The discovery of illegal marijuana grow sites in national forests spanning Oregon and Washington declined after each state legalized recreational cannabis, a new study reports.
But while legalization appears to have been a driving factor for decreased illicit cultivation in Oregon, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Washington. The difference, it seems, may have to do with the way each state wrote its marijuana laws.
“Given the decrease in abundance of marijuana grow sites in Oregon national forests…this study suggests that liberalized marijuana policies in Oregon have contributed to a decrease in ecological damage in national forests resulting from illegal marijuana cultivation,” the authors wrote.
Previous studies have already identified certain benefits from legalization, including those impacting health and the economy. In the new investigation, researchers from Central European University in Hungary were interested in looking at whether legal access to marijuana could also help the environment. Their study was published this month in the journal Ecological Economics.
“The data show a decrease in the number of discovered grow sites in national forests after the vote to legalize recreational cannabis in Washington and Oregon.”
They focused on illegal grow sites within national forests because, as they explain it, these grows often result in “significant ecological impacts,” including the removal of native vegetation, chemical pollution (such as the introduction of fertilizer or pesticides in the environment) and “opportunistic” poaching of wildlife. Illegal marijuana grows also threaten the safety of people who visit these public lands, as some sites may be run by “organized crime syndicates,” the researchers wrote.
The commercial market for marijuana sales have been open in Washington and Oregon since 2014 and 2015, respectively. The two states are among what the Office of National Drug Control Policy calls the “Marijuana Seven,” or the top seven states where people grow cannabis illegally. Records show 245 illegal cultivation sites were discovered between 2004 to 2017 in the Pacific Northwest: The single largest site, found in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, which covers parts of Oregon and Idaho, had 91,035 plants.
Officials discovered an average of 9.2 sites in Washington from 2004 to 2012, and 1.6 per year from 2013 to 2017 after legal cannabis was approved. In Oregon, the average number of sites discovered between 2004 to 2014 was 13 per year, and that dropped to 3.67 sites per year from 2015 to 2017.
A closer look at the data and other measures, however, suggests that legalization may not have played a significant role in the decline of illegal grows in Washington’s national forests. Instead, the authors point to the annual number of law enforcement officers in the state as well as the comparatively low cost of illegal cannabis as contributing factors.
The difference, the authors write, may have to do with “state specific characteristics.” For example, Washington has a 37 percent tax on the commercial sale of cannabis, while Oregon’s tax rate is 17 percent.
“This difference in taxation may incentivize some consumers to return to the illicit market where the cost of cannabis may be cheaper, thus negating some of the beneficial effects legalization may be able to provide with regards to illegal production, as is seen in Oregon,” the study states.
Another potentially important factor, though not addressed in the study, is that home cultivation of recreational marijuana is prohibited in Washington but allowed in Oregon..
“The results of this study suggest that for areas impacted by illegal cultivation of cannabis on public and protected lands, legalization may assist in decreasing the proliferation of this activity, and thereby serve within a broader ecological conservation strategy,” the study authors write. “However, legalization policies must actively prioritize incentives and measures that discourage the continuation of illicit production for these beneficial effects to occur.”
To further inform their work, researchers also asked the U.S. Forest Service to weigh in by answering a list of questions regarding illegal cannabis operations. Representatives with the Forest Service said they actually didn’t believe legalization had impacted the number of illegal cultivation sites on public lands. Rather, they pointed to budget cuts contributing to their inability to actually go out and find these sites.
“Many state and local cooperators are reducing or even eliminating the resources that typically assist the Forest Service with counter marijuana cultivation operations,” they told researchers. “These resources are now often committed to addressing regulatory concerns or crimes related to ‘legal’ growing activities on private lands.”
The Forest Service also noted that it expects to see illegal marijuana grows on public lands as “a significant problem for many years.”
Nonetheless, the researchers concluded that “legalization of recreational cannabis is found to contribute to a decline in illegal marijuana cultivation in Oregonian national forests” and that the policy change “has been instrumental in declining illegal marijuana production.”
But the differing analysis of illegal grows in Washington underscores that “the way in which liberalized policies are enacted may be crucial in determining the end result.”
Photo by Sam Doucette on Unsplash.
Drivers With Common THC Limit Are Not More Likely To Cause Accidents, Study Finds
To deter impaired driving in areas where marijuana use is legal, several jurisdictions have set per se limits ranging from 2 to 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter in motorists’ blood. New research, however, finds no evidence that drivers whose blood samples tested in that range are more likely to cause a traffic accident.
The study, published last month in the journal Addiction by a team of Canadian researchers, supports a key message relayed in a recent U.S. Congressional Research Service report on marijuana’s impact on driving: That is, experts aren’t convinced yet that cannabis use is associated with a higher risk of crashes.
“In this multi-site observational study of non-fatally injured drivers,” the study’s authors write, “we found no increase in crash risk, after adjustment for age, sex, and use of other impairing substances, in drivers with THC<5ng/mL.”
There may be an increased risk of crash responsibility for drivers with greater than that amount, the paper concluded, but it was “statistically non-significant and further study is required.”
“[T]here was no evidence of increased crash risk in drivers with THC<5ng/mL and a statistically non‐significant increased risk of crash responsibility in drivers with THC≥5ng/mL.”
While the authors acknowledge a number of other studies that have linked marijuana consumption with increased road safety risks, they also argue that those analyses have “significant limitations,” including the ways those experiments were conducted.
For the new study, researchers utilized a responsibility analysis design, which they said helped them avoid bias. The blood they analyzed for THC and other impairing substances, for example, came from excess samples gathered by treating physicians at hospitals following drivers’ accidents. To determine whether or not a driver was responsible for a crash, they looked at police reports and scored them using a computerized algorithm.
The authors sampled car crash patients from seven British Columbia trauma centers from January 2010 to July 2016 and ultimately tested the blood of 2,318 drivers who had police reports associated with their car accidents.
According to their results, 886 drivers were found to have at least one substance in their blood sample that may have impacted their ability to drive safely. “Alcohol was detected in 334 drivers (14.4%), THC in 192 (8.3%), other recreational drugs in 207 (8.9%), and sedating medications in 460 (19.8%),” the study states. “Polysubstance use was common and many drivers (11.4%) tested positive for more than one impairing substance.” Overall, more than half of drivers (1,178) were deemed responsible for the crash.
Among those drivers whose blood samples included THC—less than 2 ng/mL and up to 5 ng/mL—the study’s authors found there were “non-statistically significant increases in unadjusted risk of responsibility.”
“Our findings, of a low prevalence of drivers with THC>5 ng/mL, combined with a modest and statistically nonsignificant risk of crash responsibility, suggest that the impact of cannabis on road safety is relatively small at present time,” they write.
When the authors modeled THC as a continuous variable—meaning, the possible factors impacting their analysis were infinite— they found “there was a statistically significant but small increase in unadjusted risk for each 1ng/mL increase in THC. However, after adjustment for other predictors, there was no statistically significant association between THC level and risk of responsibility.”
There was, however, “significantly increased risk in drivers who had used alcohol, sedating medications, or recreational drugs other than cannabis.” As a result, “the road safety risk associated with alcohol or with other impairing substances is higher than for cannabis.”
But, as the authors point out, it’s possible crash risk may increase following legalization: As more people gain access to marijuana, it’s likely more people will drive after using the substance, including “occasional users with less tolerance to the impairing effects of cannabis.” In particular, they note, the risks for traffic accidents may be higher for younger drivers or inexperienced cannabis consumers.
They also caution that their findings don’t “necessarily apply to fatal crashes where the association with cannabis may be stronger.” Past research, however, has found that marijuana legalization is not associated with an increase in traffic fatalities.
Study co-author Dr. Jeff Brubacher, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview released prior to the completion of the new research that marijuana consumption does impact a person’s ability to drive. And he strongly cautioned against getting behind the wheel after using any form of cannabis.
“Marijuana affects motor ability—reaction times are slower so people can’t respond quickly enough to a dangerous situation,” Brubacher said. “Drivers who have used cannabis may have trouble staying in their lane and tend to weave. The ability to maintain a consistent speed is also impaired and they tend to slow down and speed up erratically. Marijuana also makes for a more easily distracted driver.”
Congressional Report Raises Questions About Whether Marijuana Impairs Driving
Concerns expressed by lawmakers that marijuana legalization will make the roads more dangerous might not be totally founded, a congressional research body said in a recent report. In fact, the experts tasked by the House and Senate with looking into the issue found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is currently inconclusive.
While law enforcement has well-established tools to identify impaired driving from alcohol, developing technology to do the same for cannabis has proved difficult. Not only is the technology lacking, but questions remain as to how THC affects driving skills in the first place and what levels of THC should be considered safe.
“Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance, studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage,” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) wrote.
What’s more, “studies have been unable to consistently correlate levels of marijuana consumption, or THC in a person’s body, and levels of impairment.”
Both advocates and opponents of marijuana reform strongly support finding a resolution to the impaired driving detection issue. But experts aren’t so confident that researchers will be able to develop something akin to an alcohol breathalyzer, as the most promising attempts have only been able to determine whether a person has smoked within recent hours.
What’s striking about the report from Congress’s official research arm is that it repeatedly states it’s not clear that cannabis consumption is associated with an increased risk of traffic accidents. In general, the issue has been treated as something of a given in congressional hearings, with some lawmakers arguing that loosening federal cannabis laws would lead to a spike in traffic deaths.
That argument was echoed in a separate House Appropriations Committee report that was released on Monday. A section of the document described ongoing concerns about drugged driving “due to the increase in States legalizing marijuana use” and designated funds to help law enforcement identify impaired driving from cannabis.
The CRS report, which was published last month, signals that the problem isn’t quite as cut and dry as lawmakers might think.
Researchers have found on several occasions that traffic fatalities do not increase after a state legalizes marijuana.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that both opponents and supporters of legalization generally caution against driving under the influence.
“Cannabis inhalation in a dose-response manner may influence certain aspects of psychomotor performance, particularly in those who are more naive to its effect,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “But this influence is typically short-lived and is far less acute than the psychomotor effects associate with alcohol.”
“By contrast, THC’s unique absorption profile and prolonged detection window in blood makes it so that—unlike as is the case with alcohol—the detection of THC in blood is not necessarily indicative of either recency of use or behavioral impairment,” he said.
The congressional report discusses the limitations of technology in detecting active impairment from cannabis and details previous studies on traffic trends in states that have reformed their cannabis laws. It also lays out legislative options for Congress to “aid policymaking around the issue of marijuana and impairment.”
As it stands, states have generally enforced impaired driving laws through one of two processes. Some states “require that the state prove that a driver’s impairment was caused by the substance or behavior at issue” while others have per se laws asserting that “a driver is automatically guilty of driving while impaired if specified levels of a potentially impairing substance are found in his or her body.”
But it’s significantly easier to prove impairment for alcohol however you cut it, the report explains.
“Detecting impairment due to use of marijuana is more difficult. The body metabolizes marijuana differently from alcohol,” the authors wrote. “The level of THC (the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana) in the body drops quickly within an hour after usage, yet traces of THC (nonpsychoactive metabolites) can still be found in the body weeks after usage of marijuana.”
Further there is “as yet no scientifically demonstrated correlation between levels of THC and degrees of impairment of driver performance, and epidemiological studies disagree as to whether marijuana use by a driver results in increased crash risk.”
Detecting impairment from cannabis is additionally complicated by another extraneous circumstance: variation in THC potency. The THC concentration conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that the only source of federal, research-grade cannabis “is considered by some researchers to be low quality,” the report stated, referring to studies showing that the government’s marijuana supply does not chemically reflect what’s available in state-legal commercial markets.
CRS also looked at the “inconsistent” results of studies examining the effects of cannabis use on traffic incidents. While some have indicated that consumption poses an increased risk on the road, the report argues that some may be conflating correlation and causation.
“Relatively few epidemiological studies of marijuana usage and crash risk have been conducted, and the few that have been conducted have generally found low or no increased risk of crashes from marijuana use,” CRS wrote.
After going through several other related issues, CRS laid out a couple of choices for Congress when it comes to dealing with the impaired driving issue. Those options include “continued research into whether a quantitative standard can be established that correlates the level of THC in a person’s body and the level of impairment” and compiling “better data on the prevalence of marijuana use by drivers, especially among drivers involved in crashes and drivers arrested for impaired driving.”
One of the last elements the report specifically focused on was federally mandated drug testing for individuals in “safety sensitive” jobs in the transportation sector. Interestingly, CRS seemed to suggest that, given the issues they outlined with respect to difficulties identifying active impairment from THC, the government should reevaluate whether suspensions for testing positive should be permanent.
“CRS could not identify any data on how many safety-sensitive transportation employees have lost their jobs as a result of positive tests for marijuana use,” the report states. “Considering the length of time that marijuana is detectable in the body after usage, and the uncertainty about the impairing effect of marijuana on driving performance, Congress and other federal policymakers may elect to reexamine the rationale for testing all safety-sensitive transportation workers for marijuana usage.”
“Alternatively, Congress and federal policymakers may opt to maintain the status quo until more research results become available,” the report advised.
Armentano, of NORML, said that legislators should be way of enacting policies focused on levels of THC or metabolites in drivers.
“As more states consider amending their cannabis consumption laws, lawmakers would best served to avoid amending traffic safety laws in a manner that relies solely on the presence of THC or its metabolites as determinants of driving impairment,” he said. “Otherwise, the imposition of traffic safety laws may inadvertently become a criminal mechanism for law enforcement and prosecutors to punish those who have engage in legally protected behavior and who have not posed any actionable traffic safety threat.”
Legal Medical Marijuana Tied To Lower Opioid Use, Another Study Finds
Adding to the ever-growing body of research that suggests legal access to marijuana may help mitigate the opioid crisis, a new study found that states with medical cannabis laws have seen a drop in opioid prescriptions for people aged 55 and younger.
Researchers from the University of Texas investigated prescription opioid use among people with private insurance (as opposed to those on publicly funded Medicare or Medicaid), and compared those rates in states with and without medical marijuana.
“When results were examined within each individual age cohort, opioid prescription rate varied depending on the stringency of state cannabis laws,” the study states. “In particular, in states which implemented medical cannabis use laws (but not other categories of cannabis liberalization laws), lower rates of opioid prescription were seen in the younger age cohorts (18–25, 26–35, 36–45 and 46–54 years).”
The findings were published last week in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Building on previous studies—including one that found opioid-related overdose deaths fell in states with legal marijuana dispensaries—the researchers used information from the database of one of the largest private health insurance providers in the country. This was important, the study’s authors write, because this subset of people “may exhibit different behaviors from Medicare and Medicaid subpopulations with regards to cannabis use.”
Past research has shown states with medical marijuana laws have issued fewer opioid prescriptions to people with government-funded health coverage.
The study population spanned more than four million individuals, which researchers broke down by age group in their analysis.
In 2016, when the research was being conducted, five states had fully legalized marijuana, 21 states had approved only medical cannabis and four other states had simply decriminalized possession. At the time, 1,770,081 people were enrolled in private insurance in states with legal medical marijuana access.
According to the study’s results, the states with the lowest prescription rates were those that had approved access to medical marijuana. When the results were examined by age group, researchers found that these lower rates were only seen in people ages 18 to 54.
“Overall, age-stratified adjusted analysis showed lowest rate of opioid prescription in states that allowed for medical cannabis use.”
While the authors admit there may be “a public health benefit associated with medical cannabis laws,” they point out this decrease in opioid prescriptions may also have to do with the fact that many states have implemented monitoring programs and other legislation designed to restrict access to opioids.
But, as the study states, “These findings suggest a difference between the privately insured versus Medicaid or Medicare insured populations, especially those who are older adults. Research has shown that Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries generally have greater disability than those with commercial insurance, perhaps because a proportion of beneficiaries qualify for Medicare coverage based on a disability.” As a result, it’s possible that more patients with public insurance have been prescribed opioids compared to the privately insured.
Also, as the authors note, it’s not surprising that older people have more prescriptions—that just comes with age. They do wonder, however, if “these patients are more likely to use cannabis as an adjunct therapeutic agent for pain control.”
“Baby Boomers, who are now in their mid- 50s and 60s, represent demographic cohort who experienced illicit drug use, including cannabis, as a societal norm, resulting from societal pressures and stresses in their youth,” the study states. “While younger adults appear to use cannabis with greater frequency than older adults (aged 50 and above), studies reveal that cannabis use among older adults may be increasing.”
In fact, one recent study found that 3 percent of adults 65 and older reported using cannabis in the past year. That’s seven times the rate of Baby Boomers who reported use a decade ago.