July 2020

Cannabis Legalization Linked with Driving Fatalities

New evidence shows that cannabis legalization may be linked with driving fatalities. As more and more states legalize recreational cannabis, healthcare providers must continue to counsel patients about the effects of cannabis on reaction time and coordination.

Using different methodologies, two new studies evaluated changes in driving fatality rates by state since retail sales began. One study looked at Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreational cannabis. It found that an additional 75 deaths annually were linked to cannabis legalization in Colorado, but not in Washington. The second study reviewed data from four states, adding Oregon and Alaska to the first two. In this study, cannabis legalization was linked to increased fatalities. The authors projected an additional 6,800 deaths each year if legalization occurred nationwide.

Unfortunately, due to the inability to accurately assess driver impairment and cannabis use in real time, it is difficult to determine the direct correlation between cannabis legalization and driving fatalities. Currently, most roadside tests for cannabis use are based on officer observation – as of now, there isn’t a cannabis breathalyzer. Cannabis is stored in fat and remains in the body for a long time, so testing someone’s blood or urine cannot accurately pinpoint if they were high while driving. Therefore, neither of these new studies could definitively confirm that cannabis use specifically played a role in each driving fatality, nor could they control for other factors that might affect fatality rates, such as the use of other impairing substances. And there’s some evidence that cannabis availability, prevalence of use, and common routes of administration vary by state, which could impact these findings.

As more data is collected, and testing methods improve, public policy and guidelines will be easier to establish and enforce. For now, patients should be reminded that driving under the influence of any substance, regardless of legal status, puts both themselves and everyone around them at risk.

Learn more about cannabis, including other potential side effects, in our Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids CE. Also review our monographs on Cannabinoids and Cannabinoid-Containing Ingredients to learn more about what effects other ingredients in this class might have.

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