Marijuana and drugged driving in Colorado

While alarmists would like to place the blame for every traffic fatality on marijuana, the statistics are inconclusive at this point in time whether legalized marijuana has had any real effect on the numbers in Colorado

As one of the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana, Colorado is under close scrutiny with respect to how the use of that drug has affected public safety on the streets and highways of the state. Many in law enforcement had warned of severe negative consequence, suggesting the sky would fall and crashes would skyrocket.

With barely two full years of data collected, most of the findings are still tentative, but it does not appear that the sky has fallen in Colorado due to marijuana use. While there have been increases in reported usage of marijuana, claims that the "crime rate" has increased or that there has been an increase in motor vehicle crashes and fatalities that can be attributed to marijuana use, appear to be premature.

One number that clearly is due to the legalization of recreational marijuana is the fall in the number of marijuana arrests and prosecutions. Between 2012 and 2015, drug charges involving marijuana dropped 81 percent.

Small sample size

Part of the difficulty in determining how marijuana use has affected motor vehicle accidents is that there are only two years of data with legal use. This limits the conclusions that can be drawn. It has also come at a time when highway fatalities have experienced increases nationwide; including many states where marijuana use is still illegal

The factors behind that increase are varied and include, increased miles driven, low gas prices and an improving economy, with more jobs and consequently greater exposure to more drivers of the risks of highway crashes. Additionally, after a decade of almost consistent declines of traffic fatalities, safety may have generated less interest in many state legislatures.

Drugs and alcohol

In many crashes, alcohol and evidence of marijuana use may be present. However, a blood draw that produces both a blood alcohol content measurement and detects THC, the active chemical in marijuana, may be meaningless as far as suggesting that the crash was caused by marijuana impairment.

Alcohol is water-soluble, dissolves in the blood and produces a reasonably reliable measure of impairment. THC behaves very differently. It is fat-soluble and is absorbed in the fatty tissue of the body. Long after a recreational user has finished using the drug, the THC can be measured in their blood, even though they have no symptoms of impairment. For long-term users, the chemical can be detected weeks after they last smoked a joint.

Proper controls

In order to make a reasoned assessment, it will be important for the statistics to be rigorously controlled. Reports will need to distinguish crashes involving a driver who has used marijuana in the past and likely would show trace amounts of THC in their blood, but whose crash was due to alcohol intoxication, from those involving a driver who is smoking in the vehicle and actually impaired due to marijuana.

As one report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) noted, "the detection of any THC in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system." Confusing the two could lead to corruption of crash data and make it impossible to know what is really happening on the roads of Colorado.

Definitive tests lacking

While marijuana prosecutions may be falling, it is likely that the Colorado State Patrol and local police and sheriff's departments are going to increase the emphasis on drugged driving as part of their overall DUI enforcement patrols. There will be more Drug Recognition Experts working in the field and while they may have special training, their assessments are subjective and only as good as the officer's training and experience.

There is nothing comparable to a "breathalyzer" for marijuana, and blood tests and subjective observations of officers are always subject to challenge. If you have been arrested and charged with a drugged driving offense, you should contact an experienced DUI attorney like Eric A. Sunness to begin to develop your defense to these charges.