Eight years after voters approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, authorities still have no idea how, or if, the law has affected road safety.
That knowledge gap soon may be filled now that state authorities have added extra check boxes related to marijuana on state crash forms in response to questions from Phoenix New Times.
Starting in November 2017, crash report forms filled out by police across the state now contain two new fields in the part of the form that lists the suspected “condition influencing” the driver. Next to traditional conditions like “alcohol,” “illegal drugs,” and “medications” are the new boxes to check for “marijuana” and “med marijuana card presented.”
As New Times pointed out in 2015 to Alberto Gutier, head of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, the old crash forms didn’t have a place for officers to note suspected marijuana impairment apart from “illegal drugs.”
That was a problem for two reasons. One, marijuana is the second-most widely used mind-altering substance besides alcohol, by far, so its impact on drivers should be studied more closely. And two, for more than 176,000 patients as of July with a valid medical marijuana card, marijuana is not an “illegal drug” under state law.
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At the time, Gutier said he liked the idea and would present it to a panel of law enforcement leaders. About two years later, the idea made its way into the new crash forms now used across the state since last fall.
The new form allows the state to track marijuana and medical marijuana use by drivers for the first time, which could potentially result in better knowledge about how cannabis and the state program affects the motoring public.
The 2017 Crash Facts Summary report published by the Arizona Department of Transportation on July 31, and which relies on the state crash forms for data, lists a few numbers for marijuana in the category of “physical condition” for drivers, pedestrians, and motorcycle operators. Oddly, the report lists one fatality and two property damage-only collisions in which the driver was suspected to be under the influence of marijuana, plus one motorcycle fatality.
Officials said the numbers are incomplete because they only capture a month’s worth of data or so, and should not be relied upon. But that will change starting in 2019, as more officers use the forms, check the boxes, and submit the data to the state for next years ADOT Crash Facts report.
“We are trying to track every possible condition [of drivers in crashes],” Gutier said this week. “With marijuana, by next year you’ll have some numbers.”
The overall issue has become a burning question for the public in this modern era of state-legal cannabis consumption: Has cannabis use by motorists led to more crashes in recent years? Studies on the subject have produced conflicting information.
For instance, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states on its website, “Marijuana significantly impairs judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time, and studies have found a direct relationship between blood THC concentration and impaired driving ability.”
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While that may be true, a deep-dive into the numbers by the American Journal of Public Health in 2017 concluded, “Three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization.”
A survey of serious and fatal crashes by New Times in 2013 showed that by itself, marijuana may not be a big factor in collisions. Only three of 335 suspected impaired drivers in serious crashes investigated by the Arizona Department of Public Safety that year were tested positive for marijuana alone. By contrast, seven of the 335 tested negative for all drugs.
Over the next few years, data collected by officers at the scene should help the public learn how many collisions involve suspected marijuana impairment, how many involve medical marijuana cardholders, and whether those numbers are going up or down over time.A survey of serious and fatal crashes by New Times in 2013 showed that by itself, marijuana may not be a big factor in collisions. Only three of 335 suspected impaired drivers in serious crashes investigated by the Arizona Department of Public Safety that year were tested positive for marijuana alone. By contrast, seven of the 335 tested negative for all drugs.
Over the next few years, data collected by officers at the scene should help the public learn how many collisions involve suspected marijuana impairment, how many involve medical marijuana cardholders, and whether those numbers are going up or down over time.