On October 8, 2014

Driving while impaired: Colorado and Washington states study effects of legalization

By Julia Purdy

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles tracking the effects of marijuana legalization on public safety. 

In December of 2012, four days apart, limited recreational use of marijuana became legal in both Washington State and Colorado. Proponents of legalization in both states had succeeded in placing the measure on their respective general election ballots through public initiatives. In both states, legalization passed by very slender margins, after months of individuals and organizations campaigning both for or against the measures.

In Washington State, Initiative 502 was approved by popular vote on Nov. 6, 2012, and took effect Dec. 6 (although regulations governing production, processing and retail sales were given another year for implementation). Although over half of Washington counties voted against legalization, the measure passed by 352,974 votes. Counties with large cities and/or recreation destinations accounted for the measure’s success. Washington saw an impressive voter turnout of 81 percent on this measure.

In Colorado, Amendment 64 also passed in the Nov. 6 general election. The margin was 266,245 votes with its counties split almost evenly for and against. Again, urbanized and/or recreation counties supported legalization more than rural counties. Colorado saw a voter turnout of 68.6 percent. The law took effect on Dec. 10, 2013 and the first cannabis purveyors legally opened their doors in Colorado on Jan. 1, 2014.

In both states, legalization has been accompanied by a raft of regulations, including age limitations and a prohibition against driving under the influence, laws that treat cannabis as analogous to alcohol.

A complicating factor is the fact that sale, possession, and use of cannabis are still illegal under federal law.

Measuring public safety

The potential spike in traffic citations and fatalities has been of great concern to public safety officials. Drunk driving is well understood and crash data has been gathered for decades, both at the federal level through the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA) and at the state level through governors’ task forces and police chiefs’ associations. However, unlike with alcohol,  the effects of driving under the influence of marijuana are not well known. Therefore, the legalization of recreational cannabis has added a fresh element of urgency to agencies who need to be able to quickly and accurately assess those driving under the influence of marijuana.

In efforts to confirm the actual effect (or lack thereof) of recreational toking on highway safety, research is proceeding on several fronts and involves health researchers, coroners’ offices, highway safety professionals and law enforcement at every level of government.

One ongoing prong of attack is to compare pre-legalization statistics on DUIs and fatal crashes due to alcohol in Washington State and Colorado with fresh data gathered since 2012. The results would show if legalization did in fact contribute to an increase of fatal crashes and could then guide public education and outreach aimed at combatting the problem.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2012, listed Colorado as fifth highest in the nation for fatal crashes. That year, 9.1 per 100,000 people in Colorado were victims of fatal crashes (from all causes). Colorado were surpassed only by Wyoming with 21.3 fatal crashes per 100,000, Arizona with 12.6, Florida with 12.5, and Maine with 12.3.

Early results from Colorado as an “experimental lab”

Nationwide, the American Journal of Epidemiology concluded that since 2007 “cannabinoids have been the most prevalent drug other than alcohol detected in fatally injured drivers.”

The President’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has now set its sights on drugged driving as a measurable public health threat. Its research arm, the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) program, maintains an Investigative Support Center, whose mission is “to promote multi-Administration drug intelligence development and dissemination.” It is RMHDITA’s belief that “Colorado and Washington serve as experimental labs for the nation to determine the impact of legalizing marijuana. This is an important opportunity to gather and examine meaningful data and facts. Citizens and policymakers may want to delay any decisions on this important issue until there is sufficient and accurate data to make an informed decision.”

RMHIDTA recently issued its August 2014 report on the impact of legalization in that state, including hospital and ER admissions, effects on children, the spread of drug traffic, and more.

It compares impaired driving statistics over a 5-year period, from 2007 to 2012. The 2012 data was obtained from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s fatality analysis reporting system (FARS), Colorado State Patrol, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, laboratories and numerous Colorado law enforcement agencies, and all Colorado coroners’ offices, which generated toxicology reports based on autopsies of crash victims. RMHIDTA says this represents 100 percent reporting.

Between 2007 and 2012, traffic fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana doubled, according to FARS data in the report. Additionally, in 2007 Colorado traffic fatalities involving cannabis-positive drivers represented 7.04 percent of the total traffic fatalities. By 2012, that number more than doubled to 16.53 percent. The report notes that from 2006 to 2012, slightly less than 50 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes were not tested for cannabis use. But of those who were, an average of 70 percent of fatal crashes were attributable to marijuana use by the driver.

In January 2014, the Colorado State Highway Patrol initiated its DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs) program to monitor drug impairment by the type of drug involved.  It reported that in the first six months of 2014, of the 454 DUID citations issued, 77 percent involved marijuana in combination with other substances, and 42 percent involved marijuana only. April topped the other months with 108 “incidents,” of which 76.8 percent involved marijuana use, according to the RMHIDTA report.

Early results from Washington as an “experimental lab”

The Preliminary 2013 Collision Statistics report released by the Washington State governor’s office shows, for example, that 31,724 DUI cases were filed in Washington State courts in 2013. And while there were only 5,952 actual collisions that involved drivers under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, 3 percent of those resulted in fatalities. In absolute numbers, DUI fatalities in Washington were double the number of inattention-caused fatalities and 1½ times the number of fatalities caused by speeding.

This kind of information led to the creation of the “Collision Clock,” a graphic that bluntly shows that, statistically, every two days in 2013 in Washington State a person was killed by an impaired driver.

Washington State’s report titled “Impaired Driving Strategic Plan, July 2013 to July 2014” states: “Impaired drivers were a factor in half of all traffic deaths (704 of 1,406) and 21 percent of all of serious injuries (1,519 of 7,264) between 2009 and 2011. Drivers in fatal crashes were as likely to be impaired by drugs as by alcohol, with almost 25 percent impaired by both alcohol and drugs.”

The report also found that: “[Drug] Impaired drivers are 38 percent more likely to disobey traffic signs, signals, officers or laws,” and that motorcyclists were found to be the only group where drug impairment exceeded alcohol impairment, contributing to 29 percent of all motorcycle fatalities. The report concludes that drug-impaired driving makes it “the leading factor in Washington State traffic deaths.” (www-stage.wtsc.wa.gov)

Drug Evaluation & Classification

To address the growing problem of drug-caused fatal and serious-injury crashes, all 50 states have instituted Drug Evaluation & Classification programs (DECP) designed to train law enforcement officers to detect behaviors that signal drug-impairment.

DECP originated in Los Angeles as an LAPD program in the early 1970s, when it became apparent that alcohol was not the only culprit in fatal and serious crashes.

Under the program, trained Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) learn to pick up telltale signs of drug impairment. Symptoms of drugged driving are well known and are often more obvious to an alert observer than to the impaired person. According to Colorado Department of Transportation Drug Recognition Experts (DRE) Coordinator Robin Rocke, in 2013, 192 DREs completed 531 impaired driving evaluations, of which 330 (62.15 percent) found marijuana use, as confirmed by toxicology results.

The core issue for researchers and law enforcement alike is the lack of hard data to identify cannabis-impaired drivers, as opposed to alcohol-induced impairment, during highway stops. To date, the only method is by blood analysis carried out by a toxicology lab—either by court order or through a coroner’s office. That means that most research on cannabis as a contributing cause of fatal crashes is based on post-mortem examination.

According to Trooper Nate Reid of the Colorado State Patrol Media and Education office, who took The Mountain Times’ call, the use of saliva strips is now being tested. In the meantime, he stated, all officers receive training to detect drug use by watching for behavioral cues.

Amy Ford of the Colorado Department of Transportation, acknowledged the “challenge related to data collection,” in a recent phone interview with The Mountain Times, saying that police identification of marijuana-related causes is imprecise, and that this is now a “huge priority” for the state. One key goal for the Colorado State Patrol is to increase the number of DRE’s to cover the state.

On the public education side, Ford said that the campaign “Drive High-Get a DUI” originated in Colorado and has been borrowed by Washington. The campaign launched in spring of 2014 after “lots” of focus groups and research resulted in the findings that “people don’t yet identify driving while stoned as a DUI” and that people “absolutely” drive high but don’t think they are impaired. Both Colorado and the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission website assure drivers that “Officers know when you are driving under the influence.”

The campaign has partially been funded by the tax revenue generated from the marijuana sales tax. Money has been allocated toward two priorities: prevention of marijuana use by those under the legal age, and addressing impaired driving. These issues, plus regulation and data collection, are high priorities of the governor, according to Ford.

Ultimately, the issue is whether marijuana—like alcohol or any other drug, legal or not—affects performance behind the wheel and creates a threat to the lives of the driver, passengers, and other vehicles on the road. Statistics indicate that it does. The next question is whether or not legalization of marijuana increases the number of drivers under the influence of drugs.

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