Legal cannabis markets have been related to an increase in motor vehicle fatalities.

Death certificate data were used in a recent University of Illinois at Chicago study to compare mortality rates between states that only allowed medical cannabis access and those that legalized recreational cannabis dispensaries. The work was published in the Social Science & Medicine journal.

The UIC researchers discovered that recreational markets were associated with an average of a 10% increase in motor vehicle accident deaths and that there was a significant increase in crash fatalities in four of the seven states used in the study that had legalized recreational markets.

According to Samantha Marinello, the study’s first author, the findings suggest that states with legal recreational cannabis might benefit from investing in public health policies and initiatives to reduce this risk and raise awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence.

“To see a 10% rise in motor vehicle accident deaths related with recreational markets is troubling; previous studies have showed cannabis affects driving abilities and that driving while high is pretty common among regular cannabis users,”

Marinello, a postdoctoral research associate with the division of health policy.

“It is troubling to observe a 10 percent increase in fatal car accidents linked to recreational markets.” Marinello, a postdoctoral research associate with the division of health policy and administration at the UIC School of Public Health, stated, “Previous studies have found that cannabis impairs driving ability and that driving while high is fairly common among regular cannabis users.”

Marinello and Lisa Powell, distinguished professor at UIC and division director, focused on seven states with legal recreational cannabis markets for the analysis: Massachusetts, Nevada, Alaska, California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. They used death certificates from 2009 to 2019 to get information about deaths in three areas that have been linked to cannabis use in the past but are still poorly understood: suicide, overdose from opioids, and accidents in vehicles.

The researchers compared trends in death rates for each cause in states with legal markets to those in states with comprehensive medical cannabis programs and comparable trends in death rates prior to the markets’ implementation.

Marinello stated, “We didn’t want to compare states with very different mortality trends or social ideology, so we looked at each state and outcome and identified comparison states with existing medical cannabis programs and with similar pre-trends to conduct our analysis.” “We didn’t want to compare states with very different social ideology,” he added.

According to the data, crash fatalities increased significantly in Colorado (16%), Oregon (22%), Alaska (20%), and California (14%).

According to the authors, “The results suggest that a potential unintended consequence of recreational markets is increased cannabis-intoxicated driving and crash deaths and that there may be a potential need for policies focused on reducing driving under the influence of cannabis.”

Given that cannabis use is linked to the development of depressive disorders and suicidality, the researchers found no evidence that recreational markets had an impact on suicides.

On average, recreational markets were associated with a 11% decrease in fatalities from opioid overdoses. The decrease ranged from 3 percent to 28 percent in each of the seven states.

Marinello stated that another potential area of impact that states considering legalization ought to take into consideration is the decrease in the number of people who die from opioid overdoses.

Marinello made the following statement: “This study provides evidence of both potential benefits and harms that policymakers should consider when legalizing recreational cannabis markets.”

More information: Samantha Marinello et al, The impact of recreational cannabis markets on motor vehicle accident, suicide, and opioid overdose fatalities, Social Science & Medicine (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2023.115680

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