Drug laws are at a strange juncture right now, especially when it comes to pot. A Gallup poll last fall found that about half of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized (compared with less than a sixth in 1969) and a strong majority supports its medical use. Nearly a third of Americans live in a state where pot has been at least partially decriminalized, and medicinal pot is becoming even more widespread.
These are big changes, but the debate is by no means over. Washington’s approach has changed at least twice on Obama’s watch. Now, even in decriminalized states, federal raids are not uncommon and the legality of medicinal use is a little unclear. In 2010, California voters defeated a legalization initiative by a wide margin. Large numbers of people are still uneasy about legal pot, especially conservatives and older Americans.
Much of the persistent controversy has to do with public safety, and especially what happens when users get behind the wheel. But a new study from Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor may help ease some of that fear, reports Reason (April, 2012). The study found that decriminalizing medical marijuana has led to a measurable decline in traffic fatalities in a number of U.S. states. More than a dozen states have legalized medicinal pot since the 1990s, and many have seen a drop in fatal car accidents—on average, about 9 percent.
Whether marijuana impairs driving ability as much as drinking alcohol is still controversial among scientists, but the German study pointed to another factor. Because people tend to drink alcohol more outside the home, safe driving can be a big problem. The same is not true for marijuana users, who tend to stay in. The result, say the American researchers leading the study, is that more and more people substitute pot for alcohol, leading to fewer deaths on the road.
“Legalization could reduce traffic fatalities,” they told Reason, “even if driving under the influence of marijuana is every bit as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.” Whether users would retain these same habits if pot was fully legalized is admittedly a different question.