A horrific collision Tuesday night on Interstate 880 in Fremont that claimed three lives is just the latest in a string of deadly wrecks involving a cannabis-impaired driver.
The suspect in this week’s wreck was reportedly driving recklessly and at a high rate of speed on 880 before the crash occured. That driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana and is suspected of causing the collision. The suspect was identified as Dang Nguyen Hai Tran, 21, of San Jose.
Pot-related accidents have been in the news the past few years as nine states and the District of Columbia began to legalize the use of recreational cannabis. Those states are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
What constitutes a ”marijuana-related” accident is still wrapped up in controversy, as law enforcement in cannabis-friendly states try to get their arms around the problem. For example, in 2016, four years after Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize recreational pot, then Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson said “marijuana-related” traffic deaths, hospital visits and school suspensions in the Rocky Mountain state have “not significantly” increased since the state legalized the drug.
But that claim was immediately debunked by a number of official sources which all showed substantial increases in those problems since pot became legal. The problem was and remains this: the limitations of the data make it impossible to know for sure how many of the documented incidents were directly caused by marijuana use. As ProCon.org reported, “unlike alcohol, for example, testing positive for marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean a person is under the influence of the drug at the time of the traffic accident.”
Still, pot remains front and center in a number of deadly vehicular accidents in states where the laws governing its use have been loosened. Here are some of those stories that made the news:
After Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “marijuana-related” traffic deaths, hospital visits and school suspensions in Colorado have “not significantly” increased since the state legalized the drug four years earlier, the push-back began immediately, according to a report by FactCheck.org, a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“That’s inaccurate,” it said. “Statistics from various official sources show substantial increases. But the limitations of the data make it impossible to know for sure how many of the documented incidents were directly caused by marijuana use. Unlike alcohol, for example, testing positive for marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean a person is under the influence of the drug at the time of the traffic accident.”
Johnson was wrong, said FactCheck. “Increases in these incidents were significant. Marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 154 percent between 2006 and 2014; Colorado emergency room hospital visits that were ‘likely related’ to marijuana increased by 77 percent from 2011 to 2014; and drug-related suspensions/expulsions increased 40 percent from school years 2008/2009 to 2013/2014, according to a September 2015 report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Traffic Area, a collaboration of federal, state and local drug enforcement agencies.”
It’s complicated, says the report: “Blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or greater is the legal threshold for driving while impaired in all 50 states. Blood alcohol concentration levels do correspond to a person’s intoxication level. However, marijuana and other drugs, such as cocaine and prescription pain killers, can stay in a person’s system for a few days, so the presence of the drug alone is not necessarily an indicator of intoxication.”
Investigators say reckless driving and speeding were to blame for a December crash that killed two popular high school athletes in Falmouth, according to a report released this week by police and published in the Boston Globe. James Lavin was driving home from hockey practice with Owen Higgins when he crashed into a tree on Thomas B. Landers Road on Dec. 22, 2016.
An investigation by Falmouth police and State Police found that Lavin was “traveling recklessly at a high rate of speed” when he crossed the double yellow line to pass another car. Lavin then lost control and hit a tree, according to a Falmouth police statement. Lavin died at the scene, and Higgins died in Rhode Island Hospital the next day. The students, both 17, also played football at Falmouth High School.
The road was wet, but it is not believed to have been a cause of the crash, the statement said. The Globe reported that there was also no defect found with the car that could have led to the crash. But a toxicology report found that both teenagers had tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound found in marijuana, in their systems at the time of the crash. The police did not say whether the teenagers had smoked the drug immediately prior to the crash, and it does not cite the drug among the reasons for the incident. THC can remain in a person’s system for up to a week after use, according to the Federal Drug Administration.
“The effect of marijuana alone markedly increases the odds of a person thinking it is safe to drive drunk,” said Jane Allen, a public health analyst at RTI International, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that does research for government and commercial groups. And since people commonly use drugs and alcohol simultaneously, “that is definitely a safety concern,” she told the Globe.
Two New Hampshire men who were involved in a fatal car crash in Lebanon, Maine, had attended a medical marijuana festival in the York County town, the Maine State Police told the Portland Press Herald. A spokesman said the driver lost control of his pickup truck, which overturned and pinned him underneath. Passers-by stopped and freed the man, but he died at the crash scene.
“Both men had attended a marijuana festival in Lebanon, and had left the event a few minutes before the crash,” he said. Though police did not identify the event, the only medical marijuana festival in Lebanon that past weekend was the “Live, Love, Laugh Festival,” which was held Aug. 18-20, according to the report. The paper said the event’s Facebook page said the festival featured “medibles and smokables” and was billed as “Southern Maine’s 4th Annual Green Love Celebration.”
At the time, the sale of recreational marijuana was not yet allowed in Maine as it is today, but it was legal back then to grow and possess cannabis. State police Trooper Rick Spicer told the Rochester Voice that the victim was driving a friend home from the festival around 8:30 p.m. when he swerved off the road, caught the soft shoulder and overcorrected. Spicer said the truck spun around and rolled over. Neither man was wearing a seat belt, Spicer said. Spicer told the newspaper that there was no smell or evidence of alcohol use.
In May 2016, according to FactCheck, the American Automobile Association conducted an analysis of Washington’s marijuana-related fatalities and found that around twice as many “fatal-crash-involved drivers” had THC in their system in 2014 compared with previous years. That state’s voters has agreed to legalized recreational pot in November 2012. But like the studies done in Colorado in 2015 report, the AAA report cautioned that “testing positive for THC doesn’t mean the driver was impaired or at fault for the crash. The AAA report added that many marijuana-positive drivers also had alcohol and other drugs in their system, ‘which in some cases likely contributed more significantly to the crash than did the THC.’
A toxicology report for the man accused of causing a crash that killed five teenagers shows that the driver had THC, fentanyl and a sedative in his blood when tested at the hospital six hours after the crash, the Burlington Free Press reported in November 2017. Steven Bourgoin, 37, of Williston had 10 nanograms per milliliter of Delta-9 THC, an active ingredient of marijuana, in his system when a sample of his blood was taken at 5:45 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2016, the report shows. He was taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington following the crash shortly before midnight on Oct. 8.
In Vermont any level of THC in a driver’s system is against the law, said the report. In Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, drivers with 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC or more in their blood can be prosecuted for driving under the influence of drugs. The prosecution in Bourgoin’s case said the report does not say which drugs may have been in the suspect’s system before the crash or administered afterward by medical personnel. But authorities added that the drug Midazolam, also found in his system, is capable of causing “significant impairment in driving and psychomotor abilities.”
Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George told reporters that since a judge had rejected several requests by prosecutors to obtain Bourgoin’s medical records, it was unclear what substances were in the driver’s system at the time of the crash.
The number of drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado who tested positive for marijuana has risen sharply each year since 2013, more than doubling in that time, federal and state data show. A Denver Post analysis of the data and coroner reports provided what that paper called the “most comprehensive look yet into whether roads in the state have become more dangerous since the drug’s legalization.”
The Post reported that “increasingly potent levels of marijuana were found in positive-testing drivers who died in crashes in Front Range counties, according to coroner data since 2013. Nearly a dozen in 2016 had levels five times the amount allowed by law, and one was at 22 times the limit. Levels were not as elevated in earlier years.”
Last year, said the Post, all of the drivers who survived and tested positive for marijuana use had the drug at levels that indicated use within a few hours of being tested, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which compiles information for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
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The trends coincide with the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado that began with adult use in late 2012, followed by sales in 2014. Colorado transportation and public safety officials, however, say the rising number of pot-related traffic fatalities cannot be definitively linked to legalized marijuana, said the paper.
Positive test results reflected in the NHTSA data do not indicate whether a driver was high at the time of the crash since traces of marijuana use from weeks earlier also can appear as a positive result. But police, victims’ families and safety advocates say the numbers of drivers testing positive for marijuana use — which have grown at a quicker rate than the increase in pot usage in Colorado since 2013 — are rising too quickly to ignore and highlight the potential dangers of mixing pot with driving.
“We went from zero to 100, and we’ve been chasing it ever since,” Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson said of the state’s implementation of legalized marijuana in the Post’s report. “Nobody understands it and people are dying. That’s a huge public safety problem.”
News outlets are reporting that more marijuana-using drivers are getting into fatal crashes in Washington state, according to new data from the state Traffic Safety Commission. That data showed that the number of Washington drivers involved in deadly crashes who tested positive for active marijuana doubled from 2013 to 2014 — the first year of legal marijuana sales in the state.
Commission member Shelly Baldwin told AP that that’s alarming — especially considering that the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes has been dropping. “When we see this rising trend, it’s concerning, especially when other factors are decreasing,” Baldwin said.
The number of drivers involved in fatal crashes who tested positive for active THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, had held fairly steady from 2010 to 2013 — between 32 and 38 per year, said the AP. That number jumped to 75 in 2014, and about half were above the state’s legal limit for marijuana-impaired driving, Baldwin told the news service. Many of those drivers also tested positive for alcohol or other drugs.
“We see drivers who have marijuana and alcohol and cocaine. They’re not mutually exclusive because drivers are not mutually exclusive,” Baldwin told reporters. Still, the number of fatal-crash drivers “who had used pot shortly before driving represents a sliver of the total number of drivers involved in fatal crashes,” said AP. “Last year, there were 619 drivers involved in fatal accidents; 12 percent were positive for active THC. From 2010 through 2014, 7 percent of the 3,027 drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for active THC.”
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