Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Marijuana Linked to Increase in Fatal Car Accidents

A recent study suggests that marijuana use may cause fatal car accidents. The study, released by JAMA Internal Medicine, found that there were more fatalities and car accidents on April 20, a “holiday” of sorts for cannabis enthusiasts, compared to the same period of time a week beforehand and a week afterward. This study comes on the heels of a push by legislators and public policy experts to determine the effects of marijuana on driving habits, and consequently, to establish an objective standard for measuring intoxication by the drug.

To measure the effect of marijuana on car accidents, the researchers gathered data on car accidents on April 13, April 20, and April 27. April 20 is widely “celebrated” by marijuana users, and 4:20 PM on that day is traditionally regarded as a time to imbibe on the once-illicit drug. Consequently, researchers looked at the number of car accidents between 4:20 PM and midnight on April 20 and compared the results to the statistics during the same time period a week earlier and a week later.  The researchers compared the data over a 25-year period and in several different locations throughout the country. The results showed a 12 percent increase in fatal accidents between 4:20 PM and midnight on April 20. Further, the increase in car accidents was particularly notable in drivers under the age of 20.

While marijuana is generally regarded as safer than alcohol, its effects on driving are still hazy and most studies show some degree of impairment for drivers on the drug. Drivers under the influence of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana responsible for the “high,” have slower reaction times, are more likely to drive at erratic speeds, and are less likely to remain in their lane. Despite this evidence, driving while high is “surprisingly common” according to the JAMA Internal Medicine Study. Many public policy experts point towards difficulty enforcing driving while impaired laws for marijuana and a general perception that driving while impaired by marijuana is safe as the reason for this problem. Because cannabis remains a Schedule II drug by the federal government, meaning the drug has “no acceptable medicinal use,” the ability to research the drug is severely limited.

Following the trend of other East Coast states, Massachusetts recently legalized marijuana for recreational purposes and is now looking for an objective measurement to issue operating while impaired tickets. The highest court in Massachusetts recently ruled that sobriety tests for alcohol can be offered as evidence of a driver’s impairment by marijuana, but the result of the test will not be dispositive by itself. Until the Commonwealth can locate an objective measurement, it will be the responsibility of juries to weigh all of the evidence and determine whether a driver was operating under the influence. For this reason alone, anyone who has been charged with a marijuana-related crime should discuss legal options with a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney experienced in these types of cases.