By John Salak –
About half the U.S. population now lives in states and territories where recreational use of marijuana is legal. It is likely that more states will follow the 23 that have already approved using small amounts.
This increase could lead to a rise in related traffic accidents if statistics out of Canada, where cannabis has been legal since 2018, are any indication. The University of Ottawa reports that documented marijuana-related traffic accidents that required emergency room treatments rose 475 percent between 2010 and 2021. In comparison, car crashes due to drunk driving grew only 9.4 percent during this time. Researchers were quick to note that the raw number of alcohol-related accidents in Canada was in the thousands as compared to hundreds related to cannabis.
“The concern is that the increase in these rare but very severe traffic injuries is capturing broader trends of increasing cannabis-impaired driving over time and after legalization,” reported the study author Dr. Daniel Myran, an assistant professor at the Canadian university.
The researchers noted that marijuana-related accidents also seemed more serious than those where no alcohol or cannabis was involved. In fact, nearly 90% of the victims from cannabis-associated accidents arrived at emergency rooms by ambulance, compared to just 40 percent when no other substances were involved.
No similar studies have been conducted on related traffic accidents in the U.S. However, the Canadian profile may provide hints that a similar rise in accidents may be underway or at least pending in the U.S.
Less than half of Americans, 46 percent, report having ever used cannabis, far lower than the 78 percent who have tried alcohol once or the 57 percent who have smoked tobacco. Cannabis use, however, is close in both countries. Approximately, 19 percent of Canadians 16 and older report using cannabis at least once of month, a slight increase from 17 percent in 2021. In comparison, various surveys report that between 16 and 18 percent of Americans regularly use recreational cannabis, a percentage that could increase as more states legalize its use.
Driving under the influence of cannabis is certainly on the rise in the U.S. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports a 48 percent increase in drivers testing positive for marijuana during the last 10 years.
The Ottawa researchers stress that cannabis can impair driving performance in several ways. This includes reducing reaction time, decreasing the ability to focus or pay attention to multiple events and even increasing risk-taking behavior. Ultimately, they note that people who are cannabis-impaired may be driving faster, not noticing hazards immediately and taking more time to decelerate.
“The main message of this very well-conducted study is not the absolute number of crashes, but the increased rates. Cannabis is also probably under-reported in car crashes, and so the absolute number might be way higher,” said Dr. Marco Solmi, associate professor of psychiatry at Ottawa.
Cannabis branding may also be a problem for users of all ages.
“The general perception of cannabis as a ‘natural’ harmless plant is probably misleading young subjects that end up consuming high THC products, with untoward events including car crashes,” Solmi added.