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Fatal crashes involving marijuana on the rise in Washington State

Updated on: 2/22/2019

Drugged Driving Deaths Increase In Washington State

Washington’s decriminalization of marijuana raised much-needed taxes and reduced the overall arrest rate for possession and use of substances, allowing police to focus on harder drugs like amphetamines, heroin, and crack cocaine. Now, however, officials are sounding the alarm about a new public health hazard: too many Washington drivers are getting behind the wheel while high.

Like alcohol and some prescription drugs, weed can impair a driver’s judgment and increase the amount of time they need to react to hazards on the road. In a car traveling at high speed, even a tiny fraction of a second’s difference in reaction time can be the difference between a safe trip and a fatal crash. Fatal accidents involving marijuana in Washington state rose to 17% in 2014, up from 8% in 2013, the year before recreational pot was decriminalized. One in six drivers involved in any fatal crash in Washington state had used marijuana recently. Data for 2015 and 2016 is not yet available, so researchers do not have information about whether the upwards trend has continued.

Some researchers are disputing these statistics. When any use of marijuana was illegal, all cannabinoids found in the bloodstream was suspect. Now that medical and recreational use of pot is legal, law enforcement officials only look at the presence of THC, the chemical compound that produces the high—but according the AAA Safety Foundation, limits on THC are inaccurate measurements of a driver’s true impairment. These limits, set by policy-makers instead of scientists, don’t take into account individuals’ variations in metabolism of THC; they may be letting unsafe drivers go free because they are technically under the legal limit.

But none of this means stoned drivers won't be held responsible when they cause a crash. Driving under the influence of any controlled substance is illegal; hurting someone with your car while high can result in vehicular assault charges, and killing someone can result in vehicular homicide charges. Just being high behind the wheel can result in fines, suspended licences, and imprisonment. 

How can you use pot safely?

  • If you’re planning to consume marijuana, leave your car at home and call a cab or rideshare service instead.
  • Be especially cautious about edibles. The THC in these products enters the bloodstream more slowly, and the time and rate of THC absorption varies from person to person. Don’t eat a product containing marijuana if you’re planning to drive any time during the same day. If you take a strong enough dose, even “sleeping it off” may leave you with THC in your system the next day.
  • Remember that even if you feel alert and aware of your surroundings after consuming pot, you may be still impaired.
  • Don’t use products labeled as “synthetic marijuana.” These contain many possible lab-created chemicals that may have unpredictable effects.
  • If you are going to buy marijuana, purchase it from a store licensed by the state of Washington. These stores only buy from growers who must follow strict regulations about labeling their products.
  • If cabs and rideshares aren’t available in your area, offer to be a designated driver for your friends.
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