Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana more than doubled in Washington after the state legalized the drug in 2012, raising concerns in Ohio and other states that are considering measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational use, a AAA Foundation study found.
The study found the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who recently used marijuana rose from 8 percent to 17 percent between 2013 and 2014, when one in six Washington drivers involved in fatal crashes were found to have recently used marijuana.
“The significant increase in fatal crashes involving marijuana is alarming,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA’s traffic safety foundation. “Washington serves as an eye-opening case study for what other states may experience with road safety after legalizing the drug.”
On Tuesday, Ohio moved closer to becoming the 25th state to legalize marijuana for medical use when the Ohio House voted to approve a bill legalizing marijuana for people with qualifying medical conditions.
AAA was quick to point out that whether the use of marijuana is legal or not, motorists should avoid driving while impaired to avoid putting themselves and other drivers at risk.
“Just because a drug is legal does not mean it is safe to use while operating a motor vehicle, and we are very concerned about what we see as an alarming increase in the number of drug-impaired crashes,” said Cindy Antrican, a spokeswoman for AAA in the Miami Valley region.
In an attempt to mitigate drug-impaired driving, Ohio is one of a handful of states that have created legal limits, also known as per se limits, which specify the maximum amount of THC — that active ingredient in marijuana — that drivers can have in their system, based on a blood test.
Ohio has a per se limit of 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, similar in concept to the .08 blood alcohol limit for driving under the influence of alcohol.
But the THC guidelines are virtually meaningless, according to a separate AAA study, which found the legal limits for marijuana and driving are arbitrary and unsupported by science.
“One problem is that there is no standardized roadside test available for TCH…and it can take several hours from the time a driver is stopped until that evidence collected, during which time THC levels can go down really quickly,” Antrican said. “The other problem is that there is no scientific data that proves a specific level of THC indicates impairment. It can be different for everyone.”
As a result, drivers who are unsafe may be going free while others may be wrongly convicted, Antrican said.
AAA recommends replacing such laws with ones that rely on specially trained police officers to determine if a driver is impaired, backed up by a test for the presence of THC rather than a specific threshold.
“From AAA’s perspective, in order to improve road safety for everyone, we need to have a two-component system: a positive test that shows recent marijuana use, and, most importantly, behavioral and physiological evidence of driver impairment,” according to Antrican, who said law enforcement agencies across the country are already experimenting with several programs in which officers are trained to screen for dozens of indicators of drug use.
The use of marijuana, even for medical purposes, remains illegal in Ohio, despite widespread support.
While Ohio voters resoundingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for recreational use last November, polls show as many as nine in 10 Ohioans support its use for medical purposes.