Category Archives: Driving

Legal Marijuana Imperils Traffic Safety, Adds Mental Health Burden

By Dean Whitlock, a freelance writer from Thetford, Vermont, writes about safety as it relates to marijuana.  The article appeared in Vermont Digger on May 2, 2017.

The discussions of H.170, which would legalize possession and home-growing of small quantities of marijuana, have focused a lot on the danger to teenagers, which is appropriate since adolescents are in a stage of neural development that makes them much more likely to become addicted, develop mental health conditions, and suffer decreases in cognitive processing and memory retention. The problem with this focus is that people over 21, particularly up to the age of 25 or 26, are still susceptible to all of these effects, just at a lower level of risk.

That point aside, the area where every age runs the same risk is on the highway. Again, teens and young adults are more at risk because they tend to take more risks in the first place. They are also less experienced with driving and with the use of alcohol and drugs. But adults do make the same stupid mistake of driving under the influence.

According to the best data we have available, drinking alcohol before driving increases the risk of accident five-fold at the still-legal .08 blood level. Driving under the influence of marijuana doubles your risk. That being the case, we would expect to find considerably more people dying on the roads because of alcohol then because of marijuana. The data on traffic accident fatalities that we have from the Vermont Department of Safety tell a somewhat different story:

This data is based on blood tests that measure active THC, so we can be reasonably sure that the drivers had used marijuana recently enough to still be DUI.

Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana Imperils Safety

Note the small difference between the number of deaths due to alcohol and the number due to marijuana. The most likely reason for this is that many marijuana users think it’s OK to drive after using. For teenagers, we have clear evidence for that from our Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Here’s the 2015 data:

Reports from both Colorado and Washington indicate that the same must be happening there. While accidents and fatalities involving drunk drivers went down in recent years, the numbers involving marijuana went up.

Why is this happening? Because we are not teaching people – young or old – that marijuana impairs your ability to drive. At a well-attended forum on marijuana effects held in Burlington last month, one attendee stood up and insisted that marijuana helps people drive more carefully, and this message pervades the popular websites that cater to people interested in learning more about marijuana from sources “untainted” by officials like police officers and scientists.

It’s important to note that the traffic fatality data shown above only includes deaths in accidents. It does not include the five Harwood teenagers killed on I-89 last October. The driver of the car that hit theirs, Steve Bourgoin (36, hardly a teen), has been charged with second-degree murder, so their deaths are not considered to be due to a traffic accident.

Addiction is Not a Crime

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction.

When Bourgoin’s blood toxicology report was completed, authorities withheld the contents pending trial; however, Vermont investigative reporter Mike Donoghue, writing for Vermont News First, quoted several sources in saying that there was active THC in Bourgoin’s blood at the time of the accident. Since then, Vermont Rep. Ben Joseph, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, a retired judge, has reported being told the same thing by contacts of his in the state legal apparatus.

As reported on VTDigger, Bourgoin told friends that he suffered from anxiety and PTSD due to childhood trauma, and his former girlfriend told detectives that he self-treated with marijuana for “mood spells.” Court documents quote her saying, “It was always very evident when he was out [of marijuana], as he would be more angry and violent during those times.”

Anger is one of marijuana’s withdrawal symptoms, and it is a more addictive drug than most people think. A review of several studies of treatment methods for marijuana addiction found that one-year abstinence rates for adults, even under the most effective treatments, ranged only from 19 to 29 percent.

In a 20-year study involving more than 2000 U.S. war veterans being treated for PTSD, the vets who used medical marijuana along with the standard therapy reported more violent behaviors and worse outcomes after treatment than vets who didn’t use marijuana. The heaviest users showed the strongest effects. Another study found that marijuana use resulted in increased suicidal ideation among marijuana users.

Marijuana and Mental Health Problems

There are other correlations between marijuana and serious mental health problems. Since 2002, a series of studies in Europe have reported that individuals who use cannabis have a greater risk of developing psychotic symptoms. Not only does marijuana bring on symptoms earlier and make them worse, it is a causative factor.

A Finnish study published this past November compared sets of twins where one used marijuana heavily and the other did not. Heavy use increased the risk of developing psychosis by a factor of 3.5. Again, the data indicated that, in many cases, marijuana abuse caused the psychosis, not the other way around. The newly released report on marijuana from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences agrees with these findings.

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction. These sufferers needs effective treatment far more than jail time. And these new research findings, combined with Vermont’s recent traffic fatality data, highlight the fact that marijuana is not harmless. Legalizing recreational marijuana in Vermont would not be a simple matter.

Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana use. What we haven’t done is provide a mental health system that can deal with the thousands of cases of addiction, psychosis, and other mental illnesses that we already have in our state, nor have we done nearly enough to educate Vermonters about marijuana’s harms, in order to prevent tragedies from happening.

Legalizing marijuana – whether like alcohol or tobacco – will only make our mental health burden worse, while it makes our highways far less safe.

A former supporter of legalization, Whitlock is now opposed. He is a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT)

Ask Amy: No it’s Not SAFER When it Comes to DRiving

Amy Dickinson writes a syndicated column for a number of newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.  This question and answer appeared in the April 6, 2017 editions.  The marijuana lobby wrote a book, Marijuana is Safer,  full of misinformation.  We believe it’s important to publish this message from the Ask Amy column. 

Dear Amy: I have a 25-year-old granddaughter who will call a taxi or use a designated driver if she is going to be drinking, but she thinks it’s fine to smoke pot and get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

I have told her that she is probably more impaired after smoking pot then if she had a couple of drinks.

She totally disagrees. I have spoken to other pot smokers, and a lot of them agree with her.

How can I get her to understand the severe consequences that could happen to herself or some innocent person if she drives impaired?

— Frustrated!

Dear Frustrated: I shared your question with a spokesperson with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has published studies on this.

Their response: “There seems to be a common misperception — that people can compensate (and in fact drive more slowly than normal) under the influence of marijuana. But the research says something different — marijuana increases your risk of being in a car crash about two-fold, and also increases your risk of being at fault for the accident.”

“These effects are not as dramatic as the effects of alcohol (which increases your risk about five-fold at the 0.08 legal limit), but the combination of the two — marijuana and alcohol — is even worse than either one alone.”

That last point is important. If your granddaughter is using alcohol and marijuana at the same time (as many people do), she should not drive.

For more information check www.drugabuse.gov.

The marijuana-induced crash that killed bicyclist Richard Tom and driver Joseph Marshall, April 26,2015. Photo: Elizabeth Murray, Burlington Free Press

Editor’s Note: The number of fatal crashes — especially in the states of Washington and Colorado — caused by THC-impaired drivers suggests that NORML and Marijuana Policy Project need to issue warnings  against marijuana and driving.

National Safety Report Shows Fear of Stoned Drivers

A National Safety Report released this month shows that 76% percent of those surveyed are concerned about traffic safety under the legalization of marijuana.

Ironically, the same survey showed that 13 percent of drivers actually have driven under the influence of marijuana during the last month.    Of the 2,000 plus participants, 14% were between comprised drivers ages 30-34, the largest group in the survey.

Here’s a report of the National Safety Council’s Survey.  

On CBS Evening News, Deborah Hersman of the National Safety Council called out people driving under the influence of marijuana and alcohol, She also mentioned states legalizing substances without adequate testing.   Watch the video.

Traffic fatalities have been increasing in the last two years, to an estimated 40,000 deaths last year.   The previous year a rise in deaths was led by increases in the Northwestern states.  Washington, which commercialized marijuana in 2014, had the highest rate of traffic fatalities involving drivers under the influence.  The rate more than doubled in 2014.

Hersman mentioned that drivers ages 19-24 seem to be involved in the most risky driving behaviors.   We find that many of the crashes caused by stoned drivers involve those ages 17 – 20, below the legal age for marijuana in the states that have legalized.    When teens drive stoned, they often have friends with them, leading to multiple deaths at once.

We have published numerous articles on stoned driving.  

Articles show how bicyclists and pedestrians are in danger.   It is not uncommon for those who cause accidents to be both stoned and drunk simultaneously.

Marijuana Deaths: 5 Killed Instantly After Pot Became Legal

Can Other States Prevent Deaths Like those in Washington?

Washington – not Colorado – was the first state to legalize weed on December 5, 2012, exactly four years ago.    Within a few weeks, five people  died—probably only because marijuana was now legal. California and Massachusetts have not figured out how to measure  stoned drivers.  Will other states that now allow pot possession face a rapid rise of deaths too?

On the morning pot was legalized, two intruders broke into the Puyallup home of a large marijuana grower.  Robbery was the motive, of course.   The owner shot and killed the masked men immediately.    So much for the claim that legalization will “free up law enforcement for more serious crimes.”    A few weeks ago, there was a similar situation in Denver, when a homeowner shot and killed a 15-year-old stealing pot from his yard.

On December 17, 2012, Scotty Rowles struck and killed pedestrian Donald Collins in Vancouver, Washington.   Rowles was not speeding, but admitted to smoking a bowl of marijuana before driving.  He spent six months in jail and is now on probation.   (Punishments for stoned driving in Washington aren’t strong enough to discourage it.)

Tyler Martel’s accident on December 7, 2012 was more deadly.   Martel left his parents’ house at 10:30 p.m.  By 3:45 a.m., the police came to the parents’ home and said that he had died.  His girlfriend, his soon-to-be fiancé, had been airlifted to Harborview Hospital Center.   Stephanie Nicole Profitt underwent many surgeries and fought to regain her life.  Her struggle ended in death on January 19, 2013.

Don’t Substitute One Dangerous Addiction for Another

Stoned driving caused three of these deaths.   Marijuana greed and jealousy inspired the shooting when two men died.  Perhaps the worst news of all is that Tyler Martel, 27, who died instantly had survived and conquered Oxycodone addiction.   He was four years clean.  He had gone through rehab, had a job and was building a new life.  At a party on that fateful night, he declined all invitations to drink.   But marijuana was now legal, and he smoked marijuana with his brother before he drove.

When people suggest that substituting opiate pain pill abuse with marijuana, remember what happened to Tyler Martel and Stephanie Proffitt.   They were not the only victims.  Timothy Lang came to Profitt’s funeral in a wheelchair.    He was one of the other drivers, and is thankful to the emergency workers who saved life.

Alex Ashley poignantly describes Tyler Martel’s battle to regain his life and the legacy of the accident.

Martel’s mother Patrice is on a mission to warn students of impaired driving.   It is counter-intuitive to suggest that any addictive substance should substitute for another addictive substance.  It’s a case where someone tried it and we know the results.

Colorado gets more publicity than Washington because many anti-pot activists live in Colorado.  The Seattle press usually covers up the downside of pot.  Colorado opened commercial marijuana six months ahead of Washington, and we’ve heard more about deaths from edibles in Colorado.

However, Washington has a slightly higher rate of stoned driving deaths than Colorado.  A stoned driver killed Rosemary Tempel four months before the vote to legalize, but the Press and police failed to report it.

One year ago, 16-year-old boy Somalian immigrant Hamza Warsame — died immediately after smoking weed.  He jumped off a balcony and fell six stories to his death in Seattle.

A warning to Massachusetts, as state legislators discuss delaying marijuana.  Government’s job is to protect its people.   The black market still thrives in Washington and also causes violence.

So many tragic marijuana-related accidents involve children.