Could legalizing marijuana cause more fatal car crashes in Ohio? ‘It’s extraordinarily complicated”

By: - October 6, 2023 4:55 am
BUCKEYE LAKE, Ohio — AUGUST 17: A marijuana plant in a flowering room, August 17, 2023, at PharmaCann, Inc.’s cultivation and processing facility in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

BUCKEYE LAKE, Ohio — AUGUST 17: A marijuana plant in a flowering room, August 17, 2023, at PharmaCann, Inc.’s cultivation and processing facility in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Opponents of legalizing marijuana argue it will lead to more car crash injuries and deaths in Ohio, while proponents are saying that’s not necessarily true. 

So, which is it?

“It’s a lot more nuanced,” said Doug Berman, executive director of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at Ohio State University. 

Protect Ohio Workers and Families, the opposition to marijuana legalization, predicts Ohio would see an additional 48 fatal vehicle crashes and 2,298 more injury crashes if voters approve Issue 2, based on projections using the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s crash statistics and research from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

“It’s not worth one single additional fatal crash — let alone 48 more — just so the people who use marijuana can get it more easily,” Heinz von Eckartsberg with the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police said in a statement. “We need to be doing everything we can to make our roads safer, not more dangerous.”

Ohioans will vote on Issue 2 in the upcoming November election which would legalize and regulate the cultivation, manufacturing, testing and the sale of marijuana to Ohioans 21 and up. It would also legalize home grow for Ohioans 21 and up with a limit of six plants per person and 12 plants per residence, and impose a 10% tax at the point of sale for each transaction. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a study to estimate the effects of marijuana legalization and fatal traffic crash rates from 2009-2019 and saw death rates go up 4.1% and injury rates go up 5.8% on average after legalization.

“Why would we ever go to the ballot and knowingly, willingly vote these new deaths and injuries upon ourselves, our families, our neighbors? It’s cruel and unthinkable,” Gary Wolske, President of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement. 

But the backer of Issue 2 Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol thinks those statistics are a stretch. 

“That’s such a leap of logic that they may want to consider participating in the long-jump in the Olympics next year,” said Tom Haren, spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol. 

“The data that they are relying on is seriously flawed,” he said. “Effectively, all they do is pinpoint a state and a date in time and say they started regulating sales on this date.”

Haren said some states that have legalized marijuana have seen their population increase, which could cause more car accidents. 

Colorado’s first recreational marijuana stories opened in 2014 and the state saw an average of 70,000 new residents each year from 2010 to 2020, according to the state’s demography office.  

“One thing we do know is that as your population increases, so do traffic accidents because you have more people driving on the road,” Haren said. 

Marijuana also stays in the body longer than alcohol. Depending on an individual’s marijuana use, it may be detectable in one’s system for up to 30 days, according to American Addiction CentersBecause of that, a driver could have THC in their system for days after using marijuana.

“It doesn’t mean that the driver was impaired,” Haren said. 

If Issue 2 passes, it would still be illegal to drive while impaired. 

The National Transportation Safety Board found alcohol and cannabis are the two most likely detected drugs among drivers arrested for impaired driving and fatally injured drivers, according to a 2022 report.

“Although cannabis and many other drugs have been shown to impair driving performance and are associated with increased crash risk, there is evidence that, relative to alcohol, awareness about the potential dangers of driving after using other drugs is lower,” according to the report.

Marijuana can “affect psychomotor functions such as attention, reaction time and coordination … decrease car handling, can impair performance and attention while increasing reaction times, following distance and lane deviation,” according to AAA.

A study released earlier this year from the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health showed an increase in car crash fatalities in four of the seven states used in the study. The researchers also found, on average, a 10% increase in motor vehicle accident deaths in recreational markets. 

Researchers for the study collected data from death certificates from 2009-2019 in Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

“It’s extraordinarily complicated for so many different reasons to have a lot of confidence about any of this data because there are so many competing influences across so many layers of this,” Ohio State University’s Doug Berman said. 

He said there are so many variables to consider  — ranging from how researchers conducted their studies to if people were driving more during a particular year. 

Colorado and Washington were the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use and attracted a lot of “pot tourism,” Berman said. 

“There is longstanding data that shows tourists are not as safe on the roads, they don’t know the roads,” he said. 

Some Ohioans drive up to Michigan to legally purchase recreational marijuana. 

“Simply getting those people off the roads, having less miles driven, that’s the easiest way to have less crashes,” Berman said. “Making it easier for those individuals to access cannabis closer to home could be a net-safety gain, but if that’s at the expense of a whole bunch of people using more cannabis, more alcohol and driving, then we might get a net safety detriment.”

He thinks Ohio’s roads would be safer if drivers switched from alcohol use to cannabis. 

“But if they supplement their alcohol use with cannabis use, that’s definitely going to make our roads more dangerous,” Berman said. “Can we know for sure how that’s going to play out? We really don’t.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on Twitter.



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Megan Henry
Megan Henry

Megan Henry is a reporter for the Ohio Capital Journal and has spent the past five years reporting in Ohio on various topics including education, healthcare, business and crime. She previously worked at The Columbus Dispatch, part of the USA Today Network.