The headline for the article on NBC News “Pot Fuels Surge in Drugged Driving Deaths” is accompanied by a disturbing photo of a crumpled car destroyed in an accident. The article itself says that new research supports the claim that legal marijuana is making the problem of drugged driving worse, and tells stories of people who lost children and relatives in accidents where there was evidence of drug use. Scary! The article strongly implies that legalizing marijuana leads to more traffic deaths.
But as Forbes points out, this article is grossly misleading at best.
In fact, a separate study showed that in states where medical marijuana was legalized, traffic fatalities actually went down significantly. This other study theorized that this happened because people substituted marijuana for alcohol. California saw traffic fatalities drop by 31% after they legalized medical marijuana, in Hawaii they dropped by 14% and in Rhode Island by 21%. Alcohol, which of course is legal, has a much more dramatic effect on driving ability than marijuana.
Another problem with the NBC article is that they used a statistic from the study that found remnants of marijuana use in 12.2% of drivers killed in traffic accidents during 2010, up from 4.2% in 1999. The problem is that marijuana can be detected up to a week after use. So this statistic is more about how many people are smoking marijuana somewhat regularly than if they were actually impaired while driving.
The bottom line is that scare and sensationalist tactics like those used in the NBC article don’t help (other than perhaps help NBC attract readers and sell advertising). Driving while impaired by anything, whether it is legal drugs like alcohol and cold medicines, or illegal (in some places) drugs like marijuana, is the problem.