Study: Medical Marijuana Approval Associated With Lower DUI Fatalities

As the legalization of marijuana – primarily for medicinal purposes – spreads throughout the country, there has been strong resistance by those who fear the potential for unintended consequences.
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For example, some have feared that it would lead to a proliferation of minors using the drug. Others have expressed concerns that it would be a gateway drug, leading to an increase in the use of harder drugs.

As these questions have swirled, our Los Angeles marijuana arrest lawyers know that we have begun to see an incremental amount of hard data emerging to provide answers. One of the recent – and more interesting – of these results is one that was provided by a collaborative research effort by the University of Colorado, the University of Oregon and Montana State University. The data, recently published in the Journal of Law and Economics, suggests that alcohol-related fatalities began to markedly decline in states soon after the implementation of medical marijuana laws.

Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death of Americans between the ages of 5 and 34. The researchers decided to analyze state-by-state data on traffic fatalities, as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in states that had recently passed medical marijuana legislation. They controlled for factors such as the overall national decline in traffic deaths and states that had taken other measures specifically to drive down their DUI death rates.

The pattern was immediately apparent: States with medical marijuana laws had noticeably lower DUI death rates. On average, DUI deaths fell by 8 to 11 percent during the first 12 months after such laws went into effect. After four years, the rate was down by 10 to 13 percent.

Researchers moved beyond establishing the correlation and became focused on answering the “why” aspect of it.

They were careful to note that driving while intoxicated by marijuana is by no means safe, as the drug does slow reaction times. However, it may be exponentially safer than alcohol.

One of the primary arguments against marijuana legalization has been that alcohol and cannabis are “complementary,” meaning that the higher use of one increase the use of another.

However, the study authors found the opposite.

They say that the drop is likely attributable to a phenomenon known as “substitution.” More people in these states are smoking marijuana versus drinking alcohol. Perhaps some people who before were ill were attempting to self-medicate with alcohol. Now, however, they have a pain management plan that is not only far more effective, it’s also closely monitored by a physician.

Their theory is backed by the fact that the passage of marijuana laws had a much less dramatic effect on non-DUI-related fatalities, versus DUI fatalities. The drop was most noticeable among young men between the ages of 20 and 40.

One of the reasons why marijuana may prove less dangerous than alcohol could be that consumption of the two often occurs in vastly different environments. Alcohol is consumed at bars, ball games, picnics, restaurants, concerts and at really any social gathering. But most often, those activities require a person to drive to get there – and then back home. Meanwhile, consumption of marijuana tends to be far less open, meaning those who smoke it tend to do so at a private residence, and then stay there.

The other possible explanation is that, frankly, drivers under the influence of marijuana are less likely as a whole to be involved in a crash as compared to drunk drivers. While numerous studies indicate that marijuana is just as bad for a person’s distance perception, hand-eye coordination and reaction time as alcohol, real-world results tend to unfold differently. While marijuana-influenced driving doubles one’s risk of a crash, alcohol consumption increases it ten-fold for drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher.

The primary study author calls the conclusion that it’s preferable for young adults to smoke marijuana versus drink alcohol “uncomfortable.” However, he said, “That’s where the logic takes us.”

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:
Do medical-marijuana laws save lives on the road? Aug. 11, 2013, By Chris Berdik, The Boston Globe
More Blog Entries:
Berkeley Fights Federal Prosecutors on Medical Marijuana Action, July 27, 2013, Los Angeles Marijuana Lawyer Blog