A Senate committee that has historically supported marijuana reform measures released a report last week that included a misleading claim about the impact of cannabis legalization on road safety.
The Senate Appropriations Committee’s report on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill for Fiscal Year 2019 contained a section on “impaired driving,” which reads, in part:
“The Committee remains concerned about the increasing rates of impaired driving, particularly in States that adopt measures to decriminalize marijuana.”
“The Committee recognizes the importance of impaired driving countermeasures at the community level in protecting public safety, and encourages [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to expand its efforts with law enforcement to increase awareness and use of Drug Recognition Expert [DRE] and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement [ARIDE] training, particularly in States that have adopted recreational or medicinal marijuana laws,” the committee wrote.
While taking steps to reduce the rate of impaired driving seems like a no-brainer, the claim that states where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized have seen increased incidents of driving under the influence ignores key facts, Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
“While some studies have identified a slight uptick in the prevalence of THC in the blood of motorists, there are several reasons for this change,” Armentano said. “Specifically, more adults are using cannabis now than in the recent past, THC possesses a prolonged detection period compared to many other controlled substances and, most importantly, law enforcement are engaging in greater efforts than ever before to assess drivers for drug use.”
“But, ultimately, this uptick in prevalence has not been associated with a corresponding increase in motor vehicle accidents.”
That’s a key distinction. If you smoke a joint, THC or its inactive metabolite, carboxy THC, can show up in roadside drug tests for weeks after consumption. So the presence of those compounds in someone’s body does not necessarily indicate that they were high while behind the wheel.
There aren’t currently any reliable drug tests to detect active impairment—though researchers around the country are working to develop that technology. So law enforcement agencies often depend on officers trained as “drug recognition experts” to identify impaired driving.
That said, the Senate committee report overlooks a growing body of research that has failed to identify independent relationships between marijuana legalization and traffic accidents or fatalities.
For example, a paper published this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that “states that legalized marijuana have not experienced significantly different rates of marijuana- or alcohol-related traffic fatalities relative to [states that haven’t legalized].”
And a 2016 study that looked at rates of traffic fatalities from 1985 to 2014 actually found that “[medical marijuana law] states had lower traffic fatality rates” compared to states that haven’t legalized medical cannabis. The researchers said it was “possible that this is related to lower alcohol-impaired driving behavior” in states with legal medical marijuana.
Anti-legalization proponents frequently flag concerns about the public health impact of cannabis reform measures, particularly when it comes to impaired driving. But the Senate Committee on Appropriations’s report on the issue stands out, as the committee has traditionally embraced marijuana reform efforts.
On Thursday, for example, the same committee upheld protections for states where marijuana is legal from federal interference.
The committee also voted in favor of an amendment last week that would allow Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans.
In a separate report attached to the bill to fund the Department of Interior, released on Thursday, the committee expressed some concern about illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands, singling out states with legalization.
“The Committee is deeply concerned by reports of significant illegal marijuana grows on public lands, particularly those linked to transnational criminal organizations,” the panel wrote. “The Committee directs Forest Service Law Enforcement to prioritize working more closely with local law enforcement to identify, eradicate, and clean up illegal marijuana grows on public lands, particularly in those states that have legalized recreational marijuana.”