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Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police: Marijuana debate needs facts not propaganda


In past weeks marijuana legalization proponents have blithely told the public that while Alaska already has the highest use of marijuana in the country there “is no problem” on the roads because of it. We call that whistling in the graveyard. First, the law enforcement community believes that the 50 lives lost and the hundreds of people injured in motor vehicle crashes during 2013 in Alaska are too many, and we think the friends and families of those killed and maimed would agree. Secondly, while the proponents’ statements are presented as if they are fact, the truth is they are generally unsupported opinion not challenged by the press. Toxicology (testing of blood) is necessary to determine if marijuana impairment is a factor in a crash.  Since toxicology is not universally reported on crash victims in Alaska, it is impossible to know what percentage of current Alaskan crashes are marijuana related, but a study (cited below) of severely injured drivers admitted to a major trauma center in Maryland showed more than 1 in 4 to be under the influence of marijuana. It is wishful thinking to say that marijuana is not currently causing problems on Alaska highways.

Similarly, statements being made about crash experiences in Washington and Colorado since marijuana has been legalized are purely anecdotal. Certified reporting of crash statistics generally has a lag time of about a year because of the time it takes to collect and tabulate data from every geographic locality. Complete and accurate data showing the effect of marijuana legalization on traffic crashes in Colorado and Washington likely won’t be available until mid to late 2015--- long after Alaskan voters decide to accept or reject the proposed legalization initiative on November’s ballot. Any current year crash data conclusions professed prior to that time are inconclusive and speculative.

Even our Alaska statistics for 2013 are still in a state of flux. While the death count is relatively certain, injury counts are not yet completely tabulated and must be projected based on prior year data. While contemporaneous crash data contains uncertainties and can’t provide a basis for conclusion, we feel recent studies from around the country paint a clear picture of what we can expect if marijuana is legalized in Alaska:

  • Drugs that may affect driving were detected in one of every seven weekend nighttime drivers in California during the summer of 2012. In that first California statewide roadside survey of alcohol and drug use by drivers, 14 percent of drivers tested positive for drugs, 7.4 percent of drivers tested positive for alcohol, and just as many tested positive for marijuana as for alcohol.  (“California Roadside Survey Finds Twice as Many Weekend Nighttime Drivers Test Positive for Other Drugs as for Alcohol: Marijuana as Likely as Alcohol.” CESARFAX, Col. 21, Issue 48, December 3, 2012. www.cesar.umd.edu/cesar/vol21/21-48.pdf )
  • In a 2007 National Roadside Survey of alcohol and drug use by drivers, a random sample of weekend nighttime drivers across the United States found that 16.3 percent of the drivers tested positive for drugs, compared to 2.2 percent of drivers with blood alcohol concentrations at or above the legal limit. Drugs were present more than 7 times more frequently as alcohol. (DuPont, Robert. “National Survey Confirms that Drugged Driving is Significantly More Widespread than Drunk  Driving.” Commentary, Institute for Behavior and Health, July 17, 2009. page 1. http://www.ibhinc.org )
  • In states where there has been a large increase in “medical” marijuana cardholders, DUI arrests involving marijuana skyrocketed, as have traffic fatalities where marijuana was found in the system of one of the drivers.  (Volz, Matt. “Drug Overdose: Medical marijuana facing a backlash.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37282436 ) --Because toxicology results are not universally reported for Alaskan crashes, no empirical data exists which would lead us to expect a different result here.
  • In a study of seriously injured drivers admitted to a Maryland Level-1 shock-trauma center, 65.7 percent were found to have positive toxicology results for alcohol and/or drugs. Almost 51 percent of the total tested positive for illegal drugs. A total of 26.9 percent of those drivers tested positive for marijuana. (DuPont, Robert. “National Survey Confirms that Drugged Driving is Significantly More Widespread than Drunk Driving.” Commentary, Institute for Behavior and Health, July 17, 2009. page 1. http://www..ibhinc.org
  • The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has called for a science-based educational campaign targeting drugged driving behavior. In a January 2008 report titled, Cannabis and Driving, it is noted that motorists should be discouraged from driving if they have recently smoked cannabis and should never operate a motor vehicle after having consumed both marijuana and alcohol. The report also calls for the development of roadside, cannabis-sensitive technology to better assist law enforcement in identifying drivers who may be under the influence of pot. (Cannabis and Driving: A Scientific and Rational Review.” Armentano, Paul. NORML/NORML Foundation. January 10, 2008.  http://normal.org/index.cfm?Group_ID=7475 for article, and  http://normal.org/index.cfm?Group_ID=7459  for the full report )

Drugged driving is a public health concern because it impairs motor skills, reaction time, and judgment; and it puts not only the driver at risk, but also passengers and others who share the road.  Even low doses of marijuana moderately impair cognitive and psychomotor tasks associated with driving, while severe driving impairment is observed with high doses, chronic use and use in combination with low doses of alcohol. The more difficult and unpredictable the task, the more likely marijuana will impair performance.

The Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police hopes the people of Alaska will base their opinion on well researched, science-based facts about marijuana, and not rely on anecdotal evidence and biased propaganda. The safety of Alaska’s streets and highways is at stake.

Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police | aacop@aacop.org | aacop.org


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