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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

No, Marijuana Is Not Causing Traffic Deaths To Triple in the United States

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 7:05 AM

click to enlarge Must have been stoned - FLICKR
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  • Must have been stoned

USA Today is causing some Internet hoopla this week, with a brief report under the splashy-yet-threatening headline "Marijuana playing larger role in fatal crashes."

The nation's newspaper cites a Columbia University study that found "dope... contributed to 12% of traffic deaths in 2010," up from 4 percent in the late 1990s.

In other words, weed use is rampant on the roads, which, as more and more states move to legalize marijuana use in some shape or fashion, are now awash with stoned drivers smashing into buses full of schoolchildren. It's just as they warned us!

Except, not. The study cited by USA Today in this week's article -- odd timing, considering the study came out in January -- says merely that marijuana was detected in toxicology studies following fatal crashes. And since evidence of marijuana use can stay in the body for weeks, as the study's authors noted, there's no causation link between pot use and fatal auto wrecks.

But why let facts get in the way of a good headline?

The problem with stories like these is how easily and conveniently a study's findings are twisted.

The researchers at Columbia University found that fatal wrecks "involving" marijuana tripled. In those cases, post-mortem toxicology results returned positive for weed use.

That means more people are using marijuana, which makes sense considering more people can now access marijuana legally.

The researchers took pains to point this out:

In an end note to the study, the researchers pointed to several limitations with the research. One is that marijuana can be detected in the blood up to one week after use. And, therefore, the researchers said, "the prevalence of nonalcohol drugs reported in this study should be interpreted as an indicator of drug use, not necessarily a measurement of drug impairment."

That major caveat magically vanished by the time the study's news hit the paper, which said pot is the cause of more accidents, not merely present during the accidents.

The other problem with this research is the threshold of intoxication with marijuana, which is still up to major debate. Several "stoned driving" bills have failed in California for just this reason, because testing available would only reveal that a driver had smoked weed sometime in the past week (which is why weed advocates derisively called them "sober DUI" bills).

Alcohol is still the biggest factor in fatal auto wrecks by far, the researchers found, with booze present in 40 percent of traffic fatalities.

Of course, driving stoned is a stupid thing to do. The problem is determining what "stoned" is, as the National Institutes on Drug Abuse is currently doing, USA Today reported.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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