In 2012 voters in Washington State voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Since that time, those who are over 21 years of age have been able to possess a small amount of cannabis for non-public use. However, while legal to use, similar to alcohol, it is still against the law to drive while under the influence of marijuana. The state has set a ‘legal limit' of “5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood.” If a driver is found to be operating a vehicle while high, then that driver can be charged with DUI and face fines and penalties if ultimately convicted.
The impact of a change in law is not always immediately apparent. This past August, the Bellingham Herald looked at how the legalization of recreational marijuana has impacted impaired driving in the state. The column, Road Rules, looked at “number of traffic fatalities involving marijuana-impaired drivers from 2011 to 2016.” The data shows the “[a]nnual fatalities in Washington state involving a marijuana-impaired driver.” The number of fatalities was lower in 2011, 2012, and 2013. However, there was an increase in death rates starting in 2014, which is the first year that retail marijuana licenses were issued. Last year there were 116 deaths involving to marijuana-impaired drivers.
The Herald asked whether these deaths could be specifically attributed to the legalization of marijuana. It determined that “it's hard to argue that the legalization of marijuana hasn't had an impact on fatal crashes.” The Herald looked at how the marijuana-impaired driver category was the only category of drivers that nearly doubled in recent years and also how there was a distinct moment when this occurred.
Washington was not the only state saw an increase in the number of deaths after legalizing marijuana. According to the Denver Post, “[t]he number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has risen sharply each year since 2013, more than doubling in that time, federal and sate data show.” The data shows that “the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana use jumped 145 percent – from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016.” The majority of drivers tested in 2016 showed that they had THC in their blood, which indicates that the drug was used in that last few hours. In addition, 63 percent were found to have “over 5 nanograms per millimeter, the state's limit for driving.”
It is important to remember that even though something is legal, if it impairs your ability to drive, it is best not to get behind the wheel. As with alcohol, drivers need to be aware that if they have been using marijuana it is better to get a ride with a sober friend or using a ride-sharing service, rather than get behind the wheel while high. Failing to do so can result in the driver facing criminal charges. In a case where a driver was under the influence and caused a death, in Washington, the driver could be charged with vehicular homicide. The penalty if a driver is found guilty of this offense includes a possible life sentence and a maximum fine up to $50,000.