Marijuana report results challenged

SAN LUIS VALLEY — Last week the results of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) report, presented as part of this marijuana series, was challenged by those who believe the report is not entirely accurate and relies on “distorted use of vague statistics.”

This report, however, is not alone in uncovering concerns with marijuana use. An August 25 article in the Denver Post noted the objections of marijuana proponents to skewed statistics cited in various reports but did not shy away from the very real concerns raised by others.

The subhead for the lengthy article indicates Colorado transportation and public safety officials do not formally link the increase in marijuana–related traffic fatalities to marijuana legalization. Statistics needed to accurately assess just how even a slight increase in marijuana use statewide since legalization affects traffic accidents and usage among young people are not always available or reliable.

The Denver Post article highlights the following difficulties in accurately calculating the effects of legalization as it translates to usage below.

  • Colorado coroners are not required to test deceased drivers specifically for marijuana use following traffic fatalities.
  • Many police agencies say they don’t pursue cannabinoid tests of a surviving driver whose blood alcohol level is high enough to be charged with a crime.
  • Tests on drivers do not measure how long it has been since they imbibed marijuana; the drug can remain in a person’s system for up to 30 days.
  • Effects of marijuana may vary from user to user, with some impaired at one level of use and others not.
  • Federal data fails to distinguish between different types of marijuana, between harmless elements that can remain in the system for a long time and the active Delta-9 THC. The presence of Delta-9 THC indicates use within a few hours.
  • A Colorado Public Safety report says only 45 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes were tested for drugs with 81 percent of those tested being deceased.
  • Federal traffic data only reports the first three drugs in a person’s system following a fatal crash, so if not among the first three, the presence of marijuana is excluded.
  • The same data does not test for potency, when last used or whether the driver testing positive was at fault in the accident or received a ticket.

Ttere are many glitches in the reporting system that have not been worked out and contribute to seemingly conflicting reports and incomplete reports based on faulty data. Some believe the inability to properly calculate the effects of legalization in Colorado can be attributed to poor planning prior to the passage of Amendment 64.

But the unreliability of the traffic reports do not change the trends law enforcement and others see in marijuana usage since legalization in 2012.

The Denver Post article also reports that levels of marijuana detected in the bloodstream of those involved in fatal crashes was much higher beginning in 2013, some as much as five times more than the legal amount. And contrary to what marijuana advocates claim, the article quotes sources reporting Colorado Transportation Statistics, which show that all surviving drivers involved in accidents who tested positive for marijuana had used the drug only hours before driving.

Alcohol-related fatal crashes from 2013-2015 increased 17 percent over that time period, but marijuana–related fatal crashes increased by 145 percent according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. Yet the frequency of testing for marijuana is these crashes did not change in any meaningful way during that time period.

Encouraging trends are listed in the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), including data that contradicts findings in other studies. This includes no increase in past month marijuana use in adults or adolescents since legalization, either in the numbers using or frequency of use; past-month use is nearly identical to the national average; there are no discernible disparities in use according to age, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation since legalization and daily or near-daily marijuana use is much lower than (daily) alcohol and tobacco consumption.

But the CDPHE report also notes some troubling trends, including substantial evidence that indicates robust scientific findings supporting an association between marijuana use and the outcome.

The main issue with the reports seems to be the manner of interpretation and the models used for reporting, on either side of the question. This is something that must be resolved before any clear answers to the impact of legalization in Colorado can be assessed objectively.

The best sources for independently evaluating the different surveys can be found at the links below.


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