SEATTLE – More drivers tested positive for marijuana in Washington in 2013 – the first full year after the state legalized pot – but officials so far say there’s been no obvious, corresponding jump in car accidents.
The Washington State Patrol says 1,362 drivers tested positive for having active marijuana in their system – a jump of just under 25 percent from the year before, even though the patrol had fewer troopers on the road and there was no overall rise in intoxicated driving arrests.
Of those, 720 had levels high enough to lead to an automatic drugged-driving conviction under the state’s legal pot law.
Nevertheless, a preliminary tally counts 99,690 crashes reported to law enforcement in 2013, an increase of just 72 from the year before, State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said. Of those, 443 were fatal – compared with 444 in 2012, 454 in 2011 and 521 in 2008.
The trend line for fatal accidents “has been strongly down for several years, and we are not seeing a change in that trend since the legalization of marijuana,” Calkins said.
But the increase in pot-related driving arrests is nevertheless troubling, especially considering that legal marijuana sales haven’t even started in Washington and won’t until later this year, said Kevin Sabet, of the anti-legalization group Project SAM, for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
“Drivers are getting the message that driving under the influence of marijuana is acceptable because it is less dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Sabet said. “Of course it’s not safe.”
The drivers who tested positive were driving recklessly enough to get pulled over, he noted.
The state did see a big jump in drivers testing positive for a marijuana compound that stays in the system longer than active THC – meaning they had used marijuana within days or weeks of their arrest, but weren’t necessarily impaired from it. Some 40 percent of drivers tested positive for that compound, called carboxy THC, as opposed to about 25 percent in prior years.
Dr. Fiona Couper, state toxicologist with the patrol, said that among the 2,187 who tested positive for carboxy THC in 2013, 60 percent were also positive for at least one other substance, most typically alcohol.
Experts say that combining alcohol with marijuana, even in low amounts, can be especially dangerous.
Alison Holcomb, the Seattle lawyer who drafted Washington’s legal pot law, said Tuesday it was discouraging that the state has not engaged in any public education campaign about the dangers of driving high. Colorado, the only other state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, launched a $1 million television campaign this week.
“There needs to be a public education campaign, and it needs to have started last year,” Holcomb said.
There are typically about 40,000 intoxicated-driving arrests statewide each year, according to the State Patrol.
The patrol had earlier speculated that the increase in positive marijuana tests might be a result of the state’s toxicology lab performing more tests, but that does not appear to be the case.
Historically, drug tests often weren’t performed if blood-alcohol levels came back at 0.10 percent or higher, but in January 2013, the lab began testing virtually all samples for drugs in addition to alcohol, Couper said.
That resulted in more positive tests. However, the lab also raised the amount of active THC that triggered a positive result, from 1 nanogram per milliliter of blood to 2 nanograms. That resulted in fewer positive tests, with the net effect being basically a wash, she said.