Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in two states, including Washington State, and Oregon is among the ever-increasing number of states that permit marijuana use for medical purposes.
As legal acceptance of the drug grows it was, perhaps, inevitable that, in the words of USA Today, “it’s looking like dope is playing a larger role as a cause of fatal traffic accidents.” Put another way: advocates of legalization have long argued that marijuana is no worse for you than alcohol. If, for the sake of argument, we accept that premise then it clearly follows that driving while high should be treated with the same degree of seriousness as driving while drunk.
The evidence is not merely anecdotal. According to USA Today, a recent study by Columbia University found that “of nearly 24,000 driving fatalities… marijuana contributed to 12% of traffic deaths in 2010, tripled from a decade earlier.” The newspaper reports that a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimated that “4% of drivers were high during the day and more than 6% at night.” The majority of high drivers were under age 25 – an age group that already has proportionately high levels of both drunk driving and distracted driving, both here in Oregon and elsewhere around the country.
Add to this a recent assertion in The Oregonian that “Oregon ranked fourth in the country for cannabis use by people 12 and older, with most consumers between 18 and 25” and the need for stepped-up education programs is undeniable. Regardless of how one feels about legalization, these statistics combined with the fact that recreational pot use is perfectly legal on the north side of the Columbia River, make it clear that a significant educational effort is probably now a permanent necessity. Put another way, if we acknowledge that more and more people are likely to use marijuana in the years to come, it is essential to educate drivers – and especially younger drivers – about the effect it has on their system, and the importance of not getting behind the wheel while high. We must devote the same sort of energy, effort and funding to ‘driving while high’ education that the country has devoted to anti-drunk driving efforts over the last two generations.
As an Oregon and Washington auto accident victims attorney this is an issue to which I will be paying close attention. However one feels about medical marijuana or outright legalization we can all agree that every driver needs to be aware of the danger he or she poses to themselves and to others if they drive while high. Sadly, this is a problem that is no more likely to be solved completely than the drunk driving issues that have plagued the country for decades. Like drunk driving, however, it is something that can be reduced through a combination of education and enforcement.