Cautionary Tale: How Colorado’s Pot Legalization Resulted in More Traffic Fatalities

Pot Legalization and Traffic FatalitiesIn 2017, the Denver Post published an article rhetorically asking their readers if there was a link between the rise in traffic fatalities and legal marijuana use. The article stated that since 2013, the number of motorists that died in vehicle crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana in their system had risen significantly to almost double. This number coincides with a report released by the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) that was recently updated April 2017. That report showed that nationwide, “drugs were present in 43% of fatally injured drivers with a known test result, [that occurred] more frequently than when alcohol was present.”

In recent years, Colorado is among several states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use including Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia. Additionally, thirteen other states decriminalized possessing marijuana in small amounts. A 2013 study found a correlation between medical marijuana laws and the increased presence of marijuana in fatally injured drivers.

After Colorado enacted the medical marijuana law in 2000, residents could cultivate and distribute marijuana for medical purposes without restrictions. Between 2013 and 2015, marijuana-related traffic fatalities occurring in Colorado increased 48% after the state legalized recreational marijuana. This sharply rising number is in direct contrast to all other traffic deaths in the state that had increased 11% during the same time.

Surveyors gathering data on marijuana use and driving reported that approximately 43.6% of motorists in Colorado had driven under the influence of marijuana in the previous year and “23.9% had driven within one hour of using marijuana at least five times in the past month.” Survey results also showed that nearly all Colorado regular marijuana users believe that “marijuana does not impair their driving, and some believed that marijuana improves their driving.” Many of these drivers admitted to driving “high on a regular basis” and believe it is “able to drive after using marijuana than after drinking alcohol.”

Many of the same drivers believe that they now have a tolerance against the effects of marijuana and have learned how to compensate for any side effects like “driving more slowly or by allowing greater roadways.” The study’s researchers found that the effects of marijuana on “cognitive performance was similar for both frequent and infrequent marijuana users.” Some marijuana users who had reported that they drove the vehicle within an hour after using marijuana over the last year “were less likely to believe that using marijuana increases crash risk and more likely to believe that it does not affect or decreases crash risk.”

The Executive Director of the Governor Highly Safety Administration Jonathan Atkins stated that “too many people operate under the false belief that marijuana and opiates do not impair their ability to drive, or even that these drugs make them safer drivers.” Their report showed that traces of marijuana THC can still be detected in an individual system weeks after their last use.

Colorado’s Marijuana Law

According to the report in the GSHA, many individuals who use marijuana in Colorado were “not aware that driving with a marijuana concentration above Colorado’s 5ng per se limit is a traffic offense.” Their belief coincided with Canadian motorists who thought that it is “less likely than a driver will be stopped and charged with a DUID [driving under the influence of drugs] then DUI.” Approximately one out of four believe that “is very likely that a driver impaired by cannabis would be stopped in charge, compared to two-thirds for alcohol.”

Colorado’s per se law allows motorists to operate their vehicle with small amounts of certain drugs unless the concentration exceeds set limits. Colorado’s per se THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) law is based on a zero-tolerance law by with a limit greater than zero, like an alcohol per se law where motorists are found to be legally drunk with a BAC of 0.08. However, this limit creates and mental problems with a THC limit that focuses more on impairment and less on the driver’s ability that might be impaired by concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol above the limit. Scientists have yet to provide evidence that shows there is a drug-related impairment threshold for marijuana use.

The Colorado Legislature built the laws on using chemical tests to determine if the driver is impaired by marijuana at a level higher than the set limit because it is shown that “blood test of the most accurate and most commonly used.” To enforce the law, law enforcement can request that the allegedly impaired driver provide a blood sample after being arrested for driving under the influence of drugs. However, many drivers refused, including 31% of arrestees in Colorado. Enforcing the law comes with substantial costs.

A blood sample test result is often expensive, costing state taxpayers $300 or more. Additionally, many lavatories are faced with ongoing backlogs that create long delays in providing test results to the court system. In some cases, prosecutors must move ahead with the case without presenting test result evidence that the driver was impaired by marijuana or another drug because of time constraints.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there were 196 fatalities (one-third of all traffic-related deaths) involving an impaired driver in 2016. The facts show that in 2016, approximately 17% of all driving under the influence arrests conducted by the Colorado State patrol involved marijuana use. Statistics revealed in a Colorado Department of Transportation survey in 2016 showed that “55% of marijuana users said they believed it was safe to drive under the influence of marijuana.”

Colorado’s Marijuana Education Program

Many Colorado agencies have come together to enact, enforce, prosecute and educate driving under the influence laws and have developed educational programs focused on the negative effects of drugged driving because most residents remain unaware or uninformed of what constitutes drug-impaired driving. A report released by the US Government That (GAO) revealed that “Public education more explicitly focused on the dangers of drugged driving is needed, particularly on impairment due to prescription and over-the-counter medications and marijuana.”

Colorado’s drugged driving program and message involved “Drive High, Get a DUI; Both Marijuana and Medications.” Nationally, citizen advocates against drunk driving have taught young drivers the dangers of DUID involving cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine – the recreational drug Ecstasy).

Colorado Department of Transportation

In early 2018, the Colorado Department of Transportation along with more than a dozen partners involving local law enforcement, universities, community nonprofits, and the marijuana industry initiated a “Joined the Cannabis Conversation” campaign to gather data on resident’s habits, behaviors and opinions concerning driving and marijuana. More than 11,000 citizens participated in the online survey that identified serious problems that needed to be addressed in the state. The survey revealed that:

  • The state must “establish a more scientifically-based method for determining a measuring marijuana impairment” that more reflects the complexity of using cannabis and how it affects different users.
  • Improve the methods that are currently used to test individuals suspected of driving “under the influence of marijuana.” Many of the survey responders voiced their strong opinions that medical and recreational marijuana use does not always compromise safety.
  • Create more public awareness that while using cannabis does not produce the same impairment results is alcohol, it should still be thought of “like alcohol when it comes to driving.”
  • Recognize that dispensaries can provide valuable insight on marijuana consumers and provide information that “should play a key role in educating customers about the laws and dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana.”
  • Develop safety campaigns that are educational, scientific, clinical and emotional.
  • Keep the communication lines open among consumers to ensure that there are changes in social norms involving marijuana use and driving.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) created the campaign to understand why some individuals continue to drive while under the influence of marijuana and what the public perceives “as the dangers of driving while marijuana-impaired. The DOT hopes to learn how to best convince individuals to never use marijuana and drive and formulate future changes in enforcing the law based on the norms and opinions of our people perceive “driving high from multiple perspectives.” The multiple-year statewide initiative hopes to look at the problem from every perspective to make the best decisions moving forward.

Law Enforcement Training

The CDOT website states that “Colorado law enforcement officers are trained in the detection of impairment of alcohol and drugs, and many are specially trained drug recognition experts (DRE).” Their training helps them detect the physical signs associated with driving impaired by recognizing signs of diminished reaction time, poor judgment, diminished motor skills and the misperception of distance and time. Colorado increased the number of drug recognition experts by up to 60% between 2012 and 2014.

Holding Marijuana Impaired Drivers Legally Accountable

Some of the studies published by numerous departments, agencies and advocacy groups show that individuals using marijuana tend to drive slower than other motorists compared to alcohol-impaired individuals who tend to display riskier behavior like driving fast or radically. There is not yet conclusive evidence that there is a significant risk to marijuana-impaired (cannabis intoxication) driving.

Now that recreational marijuana has become legal, there is a direct correlation in the increasing numbers of impaired driving accidents occurring on Colorado roadways, highways and streets. What these rising numbers mean in states yet to allow marijuana use for recreational purposes is not yet determined. However, anyone involved in a marijuana-related accident should seek legal guidance and help from a knowledgeable accident injury attorney familiar with state law involving drugged and drunk driving. Was your loved one injured or killed in an accident involving a marijuana-impaired driver?

If so, you are likely entitled to receive financial compensation to recover your damages. An attorney working on your behalf can ensure your rights are protected while you seek to hold those legally responsible for your loved one’s injuries financially accountable. We invite you to contact Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC (888) 424-5757 today to discuss your legal options and how to protect your rights under the law. Time is of the essence. All necessary paperwork should be filed in the proper county courthouse before the statute of limitations expires.

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