Just like we needed time to develop alcohol strategies for education, there is some time that is needed to understand the role of technology and distracted driving.”
One commonly cited concern of those against the legalization of marijuana, medical or recreational, is that it is extremely difficult to accurately test for impaired driving. Those who do not smoke frequently may be able to pass a test while still feeling the effects of the drug, while habitual weed users could fail even days after their last joint, Columbia University neurobiologist Margaret Haney told NPR.
“It’s really difficult to document drugged driving in a relevant way… [because of] the simple fact that THC is fat soluble. That makes it absorbed in a very different way and much more difficult to relate behavior to, say, [blood] levels of THC or develop a breathalyzer.”
Whether it’s legal recreational weed or therapeutic medical marijuana, the end of prohibition’s effects will still require several more years of analysis for finite conclusions on topics like traffic fatalities.
[Featured Image by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images]