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Is Legalized Marijuana Causing More Fatal Accidents?

Many people across the United States have applauded Colorado's progressive marijuana laws, and the passage of Amendment 64 has had many benefits -- including increased tax revenues, decreased crime and a thriving economy in the state. However, a new study shows that the legalization of recreational marijuana may also have an alarming effect on public safety.

The Study: Overview

The study, conducted by the American Auto Association (AAA), shows the growing role marijuana plays in serious car accidents. Among drivers involved in fatal car accidents in Washington State, the percentage who were under the influence of marijuana more than doubled between 2013 and 2014. Although the study looked only at Washington, the dates covered coincide with the legalization of recreational marijuana in both Washington and Colorado, allowing us to extrapolate the data for the Centennial State.

The Study: By The Numbers

In 2010, Washington saw 40 fatalities from accidents in which at least one driver tested positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana. That figure rose to 85 fatalities in 2014 - a 112 percent increase in the span of just four years. Why such a sharp increase? Halfway through that four-year span (in 2012), Washington legalized the use of marijuana.

At this same time, Colorado also outlined its new policy for the use of marijuana in the state. While there has not been a similar study issued for fatal accidents in this state, Colorado and Washington share enough similarities in this area that it is reasonable to suggest that a similar increase will be found when the final data for Colorado is reviewed.

Holding Impaired Drivers Accountable: More Difficult Than You Would Expect

In fatal accidents such as those described above, it is very difficult to scientifically determine whether someone is impaired by marijuana at the time of an accident. While law enforcement can generally rely on a certain blood alcohol level to indicate drunk driving, tests that measure THC levels are not as established and require a more nuanced analysis.

Further complicating the issue is that everyone reacts to marijuana differently and it remains in the body much longer than alcohol. That makes it difficult to hold people accountable for driving while high.

Whether or not law enforcement is able to hold someone accountable for their actions via criminal charges, the civil legal system of Colorado provides some additional options. Personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits cannot put someone in prison for their actions, but they can prevent a negligent driver from completely avoiding the recklessness of his or her decision to drive while high.

Colorado and other states have a lot of work to do to fight drugged driving and find ways to identify impairment. In the meantime, though, we sadly expect to see more people injured and killed in these situations.

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