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Car Insurance

Legalization of marijuana: will crash fatalities increase?

Studies have given us a better idea of how marijuana could lead to reckless driving. But is the future of legalization a cause for concern for transportation law makers and drivers?

With the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state in 2012 and many other states loosening both their recreational and medical marijuana laws across the United States since then, crucial questions still remain: how does marijuana affect a person’s ability to drive? Does it impair everyone the same way? Will crash fatalities increase? Well a few years and studies later have given us a better idea of how marijuana could lead to reckless driving, but it’s in no way as well understood as the ways alcohol affects those getting behind the wheel. What little information we have is certainly a cause for concern transportation law makers and drivers alike.

Where is marijuana legal in the United States?

Currently in the U.S., Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Because these laws remain at a state level, they all differ from each other significantly. While these laws have passed, there is no Woodstock part II taking place in any of these five areas. Their laws, although in no way similar, are equally strict when it comes to the possession and distribution of marijuana. For example, residents of Colorado are allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants, while it’s illegal to cultivate any in Washington. Beyond recreational use, many states in the U.S. have previously passed their own distinct laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. These states include California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

What are the effects of marijuana?

The severity of marijuana’s effects on an individual is as widely debated as the legalization of pot itself. However, with the handful of states that have already legalized recreational or medical marijuana, it’s an important question to have specific an answer to--especially when it comes to the effects it could have on driving performance. Marijuana’s primary ingredient that causes an individual to feel high is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The absorption rate of THC in the human body occurs immediately when marijuana is smoked, but takes much longer when eaten. Once absorbed effects can last anywhere from three to four hours and include:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Dizziness

  • Shallow breathing

  • Dilated pupils

  • Dry mouth

  • Increased appetite

  • Slowed reaction time

How does marijuana affect driving?

We’ve all heard about the consequences of drunk driving either from our parents, teachers, the news, or through personal experience. But what about the consequences of driving while high? A recent study by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that drunk driving is actually on the decline in the U.S., while drugged driving appears to be on the rise. It’s reported that of weekend nighttime drivers, 8.3% have some alcohol in their system, while 12.6% have a presence of THC. This is a steady increase from the 8.6% of drivers previously reported with THC in 2007. A legal limit for alcohol has been set nationwide in the U.S. to both discourage and penalize those who drive while intoxicated and it’s been repeatedly argued that a lower legal limit would lower the number of DUI’s even more so. While blood alcohol levels in a person have been studied and directly linked to consequential behaviors, the same has not yet been accomplished for marijuana use, so how should a legal limit be set? Marijuana is completely different from alcohol and therefore they can’t be treated by law. A marijuana high usually occurs within half an hour of initial consumption and can last as long as three hours depending on how a person metabolizes THC. A study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse concluded that marijuana alone doesn’t significantly increase the risk of car accidents. Compared to a sober driver, drivers with marijuana in their systems are only five percent more likely to get in a car accident, compared to a drunk driver’s twelve percent.hat’s more, after their state laws passed in 2012, Colorado and Washington have actually seen a decrease in car fatalities from 2011 to 2013. Even so, five percent is more than a sober driver’s chances, so it’d be smart to let someone else do the driving.

When drivers have reached the nationwide legal limit of .08 of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) they experience typical effects such as poor muscle coordination that negatively affects reaction time and vision, the inability to detect danger, and the loss of judgement and speed control. Much like alcohol, states that have legalized marijuana have attempted to set legal limits for the drug when driving under the influence. Washington and Colorado have set a legal limit of 5ug/L or 5 nanograms per liter of blood or urine, which many researchers argue is pointless because everyone processes THC differently and therefore a limit might be an impairing amount for one person and not for another. It’s also impossible to test someone’s THC levels the moment they are pulled over by police because there currently is no roadside mechanism. And without knowing how quickly the body processes THC, a driver’s level could be over the legal limit while they were driving, but then drop significantly by the time they’re given a blood or urine test hours later at the police station.

While the severity of marijuana’s effects are still being debated, the negative effects of the drug used in addition to alcohol are widely known. Drinking alcohol allows the body to absorb more THC, thus causing a more intense high. On the other hand, marijuana delays the peak of alcohol impairment, meaning it takes a longer time for someone using both to feel drunk. In that delay, more alcohol can be consumed and more poor decisions can be made under false pretense.

What are the legal consequences of driving while high?

While states where recreational marijuana is legal have their own legal limit laws for driving under the influence, weed-free states have per se DUI laws. These laws conclude that any amount of THC in the driver’s system at the time of the offense will classify impairment no matter what behaviors they exhibit, even in states where medical marijuana is legal. Therefore the same penalties that would be given to a drunk driver in their state apply. The legal consequences can include any of the following:

  • Fines

  • Jail/prison time

  • Community service

  • Probation

  • License suspension

  • House arrest

  • Drug and alcohol abuse programs

  • Ignition interlock device installation

  • Vehicle impoundment

Meanwhile, drivers with a DUI are considered high risk and nonstandard drivers by the insurance industry. High risk drivers pay far more for car insurance than the average driver and may even have a difficult time finding a car insurance carrier to offer them coverage unless they specialize with nonstandard drivers. A DUI violation can stay on someone’s driving record for up to five years and impact their insurance rates for that amount of time. For a quick run down of the above information, check out the below infographic from O'Neill Moon Quedado law practice.