cross posted at mLaw

The pushers of the drugged driving meme falsely equate cannabis detected in the blood of drivers with the widely known and understood concept of blood alcohol measurement.

As cannabis legalization begins and the end of the national prohibition of the natural and useful substance appears on the distant horizon as inevitable, propagandists and their enablers in the media have begun to report in a distinctly yellow journalistic fashion on a scary rise in so-called “drugged driving.”

Implicit in the scare-the-suburbanites style of the various media reports on the topic that have appeared in the few short weeks following the commercial availability of cannabis to adult recreational users in Colorado are a host of unspoken assumptions of the type that underpinned much of the drug-war propaganda that Americans were fed during the 80 year prohibition of cannabis. This includes such unfounded memes as; implying that cannabis users have no concern for the safety of others, conflating the known national scandal of drunk driving on America’s highways with cannabis use when the two drugs are widely known by both medical professionals and regular citizens to have significantly different effects on users, and, misrepresenting findings that suggest a connection between cannabis found in drivers’ blood streams and impairment that results in auto accidents.

Another feature of such sensationalized reporting is neglecting to cite studies that countervail the intended message. In the sensationalized reportage found in mega-media over the past few weeks it is interesting that the 2011 study performed by Dr. Daniel Rees, an economist at the University of Colorado in Denver that was published by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the University of Chicago Law School in 2013 is rarely mentioned or cited. Dr. Rees’ study found that in the states where cannabis has been legal for a decade or more for medicinal purposes traffic fatalities have reduced by statistically significant amounts.

The important study shows that highway deaths in states that have allowed their citizens to use cannabis for medicinal purposes have reduced dramatically, an overall reduction of nearly nine percent. The study looked at traffic fatalities nationwide, including in 13 states that have legalized medical cannabis, over the 19 year period between 1999 and 2009. Rees’ research shows that traffic fatalities dropped significantly in the first year after states legalized medical cannabis, decreases ranging between eight and eleven percent. The decrease was most significant for drivers between the ages of 20 and 39.

At the time the study was released, Dr. Rees advised that his research team was “astounded by how little is known about the effects of legalizing marijuana.” The team focused on traffic deaths in America because “there is good data, and the data allow us to test whether alcohol was a factor.” An associate of Dr. Rees who co-authored the study, Dr. Mark Atkinson of the Economics Department of Montana State University, added, “Traffic fatalities are an important outcome from a policy perspective, because they represent the leading cause of death among Americans five to 35.“

The largest reason for the decrease in alcohol related fatalities in states that have legalized medical cannabis, according to Dr. Rees, is that the legalization of medical marijuana is associated with a decrease in alcohol consumption. The study found that “legalization is associated with an almost 5 percent decrease in the consumption of beer, the most popular beverage among 18-29 year-olds.” Rees found that “legalization of medical marijuana leads to sharp reductions in binge drinking, a form of alcohol abuse considered to have “especially high social and economic costs.””

Rees was careful to point out that while traffic fatalities dropped in states where medical cannabis is legal, “the negative relationship between legalization and alcohol–related traffic fatalities does not necessarily imply that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol.” Although this is the case with respect to Rees’ study, Rees points to other studies that have been carried out by scientists that indicate that drivers who are impaired by their consumption of alcohol tend to underestimate how badly their driving skills are impaired and for this reason alcohol users drive faster and take greater risks behind the wheel. On the other hand, cannabis impaired drivers display greater caution than they do when driving sober, driving more carefully and taking fewer risks.

Rees cautioned that, due to the fact that the majority of medical cannabis users as of the date of the study are younger males (69 percent of Coloradans who use medical cannabis are male and 48 percent of Montanans who use medical cannabis are between the ages of 18 and 40) the data used in his study related primarily to these cannabis users and estimates for female users are less precise. Rees also noted that our nation’s disconnected and varied policies regarding cannabis regulation “have not been research-based thus far,” and called for additional scientific study that can lend legitimacy our nation’s cannabis regulatory policies. Dr. Rees concluded, “Although we make no policy recommendations, it certainly appears as though medical marijuana laws are making our highways safer.”

It should be emphasized that scientific studies regarding the benefits of cannabis, medical uses for the substance or studies on how the substance affects social relationships, are nearly impossible for researchers to perform due to the self-imposed federal embargo on medical and psychological research of cannabis. The substance is currently scheduled for political reasons as one of the most dangerous drugs known in America and cannabis is said by federal regulators to have no medical benefit. It is a simple yet startling fact that cannabis is considered by our federal government to be a more dangerous drug than both cocaine and methamphetamine.

Due to cannabis being scheduled so aggressively, researchers cannot study the properties of cannabis to discover the possible medicinal uses of the natural substance. It is for this reason, the self-imposed political embargo on scientific study, that researchers who are seeking to understand the medical benefits of cannabis or its influence in our culture are forced to review more general statistical information and develop hypotheses based upon this general information, as was the case in Dr. Rees’ study. Dr. Rees compiled public medical statistics from several sources including the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the Fatality Analysis Reporting Systems to draw his conclusions regarding the impact of cannabis legalization on traffic fatalities.

The pushers of the drugged driving meme also falsely equate cannabis detected in the blood of drivers who cause accidents with the widely known and understood concept of blood alcohol measurement. As is well known, alcohol levels detected in the systems of drivers using breathalyzers are in fact indicators of physical impairment – impairments that lead to thousands of automobile accidents every year in America and tragically kill tens of thousands of citizens. What is widely known in both law enforcement and the medical establishment is that while the effects (and therefore the possible impairments caused by) cannabis are short lived, lasting roughly an hour or two, cannabis can be detected in a user’s blood stream for 30 days or more.

The obvious truth is that while cannabis (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, THC) can be found in the system of a user for up to a month after a single use – a cannabis user can never be physically affected by the substance for up to month after using the substance. Law enforcement officials and journalists who suggest that a driver is ‘drugged’ because they used cannabis 30 days ago are liars, liars who know that they are dishonestly manipulating the facts for the purpose of hoodwinking their audience. The bandying about of statistics regarding drivers who have cannabis in their system, without identifying the huge caveat described above, is a tactic used by cannabis prohibitionists that is cynical, deceptive and patronizing.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker under creative commons license