Study says higher risk of crashes in states with legal recreational marijuana

KATU file image

A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says states with legal recreational marijuana including Oregon and Washington are seeing more car crashes.

“There is a higher risk associated with marijuana in those states that have passed laws that permit recreational use," the group's president, David Harkey, told KATU on Thursday.

He said his organization is funded by insurance companies but that its research decisions are made independently.

David Morse, director of the Oregon Cannabis Business Council, questions the study's accuracy, saying he suspects the insurance companies that paid for it likely got the results they hoped for. He also said more information is needed to conclude legal recreational marijuana makes the roads less safe.

“We are confident in the results that we have produced," Harkey explained.

He said researchers for the group looked at crash data in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Nevada, which were early to legalize recreational marijuana use. On average throughout those four states Harkey said the number of crashes is going up compared to states where recreational weed is not legal.

And he said researchers accounted for differences in weather, the economy and other factors.

"In those states that have passed laws to legalize recreational use we’re seeing about a 6 percent increase in the number of collision claim frequencies being filed," Harkey told KATU.

In Oregon, he said there was a nearly 2 percent increase in the number of collision claims. But in Washington he said there's been a nearly 10 percent increase.

Harkey stopped short of saying the study shows what's causing the crashes, just that the number of them is going up.

“This is strictly a correlation effort," he said. "We are looking at the increase in these claims or the increase in these crashes in the states where these policies have passed relative to their neighboring states where they have not.”

Morse said other studies refute Harkey's concerns.

Capt. Tim Fox, an Oregon State Police spokesperson, said Thursday that the state has seen a rise in fatal and injury crashes this year.

He also sent a KATU reporter statistics showing a nearly 19 percent increase in drug recognition evaluations (DREs) from 2015 when there were 1,508 performed statewide to 2017 when there were 1,823 . OSP says DREs are used to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol.

Criminal defense lawyers, meanwhile, told KATU that marijuana DUII cases are easier to defend against than alcohol DUIIs in Oregon.

Jason Short, a criminal defense attorney with offices in Portland, Salem and Bend, said that's because "there's no line in the sand."

If an officer catches someone puffing away in a car or they admit to smoking weed just before driving or while driving, then, yes, they'll likely be found guilty of DUII.

But Short and another criminal defense lawyer, Jeff Jorgensen, said it's often not that simple.

"Marijuana DUIIs have been more prominent since it was legalized," Jorgensen said Thursday. "I think when marijuana was legalized it made people more comfortable with the thought of smoking it at home and potentially going out and driving."

Jorgensen, who works in Salem, and Short explained to a KATU reporter what happens after someone suspected of driving while high gets pulled over.

The KATU reporter also spoke with Salem police.

"The way that police handle DUIIs here is they pretty much handle it like an alcohol DUII even if they do smell marijuana,"Jorgensen said.

That means officers may put someone through field sobriety tests first and possibly have them take a breathalyzer test for alcohol. They then may have a person called a drug recognition expert run a battery of more complex tests (a DRE) that include a urine test, which checks for the active drug in marijuana, THC.

"Depending on the type of metabolite it could show either that they smoked within the past six hours or it could be that they smoked within the past 30 to 45 days," Jorgensen said. "The science is still not settled so it makes it more fun and a battle of experts.”

Lt. Treven Upkes, a Salem police spokesperson, said during a standard DRE test, only urine will be sampled.

"If there are extenuating circumstances (crashes with injuries, etc) we can write a warrant for blood draws," Upkes said via email.

Regarding whether there's an acceptable amount of THC that can be found in a driver's bloodstream, Upkes said, "Oregon does not have an assumed level for THC impairment/intoxication. Basically, the criminal justice system looks first at the driving and then the physical tests to determine impairment. The urine or blood tests to show THC in the body is used more to point to what substance was present to affect impairment and that indeed the person had consumed an intoxicating substance."

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