Earlier this week, we shared a Washington Post item that found this year's legalization of recreational marijuana sales has not led to more traffic fatalities. But a new report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area suggests that stoned driving remains a big problem that's getting bigger, with fatalities increasing 100 percent from 2007 to 2012.
Stats about teen pot use in the report, on view below in its entirety, are also considerably more negative than those in at least one other recent state-sponsored survey. RMHIDTA director Tom Gorman explains and highlights some of his outfit's findings below.
Regarding the Washington Post piece, Gorman believes it's suspect on a number of counts. For one thing, he notes that traffic fatalities have been on a downward trend for the past six years due to a slew of factors, including reduced driving due to economic conditions and better safety devices in cars. Moreover, the 2014 numbers are "raw data -- not official."
Indeed, the process of finalizing fatality numbers is a slow one. The most recent data in the RMHIDTA report is from 2012, and even it won't be formally blessed by federal officials until this October -- although any changes at this stage will be minor in the extreme, Gorman believes.
He adds that the RMHIDTA contacted each coroner's office and police agency in the state in an effort to get the most complete view of marijuana-impaired driving, and the resulting figures look grim. Here's an excerpt from the report:
• Overall, traffic fatalities in Colorado decreased 14.8 percent, from 2007 to 2012. During the same five years in Colorado, traffic fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana increased 100 percent.
• In 2007, Colorado traffic fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana represented 7.04 percent of the total traffic fatalities. By 2012, that number more than doubled to 16.53 percent.
As elevated as these stats might seem, Gorman feels they may actually under-report the problem. "Keep in mind that about 48 percent of drivers in fatalities aren't tested," he says. "These are just the ones who are tested."
Given that the RMHIDTA is considered anti-marijuana, the pro-pot contingent may be tempted to side with interpretations along the lines of the Washington Post's. But Gorman thinks there's a lot more bias in the numbers touted by many marijuana advocates than those collected by his organization.
"Sometimes I think people are misinformed and sometimes I think they put a spin on things, and that's very upsetting to me," he notes. "Hopefully when we put something out, it's accurate. You won't see any editorial statements in our report. We want the readers to make their own determination."
For instance, he goes on, "we look at 2009 as being a key year, because that's when we commercialized medical marijuana. So if you look at the years between 2006 and 2008, we averaged about forty marijuana-related fatalities, and from 2010 to 2012, we averaged 63."
The disparity between 2007 and 2012 is even greater -- 37 in the first year, 78 in the last, for an increase of more than 100 percent. Here's the graphic:
"We were worried with medical marijuana when we had a limited number of people using it," Gorman says. "So what's going to happen with recreational and all these tourists coming in? That's our concern."
Equally troubling for Gorman are the numbers related to youth marijuana use.
According to stats cited by the RMHIDTA, "there was a 26 percent increase in youth (ages 12 to 17 years) monthly marijuana use in the three years after medical marijuana was commercialized (2009) compared to the three years prior to commercialization," as well as "a 32 percent increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions in Colorado for academic school years 2008/2009 to 2012/2013."
The Marijuana Industry Group believes these figures are overstated, noting in a CBS4 report that a new Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report showed use among high school students actually dropped 2 percent.
Gorman doesn't disregard the health department numbers, but he points out that the RMHIDTA report looked at a broader age range, including kids who weren't attending school. And he also highlights a survey of one-hundred school resource officers that revealed the following:
• 89 percent have experienced an increase in student marijuana-related incidents since recreational marijuana was legalized with 57 percent handling an average of one incident or more a week.
• The most common violation on campus is possession followed by being under the influence.
• Most students obtain their marijuana from a friend who gets its legally, or their parents.
The surveys were opinion-based, Gorman acknowledges, meaning they may not have passed muster in a scientific survey. But he doubts that resource officers with the strongest anti-pot bias are over-represented, noting that the surveys were sent out at random and the majority of them were returned.
Among the anecdotes he found most interesting was "where they believe kids are getting marijuana. Number one is friends who obtain it legally, number two is parents and number three is the black market."
Overall, Gorman says the study allows folks "to look at trends over a period of time to see if this data supports other data" -- such as information suggesting that one in four Colorado teens are considered to be current marijuana users. In his opinion, "that's not a good thing."
Here's the complete report:
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