When Colorado made history in 2012 by legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, many opponents of the measure objected on the grounds that it would cause the number of drug-related car accidents in the state to skyrocket. However, in the time since the new law was implemented, something unexpected has happened: Traffic fatalities in Colorado dropped to their lowest levels in over a decade, according to data from the Colorado Department of Transportation.
No consensus on how to define impairment
Of course, a decline in the overall number of traffic deaths does not necessarily mean that the legalization of marijuana has not had any effect on the number of drugged driving crashes. It merely means that the consequences of the change are not yet entirely clear.
It stands to reason that legalizing marijuana would contribute to an increase in drugged driving accidents on Colorado’s roadways; after all, if legalization results in increased use of the drug overall, it is not unreasonable to think that stoned driving would increase as a matter of scale. Furthermore, there is some data to support this conclusion.
For example, according to a study out of Columbia University, which was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, about 12 percent of drivers killed in fatal crashes in 2012 had detectable levels of marijuana metabolites in their bloodstreams. That was nearly triple the number who tested positive in 1999, before medical marijuana became widely legalized in the United States.
However, because of the way that marijuana metabolizes in the bloodstream – very slowly – it is possible for traces to remain in the body at detectable levels for several days after the effects of the drug have worn off. Furthermore, unlike alcohol intoxication, there is widely agreed-upon standard for determining when a person is too stoned to drive.
Stoned driving and crash liability in Colorado
Despite conflicting viewpoints and laws on the matter, however, none of this means that driving under the influence of marijuana is safe; it is not. Research has consistently shown that marijuana use affects the skills that are necessary for safe driving by reducing coordination, slowing reaction times and impairing judgment.
Under Colorado’s impaired driving law, a driver is presumed to be too high to drive if a blood test reveals THC levels of at least 5 milligrams per milliliter of blood. However, drivers charged with stoned driving can overcome that presumption by presenting evidence that they were fit to drive. This is not the case with drivers impaired by alcohol, who are automatically considered too drunk to drive when their blood alcohol content tests at 0.08 or higher, regardless of whether they show any other signs of impairment.
In civil court, stoned driving is defined even less clearly. When a driver causes a crash as a result of driving under the influence of marijuana or any other drug, he or she can be held financially liable to anyone who is injured in the crash. However, because drugged driving is not a clear-cut issue, it may be necessary to present evidence in court to establish that the drug use was a factor in the crash. Therefore, if you or a loved one has been hurt in a crash involving suspected drugged driving, be sure to seek advice from a personal injury lawyer with experience handling cases of this type.