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Does legalizing cannabis increase car crashes?

“Users who previously avoided driving high may feel that it’s okay after legalization.”

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Close-up shot of the trunk of a car lying upside down after a crash on a motorway.
(Juice Flair/Shutterstock)

By Gwyn Wright via SWNS

Legalizing cannabis in the US has led to an increase in car crashes and deaths on the road, according to a new study.

Researchers in the US say the number of fatal crashes jumped by four percent in five states after they legalized weed but has not spiked in six states that did not.

They say the number of crashes that led to injury rose by just under six percent in states that legalized the drug but did not rise in states that kept the drug banned.

They add that fatal crash rates rose by around two percent after cannabis was made legal and by the same amount again when shops were allowed to sell the drug.

Overall crashes leading to injury rose by six and a half percent after legalization but fell slightly once marijuana sales began in shops.

Lead study author Dr. Charles Farmer from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Virginia, US said: “The legalization of marijuana doesn’t come without cost.

“Legalization removes the stigma of marijuana use, while the onset of retail sales merely increases access.

“Access to marijuana isn’t difficult, even in places without retail sales.

“Users who previously avoided driving high may feel that it’s okay after legalization.”

The team says the sharper relationship between dope and injuries, rather than fatal crashes, may be because some drivers slow down when they drive under the influence of the drug.

They create a larger distance between themselves and other vehicles.

Doped-up drivers may not be able to avoid a crash at lower speeds but the accidents that do happen are less likely to be deadly.

Earlier studies involving driving simulators have shown marijuana use to affect reaction time, road tracking, lane keeping and attention.

For the study, the team collected data on traffic crashes and the amount of traffic in 11 US states and from the Federal Highway Administration between 2009 and 2019.

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada had legalized recreational marijuana during the study period.

Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming did not.

The authors adjusted their findings for factors known to contribute to crashes and fatalities such as including seat belt use and the unemployment rate.

Colorado had the biggest jump (+17.8 percent) in crashes leading to injury and California the smallest (+5.7 percent) after both legalization and the onset of retail sales.

Nevada’s rate decreased by 6.7 percent.

More fatal crashes occurred in Colorado (+1.4 percent) and Oregon (+3.8 percent), but decreases were found in Washington (-1.9 percent), California (-7.6 percent) and Nevada (-9.8 percent).

Dr. Famer said states thinking about legalizing the drug should ban people from driving under the influence.

The study is correlational and cannot prove legalization of the drug is responsible for the increase in road deaths and crashes.

Dr. Farmer added: “Studies looking for a direct causal link between marijuana use and crash risk have been inconclusive.

“Unlike alcohol, there is no good objective measure of just how impaired a marijuana user has become.

“Until we can accurately measure marijuana impairment, we won’t be able to link it to crash risk.”

The findings were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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