Does Legal Marijuana Lead to More Traffic Accidents?

Man prepares a joint
Man prepares a joint inside a vehicle | Image by Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock

Ohio voters recently sanctioned recreational marijuana on Election Day, prompting renewed concern around the country over potential increases in impaired driving.

Recreational marijuana is still illegal in Texas, even as Ohio became the 24th state in the nation to legalize it following the November 7 election.

Currently, Texas classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, but the state permits low-THC cannabis (less than 1% THC) to be prescribed for certain medical purposes provided specific conditions are met. The recreational use of marijuana, however, is still illegal.

“I don’t think it advances society. We have enough trouble with alcohol [and car accidents]. … That’s the danger,” said Oakwood, Ohio, resident Tom Hardy, according to WHIO TV 7.

Law enforcement agencies around Ohio are already bracing themselves for an increase in such incidents.

“It is another substance to add to driving on our roads when we already have a problem. … While speaking with sheriffs from other states, the crash numbers are up, so we will definitely see an impact,” Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said, per WHIO.

Colorado has been at the forefront of marijuana decriminalization and legalization efforts. Still, the recent referendum in Ohio prompted the head of the Archdiocese of Denver to issue a pastoral letter against the spread of such policies.

“I write to you out of pastoral concern for the salvation of souls,” wrote Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, The Denver Gazette reported. “I am convinced of the need to address the impact marijuana use is having on individuals, families, and society in general.”

Multiple studies have indicated that such policies have resulted in upticks in impaired driving.

“[L]iberalization of cannabis laws results in a higher frequency of drivers with detectable blood levels of the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis,” reads a study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. “This has raised concerns about the impact of increased cannabis use on traffic safety and prompted discussions on implementing effective laws related to driving under the influence of cannabis.”

In April of 2023, the Texas House of Representatives passed HB 218, which would make possession of up to 1 ounce of cannabis a Class C misdemeanor, with no jail time and a fine of no more than $500, as previously reported by The Dallas Express. Under the existing law, possession of 2 ounces or less is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

The bill did not advance out of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Texas allows “cite and release” under Article 14.06. Cite and release programs allow law enforcement officers to issue a ticket in lieu of arrest for certain offenses, including possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana.

In 2017, the City of Dallas initiated a Cite and Release Program. Although the program does not decriminalize marijuana, it does impact individuals with 4 ounces of marijuana or less.

Rather than being taken to jail, alleged offenders who fall under the program stipulations are fingerprinted and issued a court summons. Still, it is important to note that the potential criminal penalty for the offense does not change.

In Dallas County, District Attorney John Creuzot adopted a non-prosecution policy for possession cases involving 4 ounces or less. The district attorney has previously received criticism for allegedly being soft on crime, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.

Other jurisdictions in Texas that have implemented their own cite-and-release policies include Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

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