Fatal auto accidents related to marijuana use have tripled in 10 years, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The trend is disturbing to traffic safety officials and others who are weighing the impact of laws that decriminalize pot or allow for the medical use of marijuana.
As the use of marijuana increases, so do accidents caused by drivers under the influence. In 2012, 10.3 million adolescents and adults reported driving under the influence of illegal drugs, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. For many, the drug involved was marijuana.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that driving under the influence of any psychoactive is very risky and lists marijuana as the second-most prevalent substance detected among impaired vehicle operators, drivers who cause fatal accidents, and auto collision victims.
As it stands, 20 states allow chronically ill individuals to access and use cannabis in some form. Colorado and Washington recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana, though it’s still illegal under federal law. Between 2006 and 2012, 183 traffic fatalities in Colorado were attributed to marijuana use.
The recent study, conducted by researchers at Columbia University, assessed trends in alcohol and other drugs detected in drivers who were killed in crashes in six states from 1999 to 2010. They found that about 40% of drivers tested positive for alcohol in each year of the study, while fatal crashes related to drug use rose.
In 2010, 28% of fatal crashes were related to drug use, up from 16% in 1999. Marijuana was the most common drug, accounting for 12% of fatal crashes in 2010, up from 4% in 1999.
According to the researchers, one out of every nine drivers involved in fatal traffic wrecks tests positive for marijuana. However, testing positive for pot does not necessarily mean an individual was drug-impaired at the time of the auto accident.
That is because tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the psychoactive compound that makes marijuana users feel high) can be detected in a driver’s bloodstream or urine for longer than one week after using marijuana.
A driver who is impaired by drugs or alcohol and causes injuries to others can be held accountable for the harm they cause.