The results of a recent study published in JAMA Network Open claim to have found an association between cannabis legalization and an increase in traffic accidents.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Ottawa and looked at emergency room visits in Ontario, Canada over a 13-year period (Jan 2010-Dec 2021 which is actually 12 years but they say 13 in the study so what do I know), at the end of which they denoted a 475.3% increase in traffic accidents that resulted in an emergency room visit in which the driver had cannabis in their system at the time of the accident.
“This cross-sectional study found large increases in cannabis involvement in ED visits for traffic injury over time, which may have accelerated following nonmedical cannabis commercialization,” the conclusion of the study said. “Although the frequency of visits was rare, they may reflect broader changes in cannabis-impaired driving. Greater prevention efforts, including targeted education and policy measures, in regions with legal cannabis are indicated.”
At first glance, 475.3% sounds like a big number and suffice it to say many of the anti-cannabis media outlets who repackaged that number for a scary-sounding headline are counting on their readership to look no further and take their word for it that cannabis legalization and car crashes must be associated. I’m a journalist, not a scientist, but I am able to point out some facts about the study that might make that big number seem a bit less scary.
For one thing the study was only conducted in Ontario, Canada. In terms of sample size, that is one city in a country with very specific cannabis laws so to lay the blanket term “legalization” over one very specific set of laws isn’t totally accurate. The study even says so in the introduction:
“Another study also found no increase in total traffic injury hospitalizations in Canada over 2.5 years following legalization. Critically, the slow rollout of the cannabis retail market in Canada and the overlap of the legalization period with the COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduces the ability of these studies to evaluate the impacts of legalization,” the study said.
It’s also important to understand that the total number of injury-causing traffic accidents involving cannabis in the 13-year period came to a grand total of 426 out of 947,604. That number as a percentage is .04%, which is even smaller when compared to the total number of traffic accidents without taking emergency room visits into account. It’s hardly insignificant, but it is, arguably, a much less daunting number at first glance than 475.3%.
One key piece of data the study highlighted was that men appear to be more at risk than women of being involved in such accidents where cannabis intoxication was considered a factor. This stands to reason as a 2016 study by the National Institute of Health found men to use cannabis far more often than women and in greater amounts per use.
“Of the 418 individuals with documented cannabis involvement, 330 (78.9%) were male, 109 (25.6%) were aged 16 to 21 years (mean [SD] age at visit, 30.6 [12.0] years), and 113 (27.0%) had an ED visit or hospitalization for substance use in the 2 years before their traffic injury ED visit,” the study said.
The last and arguably most important question one must ask when dissecting the results of a study is “who paid for this?” Studies cost money, and it goes without saying that people who have money often try to use that money to influence the results of otherwise scientifically sound methods of observation. This is America after all (Or Canada, in this case). However, this study was funded in its entirety by grants from the Canadian Institute of Health and the University of Ottawa, meaning there does not appear to be any private money attempting to sway these results.
Regardless of my nitpicking, this study did point out something important: there is a small but statistically significant chance that a link between cannabis legalization and severe traffic accidents exists, but more context and study is needed to be sure.
“The findings of this repeated cross-sectional study suggest that cannabis-involved severe traffic injuries have increased over time. Legalization of nonmedical cannabis with widespread retail access and increased cannabis product variety may have further increased these visits despite laws specifically aimed at deterring cannabis-impaired driving,” the study said. “Younger adults and males appear to be at particularly increased risk of cannabis-involved traffic injuries. There is a potential need for greater interventions, including education on cannabis-impaired driving, enforcement activities, and policies to regulate access to commercial retail markets.”
A lawmaker in Ohio has introduced a bill that would help marijuana users in the state avoid a costly impaired driving charge.
News 5 Cleveland reports that the legislation, introduced by a Republican state senator, “would change the standards of the Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence (OVI) law,” and “help update Ohio laws due to the prevalence of medical marijuana licenses.”
The station said that the bill would help drivers avoid “facing charges for driving with THC in their system as long as they can prove they weren’t impaired.”
“Under the current statute for an OVI, it’s testing whether or not it’s in your system. Now that we have legalized it for medical purposes, I think we need to update the statute to where we’re looking at whether or not somebody is impaired,” GOP state Sen. Nathan Manning told News 5 Cleveland.
“Marijuana in general is a lot different than alcohol, alcohol is lot more black and white,” he added.
Ohio lawmakers passed a bill legalizing medical cannabis in 2016, and sales began in the Buckeye State three years later.
Ohio patients with the following qualifying conditions are eligible for medical cannabis treatment under the state’s law: AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cachexia, cancer, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy or another seizure disorder, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Huntington’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, pain that is either chronic and severe or intractable, Parkinson’s disease, positive status for HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, sickle cell anemia, Spasticity, spinal cord disease or injury, terminal illness, Tourette syndrome, traumatic brain injury and ulcerative colitis.
Advocates say the medical cannabis law, and the ubiquity of the treatment statewide, has created a dilemma for law enforcement and patients alike.
“In an OVI, we are charged with being medicated on stuff you bought legally from a dispensary or smoke shop,” Ally Reaves with Midwest CannaWomen told News 5 Cleveland. “That’s not fair.”
The bill introduced by Manning “would allow drivers to have up to 25 nanograms of THC per milliliter in their urine instead of the current 10,” and “would raise the concentration from two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter” for blood, according to the station.
Shifting those standards is crucial, given how long THC can remain in a person’s system.
“Our policemen and women that are enforcing these traffic laws are doing a great job and very often are not charging anybody unless they are showing signs of impairment, whether that’s through their field sobriety tests or their own observations,” Manning told News 5 Cleveland. “But there are situations where somebody is arrested and has consumed marijuana in the previous few days and technically would be above that ‘per se’ level, even though there’s no impairment whatsoever.”
“The consensus of the scientific community is clear that there is no acceptable limit of marijuana that automatically makes a person impaired,” Manning added. “Impairment must be considered on a case-by-case basis considering all of the available evidence.”
As the number of enrolled medical cannabis patients has grown in Ohio, so too is the number of places where they can legally obtain the product.
Why do Canadian police use the Dräger Drug Test to detect cannabis use? The Dräger Drug Test is a device used to test oral fluid samples for drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and cannabis. Law enforcement agencies in Canada use it as a roadside sobriety test. They consider it a quick and non-invasive way of testing for drugs, with results typically available within minutes. But the Dräger Drug Test isn’t without its criticisms. For example, it tests for cannabis […]
Individuals enrolled in Massachusetts’ driver’s education program will receive a new lesson starting next year.
According to State House News Service, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which oversees the program in the Bay State, “indicated Monday that is adopting the AAA curriculum, which is called ‘Shifting Gears: The Blunt Truth About Marijuana and Driving,’ in partnership with members of the Cannabis Control Commission.”
The outlet reports that the Registry of Motor Vehicles “plans a formal announcement on Friday at the Worcester Registry of Motor Vehicles,” and that it “indicated the curriculum will be adopted in January, and will update the driver education module to include research-based information on cannabis and an explanation of how tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in marijuana, affects cognition, vision, reaction time, and perception of time and distance.”
Per local news station WCVB, the program will make Massachusetts “the first state in the nation with legal recreational marijuana to add lessons about cannabis impairment to driver’s education programs.”
“The current driver education module addressing impaired driving will be updated to include research-based information on cannabis, explaining how tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical in marijuana, affects cognition, vision, reaction time, and perception of time and distance,” officials with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation said, as quoted by WCVB.
In a statement quoted by State House News Service, the Registry of Motor Vehicles said that next year’s driver’s education enrollees will represent “the first generation of driver education students to be licensed since cannabis became legal in Massachusetts, and AAA research shows that impaired driving crashes may increase and continue to injure and kill motorists and their passengers.”
Such curricula will likely become even more prevalent as more states enter the era of legalization and end prohibition on recreational pot use.
Baker threw his support behind legislation called the “Trooper Thomas Clardy Law,” which bears the name of the late Massachusetts State Trooper Thomas L. Clardy, who died while making a traffic stop in 2016 after his vehicle was hit by a motorist who had THC in his blood.
“This legislation aims to make the Commonwealth’s roads safer and save lives, and we are grateful to the Clardy family for offering their family’s name and support for this legislation, which will help us avoid impaired driving incidents in the future,” Baker said in a statement at the time. “This bill will provide law enforcement officers with more rigorous drug detection training and will strengthen the legal process by authorizing the courts to acknowledge that the active ingredient in marijuana can and does impair motorists. The bill draws on thoughtful recommendations from a broad cross-section of stakeholders, and we look forward to working with our legislative colleagues to pass this bill and make our roads safer.”
But the legislation went up in smoke in the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year after some Democratic lawmakers expressed concern over the reliability of the testing devices.
Officials in Virginia are currently considering their own potential mechanisms to rein in the problem of marijuana-impaired driving, after the Commonwealth legalized recreational cannabis use last year, becoming the first state in the U.S. south to do so.
And in New York, which legalized marijuana last year and is currently preparing to open its regulated weed retailers, officials are said to be “scrambling” to find a reliable marijuana DUI test.
A wrongful arrest due to cannabis isn’t unheard of. A Staten Island cop kept planting cannabis in people’s cars despite the NYPD clearing him of any wrongdoing. In Canada, police use various tests to decide if your driving is “impaired” by cannabis. But, of course, as anyone can find out through three seconds of research, THC binds to your fat cells. So you could smoke one joint in July and fail a urine test in September. Suppose you’re shaken up […]
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) commissioned a report about educational campaigns on cannabis and driving on July 26. The GHSA partnered with National Alliance to Stop Impaired Driving to create a playbook written specifically for State Highway Safety Offices (SHSO).
Governors Highway Safety Association’s Executive Director, Jonathan Adkins, explained the need for a playbook that is up to date regarding cannabis legalization, overall acceptance of cannabis by consumers, and more. “As legal cannabis use becomes more widespread in the U.S., motorists need to know the dangers of driving under the influence,” said Adkins. “But that message won’t be heard if it’s outdated, irrelevant or insulting to cannabis consumers. This new report offers a playbook to help states develop messaging that resonates with cannabis users and prompts them to refrain from driving for their own safety and the safety of everyone else on the road.”
The report, called “Cannabis Consumers and Safe Driving: Responsible Use Messaging,” is based on a variety of surveys and interviews, and expands upon an unpublished 2021 Cannabis Regulators Association white paper with “additional strategies and recommendations about promising practices that can enhance safety partnerships and increase the effectiveness of outreach and education on cannabis use and driving.”
The report states that prior to the pandemic, approximately 21% of drivers involved in fatal vehicle crashes had THC in their systems. During the pandemic, this percentage rose to 33% (and for comparison, the percentage of people with alcohol in their systems was only 29%). In a survey conducted by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Culture Index, drivers view impairment of alcohol and cannabis differently. When asked about driving while under the influence of alcohol, 95% of people believed it was “very or extremely dangerous.” When asked the same question about cannabis, only 69% responded with the same answer.
The GHSA report writes that further education is key to promoting safe driving and enforcement. It reviewed educational campaigns that have been implemented in Colorado and Washington, which were the first states to legalize cannabis. It also addressed current education efforts that learn from those earlier campaigns, such as the “simple, non-judgmental” messages in Connecticut that have been promoted on social media channels, radio, TV, billboards, bus panels, and printed materials. While cannabis became legal in Connecticut on July 1, 2021, retail sales won’t begin until later this year. However, the report also examines an educational campaign in Wyoming, where cannabis is currently still illegal.
After reviewing the content, the report addresses “promising practices” that the authors view as useful for developing education campaigns, such as partnering with cannabis industry groups, receiving dedicated funding, and using specific wording in campaign messages.
In more detail, the report’s five main recommendations explore campaign success based on the presented examples.
First, it recommends that funding be derived from cannabis sales tax revenue, in partnership with local state legislators. Second, it highly recommends partnering with a variety of cannabis groups with the shared goal of consumer safety. “Working together, collaborative education campaigns can reflect the desires of all partners to help keep cannabis consumers safe,” the report explained.
Third, the report also explained the importance of the campaign messengers. Government leaders and institutions are “generally not good choices,” so it’s essential to choose respected individuals who are a part of the cannabis community to get the point across. The specific words chosen for a campaign can also lend to its success and maintain credibility, such as avoiding archaic terms such as pot or weed, or using “consumer” instead of “user.”
Finally, the report states that a campaign message should be chosen with care and respect. “Insulting or judging the target audience rarely improves message reception and turns people off, resulting in the message getting lost. Not driving after using cannabis should be the primary focus of informational campaigns, not the use of cannabis itself,” the report explains. “Messaging that appeals to the risks versus rewards of driving after consuming cannabis can be effective with the target audience, which tends to be young and male. Because it is not clear what responsible use of cannabis really is or looks like, appeals to moral sensitivity—normative choices that are considered ‘good’ or ‘right’—may have a greater effect on changing behavior than the usual ‘just don’t do it’ messaging.”
An online survey conducted by EKOS says 33 percent of Canadians are OK driving high on cannabis. Although the language of the survey findings report insists this is “drug-impaired driving.” The survey doesn’t address the assumption that cannabis-influenced driving is harmful. It merely parrots the established narrative and then records Canadian responses. Fortunately, Canadian cannabis […]
Cannabis breathalyzers are being made right now, but will they really work? Probably not, but let’s take a look at them. Cannabis breathalyzers work much like their alcohol counterparts. Hound Labs, one of the companies trying to commercialize this new tech, is developing a simple-to-use breathalyzer device. A person blows into a small tube, and […]
We’ve all familiar with checkpoints and breathalyzers, even if we never had to deal with one ourselves. And we all know that drinking with a blood alcohol content over .08 is illegal, and leads to a DUI. But what about driving stoned? While driving under the influence can relate to many things, new laws to introduce blood THC content limits are putting a new spin on the standard practice of getting behind the wheel high.
Bet you didn’t think you’d have to worry about having your blood THC content checked? New laws for this make the need to be careful in states where such laws exist. Luckily, you can always enjoy your favorite cannabis products at home. Plus, with the new cannabinoid market, who said it has to be THC? With additions like delta-8 THC, HHC, and THCV, there are tons of ways of experiencing the cannabis plant. Check out our deals for all compounds, and remember to get high responsibly. Remember to subscribe to The THC Weekly Newsletter for deals on legal cannabis products, as well as all the latest news and industry stories. Also save big on Delta 8, Delta 9 THC, Delta-10 THC, THCO, THCV, THCP & HHC products by checking out our “Best-of” lists!
What is a blood alcohol content limit?
This is a good question, and before getting into blood THC content, it’s best to start here. Blood THC content sounds oddly familiar, yet is new to most. It sounds oddly familiar because of the term ‘blood alcohol content’ which is well known, especially for the driving community. It’s the line between legal driving, and going before a judge. The breathalyzer test given by cops measures the amount of alcohol in the air being breathed out by a suspected drunk driver. Ever get in close to a drunk guy and smell the heavy scent of alcohol coming out of them? Well, this is what a breathalyzer measures.
When a person registers at .08% or above, its considered that they passed the legal limit if 21 or above. For those below 21, the limit is significantly lower, at 0-.02% depending on location. While .08 is a federal mandate, individual states are allowed to institute more restrictive laws. What does the .08% measurement actually mean?
It’s measured in grams per 100ml of blood. Meaning eight grams of alcohol per 10 deciliters of blood = .08%. Because this cut-off line exists, it allows law enforcement the presumption of guilt when a person registers this amount, regardless of actual driving ability. So if a person who is driving okay is stopped at a checkpoint, and does not pass a test, their actual ability to drive will not help them. This isn’t meant to be an argument against measures to stop drunk driving, its just to explain that the limit represents a law that is independent of actual behavior.
What is a blood THC content limit?
While we’re all familiar with the idea of drunk driving, and why it’s illegal (see below for statistics), the reality is that all states have something along the line of a ‘drugged driving’ law as well. Alcohol isn’t the only substance that can cause impairment behind the wheel, many drugs can. So drugged driving laws exist to cover the idea of being impaired on any substance. The difference between a vague ‘drugged driving’ law, and a law with specifics like a .08% limit, is that there isn’t a legal line that differentiates legal from non-legal amounts.
With illicit drugs, its obviously illegal to be caught possessing and using them, however, they can also incur a driving violation if it’s decided that the person was impaired while driving on them. Did you get the language? If it’s ‘decided’ by law enforcement. As in, in order to make a charge like that stick, impairment must be proven somehow. Given how life tends to work, this can create precarious situations as cops have the ability to get a person arrested based on their opinion of the situation, without something to point at to show an actual problem. Obviously in cases where there is an actual problem – a person very much compromised based on whatever drug, this is okay. However, particularly for legal compounds, or situations where cops might feel the need to go beyond their jurisdiction, this can create dicey situations.
And this is where testing for blood THC content comes in. Perhaps its been hard for law enforcement to make such charges stick against potheads, well with the institution of legal limits, the same presumption of guilt is allowed for cannabis, regardless of driving ability. I want to take a second here to state that I’m a cannabis user, and have been hanging out and driving in cars with other users for half my life. I’d never get in a car knowingly with someone who’s been drinking, but I don’t bat an eye at driving with a stoner.
So basically, a blood THC content is the measure of THC in the blood. Unlike a breathalyzer test, this can’t be picked up by someone breathing out, and requires a blood test. In the US, this is generally measured in nanograms per milliliter of blood, but only done on a state level as cannabis is federally illegal. Different legalized states have set their own limits, and some go by the idea of impairment only, without a limit to test for.
Which states test for blood THC content?
Right now there are 18 states that have legalized recreational cannabis, which means these states can institute limits if they choose to separate legal use with driving, from illegal use with driving. Of the 18 states that are legal, the following have laws for blood THC content limits.
Washington uses a maximum THC level for driving, and set the amount at five nanograms per milliliter or higher of THC in the blood stream. This same level is used by Colorado and Montana. Nevada is the one state going further than this right now. In this state, it’s considered under the influence if a driver’s blood test shows two nanograms of THC and five nanograms of metabolite when driving.
Vermont has not opened its market yet, but holds that any amount of illicit substance found in the system constitutes the ability for arrest when driving. It was not confirmed how this zero-tolerance policy effects a non-illicit substance like cannabis. Massachusetts also has a zero-tolerance policy, making any amount of cannabis found in the system of a driver enough for arrest.
New Jersey is still working on its legislation, as legalization was in the last year, and the laws aren’t concrete yet. It has been argued repeatedly to keep out restrictions for maximum THC content, although whether this relates strictly to products, or to driving as well, is not clear.
New York, New Mexico, Virginia, and Connecticut are also newly legalized states where legislation has not been hammered out. We’ll have to wait and see what restrictions these states choose to institute when their laws are made clearer. States that go by judging impairment as the deciding factor of law enforcement, include: California, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, Alaska, Maine, Arizona, and the states that still need to present legislation: New York, New Mexico, Virginia, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
Statistics for driving while under the influence of cannabis
Like I said before, I won’t get in a car with a drunk driver, but I don’t mind someone that just smoked up getting behind the wheel. And that’s because through decades of time, it has consistently been reinforced by life that drinking really can cause immense dangers, and cannabis, for the most part, really doesn’t. At least in my experience. Here are some basic stats to show the picture in the US.
According to the CDC, in terms of alcohol in the US, approximately every 50 minutes, a drunk-driving related death is occurring. 29 happen every day. In 2016, this equaled 10,497 deaths related to drivers impaired by alcohol, making up about 28% of all deaths on the road. 1,233 of the total deaths in 2016 were children, with 17% of those deaths related to alcohol impairment.
When it comes to accidents involving cannabis, there are virtually no actual statistics, and certainly none put out by government agencies. In a study from 2010 (before the cannabis market really exploded) called The Effect of Cannabis Compared with Alcohol on Driving, researchers concluded that “Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk.” They went on to say
“The risk from driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone. Future research should focus on resolving contradictions posed by previous studies, and patients who smoke cannabis should be counseled to wait several hours before driving, and avoid combining the two drugs.” Of course, the problem with the last part, is that it then involves alcohol, which we already know causes many issues.
While the government provides no information, there are stories out about an increase in accidents related to cannabis use since legalizations. Perhaps this has more to do with testing for cannabis since legalizations occurred, since expecting that the actual smoking community changed so drastically by a legalization, is a little silly. Such headlines create the logical fallacy that the legalizations started the industry, and that this wouldn’t have been going on prior, which is incredibly mistaken. Logically, people were always smoking and driving, making these claims nonsensical, and sounding very much like fearmongering, especially when official numbers somehow can’t be provided.
In fact, in 2019, a USA Today article, citing research on crash fatalities in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon from 2019, found as little as a one per million people increase in fatalities after legalization. But then the numbers returned to normal the following year. Considering these aren’t even statistically significant results, and they didn’t hold, this backs up that there shouldn’t be any change due to legalizations, as smoking and driving habits would have been unlikely to be affected by legal measures.
Let’s be honest, cannabis and driving aren’t even remotely the issue that alcohol and driving is, and this shows up in all statistics. And so long as opiates are being doled out, and allergy medicines like Benadryl are available, making cannabis out to be the demon of driving, is ridiculous at best. Does this mean a person shouldn’t be careful when smoking and driving? Of course they should! But that’s always the case.
Alcohol will always be more dangerous, no matter how much information is distorted to try to sway opinions. My bet is these limits are being put in place to force fines, and that there isn’t any worry – and certainly not based on statistics – that would indicate this is really a problem worth responding to. Maybe further research will say otherwise. For now, best to be careful when driving with weed.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.
In studio today, Bert is joined by criminal defense lawyer, Sarah Leamon. In 2017, she was invited to speak before the House of Commons Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, providing legal testimony on the changes to Canada’s impaired driving laws in light of cannabis legalization, and has since then continued her advisory […]