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Does Marijuana Legalization Lead To More Car Accidents?

Update Date: Apr 01, 2019 10:14 PM EDT
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Marijuana's legalization is still a tense prospect in many places, with proponents and critics of the plants lining up to either champion or tear down the viability of making it more widespread. Frequently, debates surrounding the future of marijuana center on its impact on public health, and nowhere is more attention being paid than on the impact of legalization on car accidents.

Does marijuana legalization lead to more car accidents, and if so, how are authorities responding? Here's everything we know about legal weed and the way it's changing our roadways.

Studies provide mixed results

Marijuana has only been legalized for long in a handful of places across the developed world, but a number of studies have already been initiated to track its impact on driving and public health in general. Thus far, the results from these studies have been relatively mixed, with some asserting that marijuana legalization leads to a direct increase in road collisions whereas others find no such correlation between the two. The National Transportation Safety Board notes that the number of drug-impaired drivers across the country has been ticking upwards, however, leading many to believe that the prevalence of weed is making roads riskier.

With the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety also releasing figures claiming that legalized marijuana was linked with a 6 percent upward tick in record collisions, it also appears likely that critics of the substance have some merit. It's relatively logical that an increased amount of marijuana usage would likely lead to an increase in car accidents, given that the substance impairs one's ability to drive and thus an increase in usage is generally risky. Other studies have nonetheless found no link between legalized marijuana and a notable uptick in car accidents, however, so it remains to be seen if an authoritative answer has been arrived at.

One 2017-era study noted that states which legalized marijuana saw a general uptick in car crashes in general, for instance, but that those crashes couldn't necessary be contributed to the substance. Other factors, like population growth, must also be taken into consideration. Outside of the United States, research into legal marijuana's impact on drivers is similarly inconclusive, perhaps because not enough time has passed since early legalization to determine the substance's true reach.

Police in Canada have made it resoundingly clear that early data suggest no spike in pot-impaired driving after legalization, for instance, demonstrating that the fault is perhaps with the differences between law enforcement in the two nations. Parsing whether legal weed is causing more pedestrians their lives is evidently challenging on both sides of the border.

More research is needed

If one thing is clear, it's that additional research is needed before marijuana's legalization can safely be said to have a major impact on driving and pedestrian livelihoods one way or another. With a hodge-podge of legalization efforts currently dotting the map, the status of marijuana is uncertain in many key areas where it should be studied but can't be easily due to its outlawed status. The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC, is still unfamiliar to many scientists who haven't had legitimate opportunities to study it or how it affects the human brain.

Driving while impaired with any substance, including marijuana regardless of its legal status, is outlawed in all 50 states and virtually all foreign countries. Nonetheless, critics and proponents of weed can come together and agree that law enforcement officials and researchers need better training and tools to determine whether a driver is under the influence of drugs. As the substance continues to grow more popular with the public at large, it's likely such training and tools will be provided.

Two in three Americans now support legalizing it, for instance, a figure that demonstrates why marijuana is of such interest to those looking into traffic fatalities. 

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