As more and more states legalize some level of marijuana use -- welcome to the fold, New York State -- politicians in more and more states will embark upon a series of inane exercises. These include a sudden and inordinate interest in driver safety.
An increase in "drugged driving" -- the idea that marijuana legalization will lead to everyone on the roads being stoned -- is an argument regularly trotted out against marijuana legalization. It was used recently by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to explain why she's bucking her constituents' will by opposing marijuana legalization. And drugged driving is indeed an issue on the nation's freeways... but it's a reason to outlaw prescription drugs, not pot.
Prescription drugs are present in fatal automobile crashes at three times the rate of cannabis, a recent study found, and in half of all fatal crashes involving "drugged driving," alcohol played a factor.
Not only all that, but drivers are also combining drugs -- legal and illegal -- more than they did before, the study found.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center analyzed traffic data from the past two decades. They found that while more drivers in fatal crashes are testing positive for cannabis, more drivers are also testing positive for prescription drugs -- and are "more likely to be older than 50," according to the study, published earlier this week in Public Health Reports.
Drivers with multiple drugs in their system tripled from 1993 to 2010, the study's authors found -- at the exact same time that prescriptions of opiate-based painkillers as well as psychotropic "mood" drugs skyrocketed.
Of the nearly 5,000 crashes, fewer than 1,000 involved cannabis only, the researchers found. That's a "significant fraction," and not to be dismissed.
However, prescription drugs were found more often, in 46.5 percent of fatal crashes to 36.6 percent for marijuana. And it's prescription drugs that were singled out in the study's conclusion -- not weed.
"[P]eople driving under the influence of prescription drugs seem to represent an increasing share of drugged drivers involved in fatal collisions," the authors wrote. "This trend is expected to continue with the aging U.S. population and as reliance on pharmaceutical treatment increases."
Also to blame: America, or at least its dependence on car culture. A key prevention measure could be "policies that increase affordable access to mass transit and other alternatives to driving, especially during the day, when our results suggest that a large fraction of fatal drugged-driving crashes occur," the authors wrote.
This is no argument that stoned driving is safe -- it is not -- but it belies the notion that legal weed will make the roads more dangerous.
Prescription drugs and booze are still far more toxic than marijuana, and far more deadly. And, for now, far more legal.