The results of a recent study published in JAMA Network Open claim to have found an association between cannabis legalization and an increase in traffic accidents.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Ottawa and looked at emergency room visits in Ontario, Canada over a 13-year period (Jan 2010-Dec 2021 which is actually 12 years but they say 13 in the study so what do I know), at the end of which they denoted a 475.3% increase in traffic accidents that resulted in an emergency room visit in which the driver had cannabis in their system at the time of the accident.
“This cross-sectional study found large increases in cannabis involvement in ED visits for traffic injury over time, which may have accelerated following nonmedical cannabis commercialization,” the conclusion of the study said. “Although the frequency of visits was rare, they may reflect broader changes in cannabis-impaired driving. Greater prevention efforts, including targeted education and policy measures, in regions with legal cannabis are indicated.”
At first glance, 475.3% sounds like a big number and suffice it to say many of the anti-cannabis media outlets who repackaged that number for a scary-sounding headline are counting on their readership to look no further and take their word for it that cannabis legalization and car crashes must be associated. I’m a journalist, not a scientist, but I am able to point out some facts about the study that might make that big number seem a bit less scary.
For one thing the study was only conducted in Ontario, Canada. In terms of sample size, that is one city in a country with very specific cannabis laws so to lay the blanket term “legalization” over one very specific set of laws isn’t totally accurate. The study even says so in the introduction:
“Another study also found no increase in total traffic injury hospitalizations in Canada over 2.5 years following legalization. Critically, the slow rollout of the cannabis retail market in Canada and the overlap of the legalization period with the COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduces the ability of these studies to evaluate the impacts of legalization,” the study said.
It’s also important to understand that the total number of injury-causing traffic accidents involving cannabis in the 13-year period came to a grand total of 426 out of 947,604. That number as a percentage is .04%, which is even smaller when compared to the total number of traffic accidents without taking emergency room visits into account. It’s hardly insignificant, but it is, arguably, a much less daunting number at first glance than 475.3%.
One key piece of data the study highlighted was that men appear to be more at risk than women of being involved in such accidents where cannabis intoxication was considered a factor. This stands to reason as a 2016 study by the National Institute of Health found men to use cannabis far more often than women and in greater amounts per use.
“Of the 418 individuals with documented cannabis involvement, 330 (78.9%) were male, 109 (25.6%) were aged 16 to 21 years (mean [SD] age at visit, 30.6 [12.0] years), and 113 (27.0%) had an ED visit or hospitalization for substance use in the 2 years before their traffic injury ED visit,” the study said.
The last and arguably most important question one must ask when dissecting the results of a study is “who paid for this?” Studies cost money, and it goes without saying that people who have money often try to use that money to influence the results of otherwise scientifically sound methods of observation. This is America after all (Or Canada, in this case). However, this study was funded in its entirety by grants from the Canadian Institute of Health and the University of Ottawa, meaning there does not appear to be any private money attempting to sway these results.
Regardless of my nitpicking, this study did point out something important: there is a small but statistically significant chance that a link between cannabis legalization and severe traffic accidents exists, but more context and study is needed to be sure.
“The findings of this repeated cross-sectional study suggest that cannabis-involved severe traffic injuries have increased over time. Legalization of nonmedical cannabis with widespread retail access and increased cannabis product variety may have further increased these visits despite laws specifically aimed at deterring cannabis-impaired driving,” the study said. “Younger adults and males appear to be at particularly increased risk of cannabis-involved traffic injuries. There is a potential need for greater interventions, including education on cannabis-impaired driving, enforcement activities, and policies to regulate access to commercial retail markets.”