Although U.S. traffic fatalities have decreased overall during the past couple of decades, there has recently been a "disquieting" upward trend which may be at least partly due to an increase in drugged driving.
In fact, the percentage of fatal car crashes in which at least one driver tested drug-positive has nearly doubled over the past ten years, raising concerns among state and federal regulators.
From USA Today:
In 2015, 21% of the 31,166 fatal crashes in the U.S. involved at least one driver who tested positive for drugs after the incident — up from 12% in 2005, according to NHTSA. The rate rose in 14 of the last 15 years, falling for the first time last year.
Is marijuana legalization to blame?
There is an inclination among some to blame marijuana legalization for the problem – USA Today says the increase "corresponds" with the legalization movement, and quotes a Colorado highway safety official who says that the state's recreational marijuana laws "very probably" have led to an increase in fatal traffic accidents.
But other than guesses and weak logical correlations there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that marijuana use is causing any significant increase in car crash deaths.
It would be just as logical to say that the increase corresponds to the quadrupling of opioid painkiller prescriptions since 1999. Not to mention the fact that there's been a quadrupling of deaths from opioid prescription drugs in the same period, but maybe that's all a coincidence, right?
Speaking of coincidences, the number of deaths from marijuana use has remained constant throughout the same period – the number remains at zero.
But USA Today was quick to trot out a compellingly horrific example of a marijuana-addled driver run amok:
One victim, according to prosecutors, was David Aggio of California. He was killed March 8, 2014, when Rodolfo Alberto Contreras, who was high on marijuana, ran a red light at nearly 80 mph, crossed the center divider and demolished Aggio's Ford Explorer, prosecutors said.
Not to diminish the seriousness of this tragic event, but most people would not consider this as typical behavior of a marijuana user – the common perception of stoned drivers is that they tend to be too cautious behind the wheel.
The need for real data and useful strategies vs. "knee-jerk, fear-based policies"
The truth is that it is difficult to get a clear statistical breakdown of fatal car accidents involving drugged drivers, in terms of marijuana use compared to other drugs, although in Colorado, for example, there seems to have been a slight rise in traffic fatalities involving marijuana-impaired drivers since recreational cannabis was legalized in the state.
Marijuana legalization proponents warn against jumping to conclusions, however. Jolene Forman, staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, said:
We're interested in pursuing policies that advance what is empirically shown, rather than knee-jerk, fear-based policies... It looks like marijuana legalization has not led to road safety concerns.
More research is needed on several fronts – including further study of the effects of marijuana on driving – but to ignore the likely impact of spiraling opioid abuse on traffic safety and instead focusing primarily on the supposed dangers posed by drivers high on marijuana would be a mistake.
The viral photograph of an Ohio couple found in a car after having overdosed on opioids -- with a 4-year-old child in the back seat-- speaks louder than all the marijuana horror stories combined.
It would seem rather obvious that the opioid epidemic is as likely an explanation for the increase in drug-related traffic fatalities as marijuana, and until there is clear evidence proving otherwise, there is simply no excuse for trying to pin the blame on cannabis users.