This week, The Journal of the American Medical Association released a study titled "The April 20 Cannabis Celebration and Fatal Traffic Crashes in the United States”. The study, authored by doctors from the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, hypothesizes that fatal car accidents are more likely following 4/20 celebrations in the United States. It found a "12% increase in the relative risk of a fatal traffic crash after 4:20 pm on April 20 compared with identical time intervals on control days."
The results have been widely reported in media outlets, with headlines like "Traffic deaths increase after 4/20 pot parties” (Autoblog) and "Auto crash deaths multiply after April 20 cannabis parties” (Reuters). But is that accurate?
Here are 3 takeaways from the study that you should keep in mind.
1. A Gap In Understanding
Of particular note is the study’s find that "the observed association was comparable in magnitude to the increase in traffic risks observed on Superbowl Sunday.” The study cited (from the New England Journal of Medicine) "observed a 41 percent relative increase in the average number of fatalities after the [Super Bowl] telecast”, which the authors chalk up to "alcohol, inattention, and fatigue".
But it’s worth noting how the recommendations and conclusions from the studies differ. In the Super Bowl study, the authors recommend the following:
[O]ne option could be for sponsors to support subsidized public transit after the telecast. In the interim, clinicians in trauma centers might consider extra staffing, and clinicians in ambulatory care offices might warn patients to avoid unnecessary night driving on Super Bowl Sunday.
Meanwhile, the 4/20 study offered this recommendation:
Policy makers may wish to consider these risks when liberalizing marijuana laws, paying particular attention to regulatory and enforcement strategies to curtail drugged driving.
Their advice speaks to how easily Americans accept alcohol as a part of life and leisure, while marijuana is still treated with suspicion - even though the Super Bowl data are far worse than those outlined in the 4/20 study.
2. Legalization Matters
There's one other problem with the 4/20 study's recommendation. They note that "policy makers may wish to consider these risks when liberalizing marijuana laws.” Yet the study also says that "absolute risk increases were greatest in New York (excess of 36), Texas (excess of 32), and Georgia (excess of 29).”
None of these states have legalized recreational marijuana, and Texas doesn’t even have a medical program. Meanwhile, previous studies have found that Colorado and Washington saw no correlation between car crashes and legalized marijuana.
Which begs the question: How many of these reported crashes are caused by cannabis consumers staying in the shadows, unwilling or unable to use safe alternatives because of prohibition?
One thing is for sure - legalization allows safe alternatives to be promoted to those who need them most. Last year, Lyft made a big promotional push in Colorado, wrapping 17 of their cars in decals that promoted using their service instead of driving while high. Research must be done to examine how legality affects people’s driving habits after consuming marijuana. And speaking of which…
3. No Conclusion
...the most important takeaway is this: At no point in this study is it confirmed that the road fatalities were in fact caused by stoned drivers, or drivers who had been drinking in addition to consuming cannabis, or if other factors were at play. The study does not offer conclusive evidence that, to use Reuters' headline, 'auto crash deaths multiply after April 20 cannabis parties'.
If anything, the 'liberalizing [of] marijuana laws' that the authors warn of is not something to be feared. Cannabis consumers will continue to use marijuana regardless of their state's legalization status. It's in the best interest of drivers everywhere to bring cannabis use out of the shadows, and provide 4/20 partygoers with safe transportation and an assurance that their chosen pastime is just as acceptable as a drunken Super Bowl party.
Cannabis is widely misunderstood, and while great strides are being made, it is essential that cannabis consumers everywhere make responsible and informed choices before they get behind the wheel. That's why jurisdictions like Canada are investing in public-education campaigns to promote road safety ahead of repealing prohibition so that the public is aware of the risks involved in cannabis-impaired driving.
Canada is also investing $161 million dollars to provide law enforcers with training and tools to detect cannabis-impaired drivers and get them off the road. And the federal government can afford to do that by offsetting those costs with taxed revenues from legalized cannabis sales.
So despite the report's recommendation, legalization could actually be a solution to the problem of high drivers.