Stoned Mayhem on the Freeways, or SMOF, is what I call the go-to scare tactic of the drug warriors seeking to maintain the status quo of marijuana prohibition. In Oregon, where voters are preparing to pass marijuana legalization in the form of Measure 91, the leading law-enforcement spokesperson against the measure, Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis, recently brought up SMOF on his personal Facebook page:
As a DA I see too much damage done by drugs and alcohol -particularly mixed with driving. In Clatsop County there are only 2 trained DRE (drug recognition experts) cops and no real test that scientifically shows impairment by pot (many commenters claim it makes them BETTER driver ?!?)
The problems for Marquis’s scaremongering lie in Oregon traffic statistics and the results of legalization in Colorado and Washington. The fact is that Oregon’s roads have never been safer and crashes and fatalities in Colorado and Washington are lower than the national average and not increasing due to legalization there.
First, Oregon. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tracks the number of fatalities in auto crashes in every state. In the five years prior to passage of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, there was an average of 531 traffic deaths per year, with four of the five years above 500. In 1999, the year the Act went into effect, there were 414 fatalities and the average over the next five years was 460. 2003 was the only year where there were more than 500 fatalities since medical marijuana has existed in Oregon.
Now, that doesn’t mean marijuana made traffic safer, although one could argue people substituting marijuana for alcohol are certainly safer drivers. Marijuana is among the lowest risk factors for accident; one recent meta-analysis showed almost double the risk of fatal crash for a marijuana driver versus three-to-five times the risk from users of certain prescription drugs and thirteen times the risk from an alcohol user. Another analysis showed the risk of dying as a marijuana-using driver about equal to a penicillin-using or anti-histamine-using driver. Even the NHTSA says “[T]here is little if any evidence to indicate that drivers who have used marijuana alone are any more likely to cause serious accidents than drug free drivers.”
But the data don’t show marijuana making traffic any more dangerous, either. The post-medical marijuana peak in fatalities was the 512 in 2003. The next highest number was 487 fatalities in 2005, the year Senate Bill 1085 increased Oregon’s medical marijuana possession and cultivation limits to the greatest in the nation. Since then there has been a steady decline in road fatalities. In 2009 we began to see ersatz dispensaries appear; that’s also the first year that fatalities fell below 400, and for the past three years of data, we have fewer than 340 traffic deaths per year.
Second, Colorado and Washington. These two states also have traffic fatality rates far below the national averages. 2013’s data aren’t in to NHTSA yet, but Washington State Patrol data show one fewer fatality from 2012 to 2013. According to Washington’s data from the “Drive Sober of Get Pulled Over” DUI patrols running from the beginning of the 2013 (first legal) Seattle Hempfest to the Labor Day Weekend, they nabbed 78 fewer drivers in Seattle’s King County than in 2012. Total DUI arrests dropped from 1,621 to 1,357. Even Bob Caulkins of the Washington State Patrol says “We are not seeing a change in [the declining traffic fatality]trend since the legalization of marijuana.” Plus, comparing by fatalities per 100 million miles driven, Washington’s 0.77 fatalities is almost quarter less than Oregon’s 1.01.
Then in Colorado, we find that between 2012 and 2013, there were 10 fewer traffic fatalities and 55 fewer DUIs. Since 2009, when Colorado began opening up and regulating its dispensary industry, DUI filings in Colorado have dropped 21%. Also, Colorado’s 1.01 fatalities per 100 million miles driven is equal to Oregon’s.
Now, one could complain that all I’m citing here are total DUI figures and not those for marijuana DUI alone. So, drunk driving could be declining here, maybe at a faster rate than marijuana DUI is increasing. But preliminary data from traffic stops doesn’t back that theory up, either. On Friday, May 9, 2014, Larimer County, a northern county including Fort Collins, conducted a DUI checkpoint that netted 1,572 drivers. In that total, they made 20 arrests for alcohol DUI and zero arrests for marijuana DUI.
Josh Marquis wants you to believe that legalizing marijuana will create stoned mayhem on the freeways, yet roads in Washington and Colorado are safer than ever. Oregon already has 108,000 near-daily marijuana users and 314,000 monthly users, yet our roads are safer than ever. Legalization doesn’t invent marijuana and cars; if there was going to be some sort of stoned mayhem on the freeways, Oregon would have experienced it by now.