Since Legalizing Marijuana, Colorado's Highway Fatalities Are Down

| by Jared Keever

The number of highway fatalities in Colorado is down since the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. 

That’s the assertion of Radley Balko, who just wrote a column for The Washington Post that pokes holes in many of the claims anti-legalization groups make about drug-impaired driving. 

Balko argues that while many groups, and even members of the media, like to play up the role pot played in any given accident, it is actually hard to determine if the drug caused the crash or not.

He cites one example in which The Denver Post reported in January that a stoned driver slammed into two police cars sitting on an exit ramp. Nowhere in the article does it mention the word alcohol or that the driver was drunk. But Balko reported in June in his Washington Post column that, according to court records, the driver actually had a blood-alcohol level of .268, over three times the legal limit.

The problem with blaming marijuana, Balko argues, is that roadside tests for the drug can only test for metabolites of marijuana, meaning a person can test positive even weeks after using. While tests conducted at hospitals are more accurate, it is still unclear if they can determine that a person was impaired at the time of the crash. 

Data on drug test results after crashes only indicate that the state has seen an increase of drug use among a sampling of the population. That is to be expected after a drug is legalized, Balko writes.

“You’d also expect to find that a higher percentage of churchgoers, good Samaritans and soup kitchen volunteers would have pot in their system,” he claims. “You’d expect a similar result among any large sampling of people. This doesn’t necessarily mean that marijuana caused or was even a contributing factor to accidents, traffic violations or fatalities.”

Furthermore, the state has actually seen a drop in traffic fatalities since the drug became legal. 

He cites data that show, “roadway fatalities this year are down from last year, and down from the 13-year average.” 

“Of the seven months so far this year, five months saw a lower fatality figure this year than last, two months saw a slightly higher figure this year, and in one month the two figures were equal,” he adds.

But Balko does not argue that marijuana deserves the credit for that decline.

“Of course, the continuing drop in roadway fatalities, in Colorado and elsewhere, is due to a variety of factors, such as better-built cars and trucks, improved safety features and better road engineering,” he writes. “These figures in and of themselves only indicate that the roads are getting safer; they don’t suggest that pot had anything to do with it.”

Just as the numbers that show increased marijuana use among drivers involved in crashes don’t prove the drug was to blame. 

In the end, Balko only asks readers to think critically when looking at the numbers and reading reports about drug use in states that have legalized marijuana. 

“Maybe these figures will change. … it’s also possible that if it weren’t for legal pot, the 2014 figures would be even lower,” he writes. “There’s no real way to know that. We can only look at the data available. But you can bet that if fatalities were up this year, prohibition supporters would be blaming it on legal marijuana.”

Sources: The Washington Post (August), The Denver Post, The Washington Post (June)

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