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Would the legalization of marijuana in Wisconsin lead to more motor vehicle crashes?

A growing concern among communities in Wisconsin and, for that matter, across the U.S., is whether legalization of marijuana could lead to more motor vehicle crashes.

This concern is highlighted by the fact that in this past November elections, the majority of Wisconsinites voted to approve a number of advisory referendums on the subject, including allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana. The following reflects some of the voting results.


· The counties of Brown, Clark, Forest, Kenosha, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Marquette, Portage, Sauk, and the city of Waukesha all supported the medical marijuana measure by three-to-one or better.


· In the seven communities that asked about legalizing recreational use, at least three-fifths of voters said "yes" in six of them. Those are Dane, La Crosse, Milwaukee, Racine and Rock counties, and the city of Racine.


· The exception, Eau Claire County, was the only one to ask voters to choose one of three options; 54 percent said marijuana should be legal for recreational use, while 31 percent said it should be legal by prescription and 15 percent said it should be illegal.


Current Wisconsin marijuana laws

The referendums are non-binding, meaning they don't change state laws, or ordinances in communities in which they were held.

While Wisconsin state law technically permits the use of medical marijuana, the statute is very limited. Only use of cannabidiol in a form without a psychoactive effect is allowed, and only to treat a seizure disorder. (Reference §961.41 et seq.; §961.38 et seq.


Cannabis use and car crashes

No matter what side of the debate you are on, a very important issue to everyone is road safety.


In an October 2018 study, “Traffic safety impacts of marijuana legalization,” the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) report that car crashes did increase in states that have legalized the use and sale of recreational marijuana. However, this study did not say that the increase was, in fact, due to cannabis use – just that these states showed an overall increase in motor vehicle accidents. (Coincidence?)


The study analyzed car crash statistics following the 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington. The results are as follows:

· In Washington, the proportion of suspected impaired driving cases that tested positive for THC averaged 19.1% from 2009-2012, then rose to 24.9% in 2013 . . . and to 28.0% in 2014 and 33% in preliminary data from the first four months of 2015 . . . .” [Note: The GHSA explains that THC refers to marijuana’s refers to its active component delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol.”]


“Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 66% in the four-year average (2013-2016) since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana compared to the four-year average (2009-2012) prior to legalization. During the same time period, all traffic deaths increased 16%. In 2009, 9% of traffic fatalities involved drivers who tested positive for marijuana. By 2016, that number more than doubled to 21% . . . .”


· “The legalization of retail sales [of recreational marijuana] in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon was associated with a 5.2% higher rate of police-reported crashes compared with neighboring states that did not legalize retail sales.”


“The study of marijuana-related traffic fatalities in Colorado, Washington, and control states between 2000 and 2016 concluded that marijuana-related fatality rates increased similarly in Colorado, Washington, and the control states . . . .”


Despite the fact that the study makes no conclusions concerning the link between marijuana use and car crashes, it does seem evident from the statistics that there really was in increase in crash rates in those states that legalized recreations marijuana. Just how much the legislation seems to have created the potential of increased car wrecks, and the extent to which these findings will apply to other states is not yet known.


One thing is very clear. If you use cannabis medically or for recreational use (which is still illegal in this state), neverget behind the wheel of a car under the influence.

We’d be very interested in your comments on this subject.


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