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Marijuana, driving and fatalities: Putting it into perspective

Studies are now looking into the effects of marijuana legalization in Washington, and one recent finding shows that marijuana is now increasingly becoming a part of roadway fatalities. A local scientist helped put it into perspective for KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don.

Related: Snohomish County passes tax to fight drug use

“Even a couple hours later when the blood was drawn, that had doubled,” said Staci Hoff with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission about the number of cases where marijuana was present in blood tests after fatal accidents. “That’s 1 in 6 drivers in Washington that were involved in a fatal collision who were under the influence of active THC (marijuana).”

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AAA studied traffic fatalities in Washington and found that marijuana is increasingly showing up in tests. (AP)

According to information released by AAA, “the percentage of drivers involved in fatal crashes who recently used marijuana more than doubled from eight to 17 percent between 2013 and 2014,” and “one in six drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2014 had recently used marijuana, which is the most recent data available.”

AAA also notes that there is no science-based method to determine legal limits of intoxication when it comes to marijuana. Washington state has a per se limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter. That is akin to the .08 legal limit for alcohol consumption and driving.

Hoff agrees with that sentiment. She says that marijuana is not like alcohol that generally has a uniform effect on people.

“With what little information we have, typically we know that most people are below that per se, that five nanograms, within three to four hours after consuming marijuana,” she said. “Now edible marijuana is a totally different ball game and can cause peak levels to be delayed and sustained for much longer than traditional ways of smoking it like through a vaporizer or a joint.”

Hoff said that law enforcement in the state is now looking more toward being able to identify if someone is intoxicated on the roadside without the need for blood tests.

When it comes to marijuana use, Hoff said it’s about putting it into perspective. She said that, by far, alcohol is the biggest threat on the road. And there are other driving issues to consider, many of which are statistically worse than marijuana intoxication.

“We don’t know if it is a big deal yet,” Hoff said. “Alcohol is still the number one killer.”

Hoff said that drowsy driving is up to 10 times crash risk. Distracted driving has a range of 25 times crash risk. Driving under the influence of alcohol increases crash risk by about 15 times. Driving under the influence of marijuana is roughly equal to driving with a noisy child in the back seat and doubles the risk of an accident.

More studies need to be done to understand the effects of marijuana and how to further align laws with legalization, Hoff said.

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