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Colorado Impaired Driving Statistics: Is Pot Making Things Worse or Better?

Colorado’s Constitution was modified to legalize the recreational use and commercial sale of marijuana by Amendment 64 by a ballot measure that voters approved on November 6, 2012. Amendment 64 was codified in the state’s Constitution as Article XVIII, Section 16.

Following the Amendment, the recreational use of pot became officially legal in Colorado in December 2012 and the first commercial outlets for cannabis were licensed to do business in January 2014.

Colorado’s definition of impaired driving

For driving, Colorado law pegs the legal limit of marijuana at five nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the driver’s bloodstream, but law enforcement officers are permitted to arrest a driver based on “observed impairment.” (The blood alcohol legal limits continue to be 0.05 for “driving while impaired” and 0.08 for “driving under the influence.”)

Evidence on both sides

With Amendment 64’s adoption nearly five years old, has pot’s legalization made Colorado’s impaired driving problem worse or better?

The fatality statistics show some clear trends:

  • Federal and state records show that the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado testing positive for marijuana has increased significantly year-to-year since 2013 (more than doubling during the 2013-16 period).
  • Denver area coroners have reported increasingly potent levels of marijuana in the drivers involved in fatal car crashes.

But given the ability of marijuana to show up in trace amounts in drivers’ bloodstreams weeks after use, the blood level data cannot distinguish between use that occurred within hours prior to driving (and may have contributed to the accident) and pot consumption further back in time. In addition, many drivers arrested for DUI also test positive for alcohol and other drugs which adds to the ambiguity of the statistics.

Law enforcement officials and the number crunchers for insurance companies believe that given the disparity between the 2013-16 percentage increases of fatal crashes related to alcohol (17%) and marijuana (145%), it is hard to argue that legalization has not made the impaired driving problem worse.

On the skeptic side are studies like those in the American Journal of Public Health that have compared Colorado’s and Washington state’s recent statistics with those states with similar roads, traffic flows and population that have not legalized marijuana. Those analyses have concluded that the legalization states have not experienced statistically different outcomes over recent years.

Other insurance industry studies have shown minor increases in collision claims in legalization states – about 3% — but nothing like the huge spikes recorded in some of the fatal crash studies.

For now there may not be a definitive answer on whether pot is making Colorado’s roads safer or more dangerous. A more comprehensive study of different types of accidents (not just those involving fatalities), data from both law enforcement and the insurance industry, and a longer timeline may be what’s needed to give policymakers the information they need to weigh the pros and cons of legalization.

About Levine Law

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