• September 24, 2023

Legalization of Recreational Cannabis Markets Linked To Increase in Traffic Deaths

Cannabis Dispensary

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a psychoactive drug derived from the cannabis plant. It has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes for centuries, and its legality varies by country and jurisdiction. When consumed, cannabis can produce a range of effects, including altered perception, increased appetite, and relaxation. However, its use also carries potential risks, such as impaired cognitive function and increased risk of addiction.

A recent study has analyzed the mortality rates across seven states that have recreational cannabis dispensaries.

The University of Illinois Chicago has conducted a new study that utilized death certificate data to compare the death rates between states that have legalized recreational cannabis dispensaries and those that only offer access to medical cannabis.

The researchers discovered a significant rise in car crash fatalities in four out of the seven states included in the study where recreational cannabis markets were legalized. On average, the presence of recreational markets correlated with a 10% increase in fatalities from motor vehicle accidents.

Study first author Samantha Marinello said the findings suggest that it may be beneficial for states with legal recreational cannabis to invest in policies and public health initiatives to mitigate this potential harm and build awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence.

“To see a 10% increase in motor vehicle accident deaths associated with recreational markets is concerning. Previous studies have found cannabis impairs driving ability and that driving while high is fairly common among regular cannabis users,” said Marinello, a postdoctoral research associate with the division of health policy and administration at the UIC School of Public Health.

For the analysis, Marinello and Lisa Powell, UIC distinguished professor and director of the division, focused on seven states that implemented legal recreational cannabis markets: Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. They collected data from death certificates from 2009-2019 on deaths in three areas that have previously been linked to cannabis use but are still poorly understood: motor vehicle accidents, suicide, and opioid overdose.

For each cause of death, the researchers compared trends in deaths in states with legal markets with those in states that had comprehensive medical cannabis programs and similar trends in death rates prior to implementing markets.

“We didn’t want to compare states with very different mortality trends or social ideology, so we looked at each state and outcome and identified comparison states with existing medical cannabis programs and with similar pre-trends to conduct our analysis,” Marinello said.

The data revealed significant increases in crash fatalities in Colorado (16%), Oregon (22%), Alaska (20%), and California (14%).

“The results suggest that a potential unintended consequence of recreational markets is increased cannabis-intoxicated driving and crash deaths, and, hence, a potential need for policies focused on reducing driving under the influence of cannabis,” the authors write.

The researchers found no evidence that recreational markets impacted suicides, which is notable because cannabis use is associated with the development of depressive disorders and suicidality.

For opioid overdose deaths, recreational markets were associated with an 11% reduction in fatalities, on average. Across all seven states, the reduction ranged from 3% to 28%.

Marinello said that the reduction in opioid overdose fatalities is another potential area of impact that should be a factor in states considering legalization.

“This study provides evidence of both potential benefits and harms that policymakers should consider when legalizing recreational cannabis markets,” Marinello said.

Reference: “The impact of recreational cannabis markets on motor vehicle accident, suicide, and opioid overdose fatalities” by Samantha Marinello and Lisa M. Powell, 16 January 2023, Social Science & Medicine.
DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2023.115680

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