A look at some of the fatal pot-related accidents in states that have legalized recreational cannabis


The horrific collision Tuesday night on Interstate 880 in Fremont that claimed three lives is just the latest in a string of deadly wrecks involving a cannabis-impaired driver.

The suspect in this week’s wreck, which tied up the highway until the morning commute, was reportedly driving recklessly and at a high rate of speed on 880 before the crash occured. That driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana and is suspected of causing the collision. The suspect was identified as Dang Nguyen Hai Tran, 21, of San Jose.

According to Sgt. Rob Nacke, spokesman for the CHP’s Golden Gate District, which includes the nine-county Bay Area, if the trend since 2017 continues, 2018 could see a 70-percent rise in pot DUI arrests. Nacke on Wednesday released these statistics for the local region in 2017:

  • DUI arrests solely for cannabis: 197
  • DUI arrests involving cannabis and alcohol: 183
  • Traffic collision with property damage and a cannabis-only DUI arrest: 22
  • Traffic collisions with an injury and a cannabis-only DUI arrest: 7
  • Traffic collisions with a death and a cannabis-only DUI arrest: zero
  • When there’s alcohol as well as cannabis, injury collisions jump to 24 and fatal collisions for 2017 stood at 7

For January-mid Apri, 2018:

  • DUI arrests solely for cannabis: 87
  • DUI arrests involving cannabis and alcohol: 60
  • Traffic collision with property damage and a cannabis-only DUI arrest: 9
  • Traffic collisions with an injury and a cannabis-only DUI arrest: 7
  • Traffic collsions with a death and a cannbis-only DUI arrest: zero
  • When there’s alcohol as well as cannabis, injury collisions stood at 4 and there was one fatal  collision.

Finally, the CHP this year started tracking incidents involving drivers pulled over for erratic driving where marijuana was detected (for example, drug paraphernalia or a stoned passenger was in the car,) but no DUI arrest was made. That number through April stood at 3,754.

Pot-related accidents have been in the news the past few years as nine states and the District of Columbia began to legalize the use of recreational cannabis Those states are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

What constitutes a ”marijuana-related” accident is still wrapped up in controversy, as law enforcement in cannabis-friendly states try to get their arms around the problem. For example, in 2016, four years after Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize recreational pot, then Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson said “marijuana-related” traffic deaths, hospital visits and school suspensions in the Rocky Mountain state have “not significantly” increased since the state legalized the drug.

But that claim was immediately debunked by a number of official sources which all showed substantial increases in those problems since pot became legal. The problem was and remains this: the limitations of the data make it impossible to know for sure how many of the documented incidents were directly caused by marijuana use. As ProCon.org reported, “unlike alcohol, for example, testing positive for marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean a person is under the influence of the drug at the time of the traffic accident.”

Still, pot remains front and center in a number of deadly vehicular accidents in states where the laws governing its use have been loosened. Here are some of those stories that made the news:

Colorado 2016

After Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that  “marijuana-related” traffic deaths, hospital visits and school suspensions in Colorado have “not significantly” increased since the state legalized the drug four years earlier, the push-back began immediately, according to a report by FactCheck.org, a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“That’s inaccurate,” it said. “Statistics from various official sources show substantial increases. But the limitations of the data make it impossible to know for sure how many of the documented incidents were directly caused by marijuana use. Unlike alcohol, for example, testing positive for marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean a person is under the influence of the drug at the time of the traffic accident.”

Johnson was wrong, said FactCheck. “Increases in these incidents were significant. Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 154 percent between 2006 and 2014; Colorado emergency room hospital visits that were ‘likely related’ to marijuana increased by 77 percent from 2011 to 2014; and drug-related suspensions/expulsions increased 40 percent from school years 2008/2009 to 2013/2014, according to a September 2015 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, a collaboration of federal, state and local drug enforcement agencies.”

It’s complicated, says the report: “Blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater is the legal threshold for driving while impaired in all 50 states. Blood alcohol concentration levels do correspond to a person’s intoxication level. However, marijuana and other drugs, such as cocaine and prescription pain killers, can stay in a person’s system for a few days, so the presence of the drug alone is not necessarily an indicator of intoxication.”

Massachusetts 2017

Investigators say reckless driving and speeding were to blame for a December crash that killed two popular high school athletes in Falmouth, according to a report released this week by police and published in the Boston Globe. James Lavin was driving home from hockey practice with Owen Higgins when he crashed into a tree on Thomas B. Landers Road on Dec. 22, 2016.

An investigation by Falmouth police and State Police found that Lavin was “traveling recklessly at a high rate of speed” when he crossed the double yellow line to pass another car. Lavin then lost control and hit a tree, according to a Falmouth police statement. Lavin died at the scene, and Higgins died in Rhode Island Hospital the next day. The students, both 17, also played football at Falmouth High School.

The road was wet, but it is not believed to have been a cause of the crash, the statement said. The Globe reported that there was also no defect found with the car that could have led to the crash. But a toxicology report found that both teenagers had tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound found in marijuana, in their systems at the time of the crash. The police did not say whether the teenagers had smoked the drug immediately prior to the crash, and it does not cite the drug among the reasons for the incident. THC can remain in a person’s system for up to a week after use, according to the Federal Drug Administration.

“The effect of marijuana alone markedly increases the odds of a person thinking it is safe to drive drunk,” said Jane Allen, a public health analyst at RTI International, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that does research for government and commercial groups. And since people commonly use drugs and alcohol simultaneously, “that is definitely a safety concern,” she told the Globe.

Maine 2017

Two New Hampshire men who were involved in a fatal car crash in Lebanon, Maine, had attended a medical marijuana festival in the York County town, the Maine State Police told the Portland Press Herald. A spokesman said the driver lost control of his pickup truck, which overturned and pinned him underneath. Passers-by stopped and freed the man, but he died at the crash scene.

“Both men had attended a marijuana festival in Lebanon, and had left the event a few minutes before the crash,” he said. Though police did not identify the event, the only medical marijuana festival in Lebanon that past weekend was the “Live, Love, Laugh Festival,” which was held Aug. 18-20, according to the report. The paper said the event’s Facebook page said the festival featured “medibles and smokables” and was billed as “Southern Maine’s 4th Annual Green Love Celebration.”

At the time, the sale of recreational marijuana was not yet allowed in Maine as it is today, but it was legal back then to grow and possess cannabis. State police Trooper Rick Spicer told the Rochester Voice that the victim was driving a friend home from the festival around 8:30 p.m. when he swerved off the road, caught the soft shoulder and overcorrected. Spicer said the truck spun around and rolled over. Neither man was wearing a seat belt, Spicer said. Spicer told the newspaper that there was no smell or evidence of alcohol use.

Washington 2016

In May 2016, according to FactCheck, the American Automobile Association conducted an analysis of Washington’s marijuana-related fatalities and found that around twice as many “fatal-crash-involved drivers” had THC in their system in 2014 compared with previous years. That state’s voters has agreed to legalized recreational pot in November 2012. But like the studies done in Colorado in 2015 report, the AAA report cautioned that “testing positive for THC doesn’t mean the driver was impaired or at fault for the crash. The AAA report added that many marijuana-positive drivers also had alcohol and other drugs in their system, ‘which in some cases likely contributed more significantly to the crash than did the THC.’



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