Does Recreational Marijuana Make for Safer Roads?

Smarteless /
Smarteless /

As many states look to legalize recreational marijuana, many proponents boast about its benefits for taxes, while its opponents cry out about the safety of the roads. With Ohio, Kentucky, Hawaii, and 10 other states potentially looking to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal in 2023, there is a lot on the line.

Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) is one of the voices speaking out against the idea, as he is worried that legalization will lead to more people driving under the influence. Operating a Vehicle while Intoxicated (OVI) is obviously illegal in Ohio. Much like alcohol, simply using it is not grounds to be charged. Instead, one must have a reason to suspect that someone is intoxicated and formed that opinion on their own to confirm that result.

Since 2019, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has reported a massive change in the trend of OVI charges. As reported by The Cincinnati Enquirer, Ohio saw 622 marijuana-only OVI arrests last year and another 647 involving marijuana and other drugs, compared to 1,387 and 999, respectively, in 2019. As it stands, medical marijuana was legalized in OH back in 2016.

Lt Nathan Dennis followed Gov DeWine’s charge in pushing against recreational marijuana and claimed marijuana is involved in more fatal crashes related to OVIs than anything else. He wants to see people learn more about how long it takes to exit your system. However, OH data does not differentiate between drugs found in someone’s system, or how present they were for keeping data. Nevertheless, drug-induced crashes have risen 41% since 2019, and drug and alcohol-involved crashes went up 20%.

So far, the research papers about marijuana use and traffic accidents (both fatal and non) are mixed.

Those that cite an increase in accidents fail to disclose how intoxicated they were or the presence of other drugs or alcohol. Then other contributing factors like who caused the accident, or the weather are also omitted. Papers that claim a decrease in accidents often omit information by removing multi-drug accidents or omitting cases where alcohol was involved.

Looking at long-term data, Washington saw more fatal crashes following the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014 but leveled off quickly, minus a sudden spike in 2020, per the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. This outlier is something many states saw in response to COVID-19 and the mental health crisis that resulted from it.

Colorado has reported an increase in marijuana-related DUIs, but more than half of those citations have also included alcohol in 2020. In that same year, 20% of drivers and 24% of operators (including pedestrians, bicyclists, and passengers in a vehicle) in traffic deaths also tested positive for THC.

Doug Berman, executive director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University, cautions people about the data. “It’s very hard to capture real precise data here. If it was a no-brainer that legalization made the roads a lot more dangerous, we would know that, and that’s not what the evidence shows.”

Given how marijuana stays in the urine for up to 30 days for chronic users- like medicinal patients, it makes it illogical to cite it as the cause of an accident or even cite someone as being impaired given the current testing. While Michigan has gone on to a saliva test, they are one of the only states to use it, and it’s not a cheap or easy system to adopt either.

While troopers and other officials are trained to look for various signs of impairment, they won’t learn how impaired or by what until much after a traffic stop.

Tom Haren, a spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, cautions voters that much like booze, people will still be able to be charged for getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. Now though, the state will get the revenue from taxes gathered on its sale, and this money can be used to train drug experts as well as improve testing for intoxication levels. “It gets back to regulating marijuana just like alcohol. Drivers don’t get pulled over because they have consumed alcohol at some point in their life. You get an OVI based on being impaired.”