Pot increasingly linked to fatal car crashes, state reports

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Among those involved in fatal car crashes in Washington, the amount of drivers under the influence of marijuana escalated dramatically between 2013 and 2014, according to a new report by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC). The report found more of these drivers not only have noticeable THC in their blood, but levels indicating the driver consumed the drug within hours of the accident.

There was a 48 percent increase in THC-influenced drivers involved in fatal crashes between 2013 to 2014, according to the report. "We have seen marijuana involvement in fatal crashes remain steady over the years, and then it just spiked in 2014," said Staci Hoff, WTSC Data and Research Director, in a press release.

As WTSC spokeswoman Shelly Baldwin told Crosscut, “The studies that we feel are really well done and valid are indicating that marijuana and driving increase your risk of a crash by double. As we pull and analyze our data around traffic fatalities, all we knew was whether [drivers] had marijuana in their system. What we couldn’t tell was whether that marijuana in somebody’s system was perhaps a factor in the crash.”

The study's unspoken implication is that the recreational legalization of marijuana is connected to its increased influence in fatal car crashes. However,  around half of the THC-positive drivers were also under the influence of alcohol, exceeding the state’s limit of a 0.08 blood alcohol content. Furthermore, the majority of the crashes took place in the first six months of the year, before recreational marijuana stores opened.

According to the report, most of the drivers tested for drug use after deadly car accidents were found to have active marijuana in their system when the crash occurred.

Washington is one of just four states in the country where recreational marijuana is legal. But because the drug remains federally illegal, the state is still in a limbo post-legalization phase, where there isn’t enough science to back up legal driving limits for it. Under state law, people are allowed to drive under the influence with 5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of THC. Ohio and Nevada have a limit of 2 ng/ml of THC, while a dozen other states such as Illinois, Arizona and Rhode Island have zero tolerance for marijuana influence on the road.

“The 5 nanogram number is quite a low number,” said Linda Callahan, a Seattle-based DUI attorney and author of the Washington DUI Practice Manual. “When the initiative was put out, it was like an agreement that law enforcement said, ‘OK, we won’t fight legalization of marijuana if we set the number so low that we can rescue for [marijuana-influenced] DUIs.’ I think that was a kind of bargain that was made.”

Regardless of legal limits, Washington officials don’t currently have a marijuana counterpart for alcohol’s portable breathalyzer test. “With the exception of the field sobriety test, where we could get some indication of drug use in general that would allow us to develop a probable cause to make an arrest, there’s nothing like that [for marijuana],” said Sgt. Paul Cagle, a Washington State Patrol spokesman. “The only way to truly get an accurate depiction of whether [drivers] have any levels of THC in the bloodstream would be a blood test.”

“Because it’s still considered illegal by the federal government, I don’t see the federal government at this point putting any money toward it,” Cagle added. “It’s anyone’s guess as to what the state legislature might do.”

The Denver police department bought themselves a “Nasal Ranger,” or olfactometer, to detect marijuana use in cars. They look like telescopes meant to fit on the nose, and officers use it to inhale a certain ratio of filtered air to target the level of marijuana odor emitting from the vehicle. But the device’s accuracy is limited to the smelling skills of the cop, and there’s no standard they can follow to base an arrest.

Because Washington residents can now attain more easily, the data WTSC released warns people that there’s an increase of marijuana users on the road. According to officials, this data is meant to publicize that the state will have DUI patrols across the state starting August 21st and running through Labor Day weekend.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec is Crosscut's Science and Tech Fellow. She came to Washington from her home state of Connecticut by way of New York, Florida, California and Michigan in pursuit of the perfect pint. She’s a graduate student at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Amelia is a podcaster, blogger, ice hockey player, indoor cycling instructor, and two-time marathon runner. She volunteers teaching yoga to inner-city kids in Detroit, but her “stress release” really comes from snowboarding. She’s shredded the gnar in New Zealand, Italy and Switzerland, and anticipates the next day when fresh powder hits the mountain.