Highway Safety, Teen Drug Use Emerge As Key Issues In Marijuana Legalization Debate

Mar 28, 2016

As House lawmakers ponder whether or not to legalize marijuana, two key questions have risen to the fore: Will legal pot make Vermont’s highways more dangerous? And will more young residents use cannabis if it’s sold legally in stores?

The answers all depend on who you ask.

It’s been almost a month since the Vermont Senate approved legislation that would bring the state’s thriving cannabis industry above board. Now, House lawmakers are finally beginning to wrestle with some of the same issues that dominated the Senate debate, namely highway safety and usage rates among Vermont youth.

Highway Safety

Fiona Couper is director of Washington State Highway Patrol Forensics Laboratory, and her lab has been conducting analyzes since voters in that state approved a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana.

Last week, Couper told House lawmakers that in 2012, the year before the law took effect, about 18 percent of impaired driving cases involved motorists who tested positive for THC. By 2015, Couper says, the figure had risen to nearly 33 percent.

“You can see that the number of cases … that had THC in their system … significantly increased,” Couper says.

It’s one side of a complicated story. And the person at the helm of Vermont’s highway safety mission says it isn’t reason to reject the legalization proposal.

“I don’t think there’s a necessary relationship between legalization of marijuana and an increase in highway deaths, depending on how the policy is done,” says Vermont Secretary of Transportation Chris Cole.

"You can see that the number of cases ... that had THC in their system ... significantly increased." — Fiona Couper is director of Washington State Highway Patrol Forensics Laboratory

Cole says the legislation would appropriate money for added enforcement resources on the roads. He says 30 percent of highway fatalities in Vermont involved impaired drivers. Of those, Cole says, half involve motorists who later test positive for THC, despite the fact that it’s illegal.

“That’s not a policy that’s working,” Cole says. “So if it were regulated and it was in a different type of market, I would like to see what that looks like.”

Teen Drug Use

Testimony is similarly contradictory when it comes to the impact of legalization on youth usage rates. Dr. Trey Williams, a resident physician at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, says a recent Health Impact Assessment from the Vermont Department of Health projects a 5-percent increase in youth usage rates.

Williams also notes that according to one federal survey, Colorado has gone from having the third-highest rate of marijuana use among youth to number one since it legalized the drug.

“If we legalize it we are sending the message that it is OK. It’s not legal for them to use it, but it’s OK, and it will eventually be OK, just like alcohol is,” Williams says.

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, says there isn’t nearly enough data to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between legalization and higher rates of teen use. He says the same federal survey Williams cites — the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of teenagers in Colorado — showed a statistically insignificant changed in usage rates since that state legalized marijuana.

"If we legalize it we are sending the message that it is OK. It's not legal for them to use it, but it's OK, and it will eventually be OK, just like alcohol." — Dr. Trey Williams, a resident physician at the University of Vermont Children's Hospital

And a survey by Colorado health officials actually showed a small decrease in youth marijuana use during a short time frame after the law took effect.

Simon says he concedes that adult use rates will almost certainly go up if lawmakers legalize cannabis. But he says the same isn’t necessarily true of youth usage rates.

“If kids want marijuana today, they’re able to get it,” Simon says. “We need to do a better job educating and helping young people understand why they shouldn’t try marijuana until they’re at least 21 years of age, and that’s one of the goals for this policy.”

Moretown Rep. Maxine Grad, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, says it’s tricky to reconcile the contradictory statistics from different witnesses.

“But that is the challenge of this process, to really consider the testimony, where it’s coming from, and making decisions,” Grad says.

Grad says she personally hasn’t decided yet how she’ll vote on the proposal. And she says she doesn’t expect the committee to hold a formal vote until after this week.