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New Study Finds Traffic Fatalities Decline with Medical Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #711)
Politics & Advocacy

A study released this week has found legalizing medical marijuana has resulted in a nearly 9% decline in traffic deaths and a 5% reduction in beer sales in states that allow it. The study is the first ever to examine the relationship between medical marijuana and traffic fatalities.

Reduces nausea, spasms -- and traffic accidents? (image courtesy Laurie Avocado via
The study, Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption, could be an important intervention in ongoing debates over medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, reformers said. Opponents of loosened marijuana laws use concerns over drugged driving and possible traffic fatalities as one of their most effective arguments against liberalization, and this study could lessen the effectiveness of that argument.

"Our research suggests that the legalization of medical marijuana reduces traffic fatalities through reducing alcohol consumption by young adults," said Daniel Rees, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, who coauthored the study with D. Mark Anderson, assistant professor of economics at Montana State University.

The economists analyzed traffic fatalities nationwide, including 13 states that legalized medical marijuana between 1990 and 2009. In those states, they found evidence that alcohol consumption by 20-29-year-olds went down, resulting in fewer deaths on the road. The researchers collected data from a variety of sources including the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

"We were astounded by how little is known about the effects of legalizing medical marijuana," Rees said. "We looked into traffic fatalities because there is good data, and the data allow us to test whether alcohol was a factor."

Anderson noted that traffic deaths are significant from a policy standpoint. "Traffic fatalities are an important outcome from a policy perspective because they represent the leading cause of death among Americans ages five to 34," he said.

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, alcohol-impaired driving accounted for fully one-third of the 10,839 traffic fatalities in 2009. If the 9% reduction in fatalities reported by the researchers in medical marijuana states were applied nationwide, easy availability of marijuana could result in about 1,000 fewer traffic deaths a year.

Anderson and Rees noted that simulator studies conducted by other researchers showed that drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to avoid risks, while those under the influence of alcohol underestimate their degree of impairment, drive faster, and take more risks. But they cautioned that traffic deaths may have declined not because driving while high is safer than driving while drunk, but because medical marijuana is typically used in private, while alcohol is often consumed at bars and restaurants.

"I think this is a very timely study given all the medical marijuana laws being passed or under consideration," Anderson said. "These policies have not been research-based thus far and our research shows some of the social effects of these laws. Our results suggest a direct link between marijuana and alcohol consumption."

"Although we make no policy recommendations, it certainly appears as though medical marijuana laws are making our highways safer," Rees said.

Marijuana reform advocates who have studiously compared alcohol and marijuana liked what they heard.

"Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol for the user and society," said Mason Tvert, executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) and coauthor of the book, Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? "It should come as little surprise that when we allow adults to make the safer choice to use marijuana it results in less drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems."

Tvert coordinated the successful ballot initiatives in Denver that made it the first city in the nation to remove all penalties for adult possession (2005), and designated possession as its lowest law enforcement priority (2007).  He is currently one of two formal proponents of a 2012 statewide initiative campaign to make marijuana legal in Colorado and regulate it like alcohol.

"This is far from conclusive, but the study definitely shows a clear correlation between medical marijuana laws and decreased traffic fatalities," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The important thing is that is concurrent with a decrease in alcohol consumption."

"When these laws get passed, traffic fatalities go down, and that's important because fear of increased traffic fatalities is one of the biggest arrows in the quiver of foes," Fox noted. "This is going to make it easier for us to win that argument."

The argument could be applied not only to medical marijuana, but also to marijuana legalization in general, Fox said. "You certainly could make the argument that allowing it for recreational use instead of just medical would decrease the amount of alcohol consumed and reduce traffic fatalities," he said.

"If allowing the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes reduces alcohol consumption and traffic deaths, making it legal for personal use could reduce it dramatically," Tvert agreed. "It's time for our government to stop driving people to drink -- and drink and drive -- and start allowing them to make the rational, safer choice to use marijuana, if that is what they prefer."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


maxwood (not verified)

Big 2WackGo (which I think is the #1 enemy of cannabis legalization) profits from binge drinking (forced on youngsters who want to qualify to belong to the gang and not get picked on) in several ways:

a.  Kids often follow dubious advice to smoke "a $igarette or two" to endure the 5+ standard drinks ordeal;

b.  They may inhale side-stream smoke while drinking;

c.  Someone may advise them to "clear their mind" with a $igarette in order to drive the damn car home "safely";

d. They may find a $igarette seems to help alleviate painful hangover symptoms;

e. Days later, needing to cram for the Big Test at School, they may try "a $igarette or two" to stay awake all night.

Suddenly... hooked for life!  Pack-a-day: $100,000 in three decades or so.  Then another $100,000 to Big pHARMa for Lipitor etc. to get through another decade or so and reach a "normal" lifespan.

This may be one major reason why Big 2WackGo doesn't want cannabis legalization or anything interfering with the social bingedrink obligation.  (Not to mention the car repair shops who make $$$ fixing up after all those crashes...)

Wed, 11/30/2011 - 10:27pm Permalink
timothy price (not verified)

Notice however that the reduction in traffic deaths was associated with a decrease in the consumption of alcohol, and that is a cardinal sin, according to the alcohol dominant society. This has always been the reason that marijuana has been rejected, maligned, outlawed, by every society where might makes right, and huge profits are to be made in selling alcohol.

A good loud, obnoxious drunk can usually silence a marijuana user, and a whole nation full of them surely can, especially in social issues.

Thu, 12/01/2011 - 11:46am Permalink
J Huckleberry Jones (not verified)

This posting reminds me of a woman I met several years ago.  An ex-Army, Vietnam era nurse who was admitting her tendency to addiction.  "When I was younger", she explained, "I had more DUIs than I should have been allowed and then an accident that should've killed me.  While painfully healing, a neighbor introduced me to marijuana.  I was amazed at how my healing time was so much more tolerable, less pain and able to function.  Several weeks later I was well and realized that I had not had a drink since my accident a few months earlier.  To this day, almost twenty-five years later, John Barleycorn has been out of my life and Mary Jane is a friend of mine.  I, and all the world drivers are better off for it."

"My worst traffic violation in those years since," she continued, "was one evening when I giving a friend at work a ride home.  I coasted to a stop at a four way stop SIGN crossroads.  A car was approaching from my left on the cross street.  For some reason it stop just before it would have driven through.  I quickly decided his stop SIGN must have turned yellow so I prepared to continue across when my stop SIGN should soon turn green.  I was beginning to sense a confusion coming over me when my friend asked, "What are you waitng for?"  

"I''m waiting for this damn stop SIGN to turn green," I answered.  She just stared at me with her eyes squinting in a growing confusion of her own.   Then she burst out laughing while I reddened to a cherry glow,  When I started to giggle, a loud horn honk from the pick-up truck behind me startled me into looking both ways and continuing on thru the intersection.  The stop sign never did turn green," she said, "  Now I wait until the car is parked, my shoes off and I cozily in my home before I share a few moments with my friend Mary Jane."

At the time, I remember thinking that it may take her a little longer to get home but the roads a much safer place for those drivers and ridesr in her neighborhood Mary Jane moved in on her ex, John Barleycorn.



Thu, 12/01/2011 - 12:18pm Permalink
Fireweed (not verified)

I observed the same trend when I compared the national transportation and safety board's chart of 10 years of 50 states' driving records with the years that medical marijuana laws were in place. A similar comparison is brought to light when you compare the states that are legally hardest on marijuana to the states where mj has been decriminalized.   Without crunching the exact numbers, it appears that the states that are hardest on marijuana use actually have the highest per capital accident and fatality statistics whereas states with more lenient laws tend to have lower rates of accidents and fatalities.  Interesting.  

Rather than the cause being "fewer people drinking alcohol" because marijuana has been quasi-legalized, I think the real reason is that pot makes people more mellow and less aggressive and behind the wheel that means no sudden lane changes, more distance behind the car ahead, and overall lower speed.  

Whatever the cause,the end result is pretty apparent, that where pot is more available and more widely used there are fewer car accidents.  We've been essentially doing a wide open experiment on ourselves and the results came about with no manipulation whatsoever. They're just right there.  

Thu, 12/01/2011 - 6:42pm Permalink

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