The popular counter culture holiday centered around the consumption of marijuana — commonly referred to as 4/20 — was earlier this month and it was clear that law enforcement and other state actors were aware of the dangers that driving while high poses. Headlines like “Law Enforcement Out In Force To Stop High Driving” and “Celebrating 4-20? Cops plan increased DUI enforcement” ran in newspapers across the country.
While these efforts are necessary, much more needs to be done in order to curtail the tsunami of drugged drivers that is likely headed our way as marijuana continues to be legalized across the country. As of now, nine states plus the District of Columbia allow for the recreational use of marijuana and another 20 grant its use for medical purposes. Without implementing well thought out policies alongside legalization — such as regulatory controls, the use of reliable roadside breath tests and public relations campaigns — the consequences could be deadly.
A 2017 analysis by the Denver Post calls attention to this traffic safety concern. According to their investigation, traffic fatalities involving a driver who tested positive for marijuana have increased considerably every year since the substance was legalized in both Colorado and Washington — the first states to pass recreational use laws. And for Colorado specifically, the death toll has more than doubled since 2013.
Another study that specifically focuses on the 4/20 holiday comes to a similar conclusion. The researchers — using nearly 25 years of data — found that traffic fatalities on April 20, when compared to one week before and after, spiked by 12 percent.
But not everyone is convinced of the correlation.
Take for example a 2017 report published in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers found that although traffic fatality rates have increased in both Colorado and Washington since legalization, death rates also rose in other states where recreational marijuana remained illegal. In other words, it’s difficult to affix changing traffic trends in Washington and Colorado to marijuana alone because additional factors could be at play on a more regional or national scale.
The conclusions drawn from studies exploring the link between traffic safety and marijuana legalization are anything but concrete, but one thing is for certain: The connection between legalization and traffic safety is an important issue and should be made a priority for further study and legislative action — especially since recreational use is only expected to climb in the coming years. According to some accounts, the number of states that allow recreational marijuana could more than double by 2020.
The legalization tide is slowly fueling an appetite for a multi-faceted campaign against drugged driving — and for good reason. A similar effort that targeted drunk driving beginning in the early 1980s had notably positive results: Drunk driving fatalities per 100,000 Americans have dropped by 65 percent since 1982 and — perhaps a more consequential and difficult milestone to achieve — it is no longer socially acceptable to drink to intoxication before getting behind the wheel.
We should continue efforts to further diminish drunk driving, but we should also consider that our limited traffic safety dollars could be more effective if pivoted towards the new and emerging marijuana threat. Sticking to the status quo of targeting alcohol alone will only exacerbate the problem.
4/20 may seem like a harmless holiday that promotes marijuana indulgence and the subsequent snack food cravings, but widespread daily use without the legal framework to mitigate the negative externalities is a recipe for disaster. Traffic safety officials and state legislators around the country need to address the issue before more joints are lit and the problem becomes a bigger challenge to overcome.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.