The subject of driving under the influence of marijuana has been much debated in these parts. A bill to set a THC driving limit was shelved in May, shortly before an HDNet report demonstrated pot-related driving impairment -- and in August, the Colorado Department of Transportation launched a drugged-driving campaign. Now, however, a new study suggests that traffic fatalities go down in states where medical marijuana is legal.
The paper, co-authored by University of Colorado Denver Professor Daniel Rees and Montana State University Assistant Professor D. Mark Anderson, looked at traffic fatalities nationwide between 1990 and 2009 -- and in the thirteen states that had legalized medical marijuana during that period, alcohol consumption for those between the ages of twenty and 29 declined, as did the number of highway deaths. The entire study is on view below, but here's a key excerpt:
Specifically, we find that traffic fatalities fall by nearly 9 percent after the legalization of medical marijuana. However, the effect of MMLs on traffic fatalities involving alcohol appears to be larger, and is estimated with more precision, than the effect of MMLs on traffic fatalities that did not involve alcohol. Likewise, we find that the estimated effects of MMLs on fatalities at night and on weekends (when alcohol consumption rises) are larger, and are more precise, than the estimated effects of MMLs on fatalities during the day and on weekdays.
Finally, the relationship between MMLs and more direct measures of alcohol consumption is examined. Using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), we find that MMLs are associated with decreases in the number of drinks consumed, especially among 20- through 29-year-olds, providing additional evidence that alcohol is the mechanism by which traffic fatalities are reduced. Using data from the Beer Institute, we find that beer sales fall after a MML comes into effect, suggesting that marijuana substitutes for beer, the most popular alcoholic beverage among young adults.
The amount of beer-sales decline in medical marijuana states: 5.3 percent.
No surprise that this info has been embraced by Mason Tvert, whose organization, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Entertainment (SAFER), has long held that alcohol is riskier than marijuana.
"We've been making the argument for years here in Colorado that allowing people to use marijuana is a safer alternative to alcohol, and that it would reduce alcohol-related problems," Tvert says. "This study is simply more evidence of that."
Tvert adds that the study's conclusion will likely arise during the campaign for the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012, for which he's a high-profile proponent. In his words, "The subject of DUID" -- driving under the influence of drugs -- "will be brought up, in all likelihood, and we expect this information to be part of that debate, part of the discussion."
As for why a large portion of the public continues to see driving under the influence of marijuana to be at least as dangerous as drinking and driving, if not more so, he argues that "many people don't have all the information surrounding the issue. We've seen a great deal of research that shows people who are under the influence of alcohol drive far more recklessly than normal, and people under the influence of marijuana drive far more cautiously than normal.
"That's not to say we support people driving while they're impaired," he stresses. "But the fact remains that people who are making the decision to use marijuana and are using less alcohol pose less of a problem to the State of Colorado and our citizens than those who are drinking, and we shouldn't be punishing them for making that choice."
Regarding the ballot measure, Tvert says that approximately 130,000 Coloradans have signed petitions to put it before voters in November 2012. The signature goal is 145,000, "and we hope to surpass that," he says.
Here's the Rees-Anderson study:
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More from our Marijuana archive: "THC blood test: Pot critic William Breathes nearly 3 times over proposed limit when sober."