Is Medical Marijuana Causing More Fatal Crashes?

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

Medical marijuana’s role in fatal auto accidents is a subject that’s rarely addressed by those who support full legalization of cannabis. But I found numerous articles about it online and all show there is cause for concern.

An NBC News story warned that “Pot Fuels Surge in Drugged Driving Deaths” back in 2014, the year after Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana:

“During each shift at her drive-through window, once an hour, Cordelia Cordova sees people rolling joints in their cars. Some blow smoke in her face and smile.

Cordova, who lost a 23-year-old niece and her 1-month-old son to a driver who admitted he smoked pot that day, never smiles back. She thinks legal marijuana in Colorado, where she works, is making the problem of drugged driving worse.”

“Drugged driving” is a term I had not heard before. Police agencies and medical professionals usually refer to it as driving under the influence or operating a vehicle while intoxicated. It is a perfect description, not only for marijuana, but for any substance that alters your ability to safely operate a vehicle.

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The NBC News story quotes researchers at Columbia University, who looked at toxicology reports on over 23,000 dead drivers in six states were medical marijuana was legal. Cannabis was detected in the bodies three times more often in 2010 than in 1999.  

"This trend suggests that marijuana is playing an increased role in fatal crashes, said Dr. Guohua Li, co-author and director for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center.

But alcohol was the most common mind-altering substance detected, appearing in the blood of nearly 40 percent of the drivers who died in 2010.

Research on this subject can be somewhat contradictory. A second study at Columbia found that states with medical marijuana laws had an 11 percent decrease in traffic fatalities. They also found there were fewer alcohol related accidents, suggesting that some younger drivers were substituting marijuana for alcohol.

Marijuana, like opiates and alcohol, should never be consumed by someone intending to drive. Even cannabidiol (CBD) based medications, which marijuana supporters tout as safe, may contain trace amounts tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical ingredient in cannabis that makes people high.

I am not an active proponent of medical marijuana, although I realize there are those who benefit from its use. But cannabis is not always the "magic bullet" when it comes to pain relief, and not all pain patients support it.

I tried CBD medication for three weeks and it did nothing for my pain. Being asthmatic precludes me from smoking or vaping, and I have been told using edibles in the amount required to achieve pain relief would require a large amount. Medical marijuana is also costly and can be cost prohibitive for those of us on fixed incomes.

I did vote for full legalization last year when it was on the California ballot. I also believe those who buy it from medical marijuana dispensaries have a right to know where it is cultivated, along with what pesticides, fertilizers or other harmful substances may have been used in its cultivation. People are going to use marijuana whether it is legal or illegal, so state and federal governments should legislate accordingly.

Studies show that Colorado, Oregon and Washington State have all seen an increase in car crashes since they fully legalized marijuana, although the number of fatal crashes has remained about the same. A recent analysis by the Denver Post found the number of drivers in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana after fatal crashes has risen by 145 percent since 2013.

Like everything else, we can draw our own conclusions from these statistics. I only ask that readers who are medical marijuana users check your state’s laws before smoking or vaping, consuming CBD, or ingesting the popular edibles.

THC is a known psychoactive and can affect your ability to safely operate a vehicle. CBD can also show up in toxicology reports and will reflect on the driver if they’re involved in an accident. Please educate yourself and be sober from any substance, legal or illegal, before driving.

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Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.