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Fewer D.C. DUIs Thanks to Legalized Medical Marijuana?

by | Aug 22, 2013

After years of legal wrangling, the District of Columbia recently welcomed its first medical marijuana dispensary, some four years after city council defied Congressional efforts to block such a facility.

Is it possible that this move could have the unintended consequence of significant reductions of D.C. DUI arrests?

Researchers whose work was recently published in the Journal of Law and Economics certainly think so. By analyzing data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System from 1990 to 2010, the study authors found that the passage of medical marijuana laws were associated with decreases in the probability that drivers were binge drinking or drinking at all. Even those who did imbibe tended to consume less in those states where medical marijuana was legal.

The study was conducted by a team of economists specializing in health and risk management with the University of Colorado, Montana State University and the University of Oregon. They said this general decline in the public’s overall use of alcohol, relative to medical marijuana laws, likely had a direct impact on the simultaneous decline of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

As it now stands, some 20 states as well as the District of Columbia have passed laws approving marijuana for medicinal use. Two states – Colorado and Washington – have approved the drug for recreational purposes, though legal sales have yet to be fully implemented.

The findings of this study caught many off-guard for the fact that the argument against the implementation of medical marijuana passage were the unintended consequences of increased consumption by youth, increased consumption of harder drugs (as marijuana would be a gateway) and an increased number of DUI arrests and fatalities. Yet, as attitudes change and more states approve marijuana sales and consumption, even for restricted purposes, we seem to find the opposite.

In analyzing traffic fatality figures, deaths fell on average 8 to 11 percent during the first full year after medical marijuana laws went into effect. Within four years, there was a decrease of 10 to 13 percent.

The notion that loosening drug restrictions might actually help improve traffic safety is a novel one. What seems to be happening is that instead of using the two substances side-by-side, some are choosing marijuana over alcohol. While researchers are quick to point out there is nothing safe about driving under the influence of marijuana, there are reasons why marijuana users might find themselves less apt to receive a DUI than alcohol users.

Consider first the atmosphere in which these substances are typically consumed. Alcohol can be legally purchased by anyone over 21 and openly consumed at a variety of venues, including restaurants, sports stadiums, parks and family gatherings. Getting to any of these locations, usually, means driving. Marijuana, by contrast, because it is not as openly flouted, is often consumed at a private residence where one is likely to stay for the evening.

The other theory is that stoned driving, while not necessarily safe, is safer than drunk driving. While under the influence of marijuana, a person is twice as likely to be involved in a fatal wreck. Compare that to someone who is driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher. His or her risk increases ten-fold.

Those under the influence of marijuana while driving can face criminal charges, though they tend to be harder for prosecutors to prove.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.