Dean Whitlock: Legalized marijuana imperils highway safety, increases mental health burden

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dean Whitlock, of Thetford, a freelance writer who has been researching the issues surrounding marijuana legalization for years. A former supporter of legalization, he is now opposed. He is a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM-VT)

The discussions of H.170, which would legalize possession and home-growing of small quantities of marijuana, have focused a lot on the danger to teenagers, which is appropriate since adolescents are in a stage of neural development that makes them much more likely to become addicted, develop mental health conditions, and suffer decreases in cognitive processing and memory retention. The problem with this focus is that people over 21, particularly up to the age of 25 or 26, are still susceptible to all of these effects, just at a lower level of risk.

That point aside, the area where every age runs the same risk is on the highway. Again, teens and young adults are more at risk because they tend to take more risks in the first place. They are also less experienced with driving and with the use of alcohol and drugs. But adults do make the same stupid mistake of driving under the influence.

According to the best data we have available, drinking alcohol before driving increases the risk of accident five-fold at the still-legal .08 blood level. Driving under the influence of marijuana doubles your risk. That being the case, we would expect to find considerably more people dying on the roads because of alcohol then because of marijuana. The data on traffic accident fatalities that we have from the Vermont Department of Safety tell a somewhat different story:

This data is based on blood tests that measure active THC, so we can be reasonably sure that the drivers had used marijuana recently enough to still be DUI.

Note the small difference between the number of deaths due to alcohol and the number due to marijuana. The most likely reason for this is that many marijuana users think it’s OK to drive after using. For teenagers, we have clear evidence for that from our Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Here’s the 2015 data:

Reports from both Colorado and Washington indicate that the same must be happening there. While accidents and fatalities involving drunk drivers went down in recent years, the numbers involving marijuana went up.

Why is this happening? Because we are not teaching people – young or old – that marijuana impairs your ability to drive. At a well-attended forum on marijuana effects held in Burlington last month, one attendee stood up and insisted that marijuana helps people drive more carefully, and this message pervades the popular websites that cater to people interested in learning more about marijuana from sources “untainted” by officials like police officers and scientists.

It’s important to note that the traffic fatality data shown above only includes deaths in accidents. It does not include the five Harwood teenagers killed on I-89 last October. The driver of the car that hit theirs, Steve Bourgoin (36, hardly a teen), has been charged with second-degree murder, so their deaths are not considered to be due to a traffic accident.

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction.


When Bourgoin’s blood toxicology report was completed, authorities withheld the contents pending trial; however, Vermont investigative reporter Mike Donoghue, writing for Vermont News First, quoted several sources in saying that there was active THC in Bourgoin’s blood at the time of the accident. Since then, Vermont Rep. Ben Joseph, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, a retired judge, has reported being told the same thing by contacts of his in the state legal apparatus.

As reported on VTDigger, Bourgoin told friends that he suffered from anxiety and PTSD due to childhood trauma, and his former girlfriend told detectives that he self-treated with marijuana for “mood spells.” Court documents quote her saying, “It was always very evident when he was out [of marijuana], as he would be more angry and violent during those times.”

Anger is one of marijuana’s withdrawal symptoms, and it is a more addictive drug than most people think. A review of several studies of treatment methods for marijuana addiction found that one-year abstinence rates for adults, even under the most effective treatments, ranged only from 19 to 29 percent.

In a 20-year study involving more than 2000 U.S. war veterans being treated for PTSD, the vets who used medical marijuana along with the standard therapy reported more violent behaviors and worse outcomes after treatment than vets who didn’t use marijuana. The heaviest users showed the strongest effects. Another study found that marijuana use resulted in increased suicidal ideation among marijuana users.

There are other correlations between marijuana and serious mental health problems. Since 2002, a series of studies in Europe have reported that individuals who use cannabis have a greater risk of developing psychotic symptoms. Not only does marijuana bring on symptoms earlier and make them worse, it is a causative factor.

A Finnish study published this past November compared sets of twins where one used marijuana heavily and the other did not. Heavy use increased the risk of developing psychosis by a factor of 3.5. Again, the data indicated that, in many cases, marijuana abuse caused the psychosis, not the other way around. The newly released report on marijuana from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences agrees with these findings.

Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue, and the behavior of users who suffer acute or chronic psychotic episodes goes far beyond the usual definition of addiction. These sufferers needs effective treatment far more than jail time. And these new research findings, combined with Vermont’s recent traffic fatality data, highlight the fact that marijuana is not harmless. Legalizing recreational marijuana in Vermont would not be a simple matter.

Vermont has already decriminalized marijuana use. What we haven’t done is provide a mental health system that can deal with the thousands of cases of addiction, psychosis, and other mental illnesses that we already have in our state, nor have we done nearly enough to educate Vermonters about marijuana’s harms, in order to prevent tragedies from happening.

Legalizing marijuana – whether like alcohol or tobacco – will only make our mental health burden worse, while it makes our highways far less safe.

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  • Norm Etkind

    Statistics here – – – – seems to tell a different story.

    Perhaps Mr. Whitlock can get us a link to where he got his data.

  • John Klar

    “Addiction is not a crime, it is a mental health issue.” So we shouldn’t legalize cannabis but continue to threaten people with prison? The author has not addressed people driving while on prescribed methadone. We have legal alcohol, which causes much more damage, but not legal drunk driving. This article does not address how increased failed prohibition will help any of the problems posed — heroin possession is an extremely serious criminal offense, and that seems to be doing nothing to curtail the spike in its use. And what of the studies showing opioid use and overdoses decline when pot is legalized? How can anyone keep a straight face and advocate for prohibition of cannabis while alcohol is legal and destroys so many, many lives? And what of occasional marijuana smokers — are they all psychopaths and impaired drivers? I appreciate the research that went into this piece, and I am sure habitual cannabis use is unhealthy — but that doesn’t make prohibition work: it has failed abysmally.

  • Brian Kelly

    So-called “Addiction Specialists” and “Anti-Drug Organizations” earn their living off of prohibition and are panicking. Once marijuana is legalized, they will no longer be able to use that tired old argument that they have people whom actually seek out therapy because of a marijuana addiction. We all know this is a complete farce. The only reason people go to therapy for marijuana is because a court forces them to do so to avoid jail time. Then these “experts” twist that data and distort the truth. So, without a steady flow of fresh victims from courts forcing people either to therapy or jail, they will lose a ton of “business”.

    It’s about time for all of these so-called “Addiction Experts” to either focus on really harmful drugs and/or go into a new line of work and stop making a living off the judicial misfortunes of our citizens!

    There is absolutely no doubt now that the majority of Americans want to completely legalize marijuana nationwide. Our numbers grow on a daily basis.

    The prohibitionist view on marijuana is the viewpoint of a minority and rapidly shrinking percentage of Americans. It is based upon decades of lies and propaganda.

    Each and every tired old lie they have propagated has been thoroughly proven false by both science and society.

    Their tired old rhetoric no longer holds any validity. The vast majority of Americans have seen through the sham of marijuana prohibition in this day and age. The number of prohibitionists left shrinks on a daily basis.

    With their credibility shattered, and their not so hidden agendas visible to a much wiser public, what’s left for a marijuana prohibitionist to do?

    Maybe, just come to terms with the fact that Marijuana Legalization Nationwide is an inevitable reality that’s approaching much sooner than prohibitionists think, and there is nothing they can do to stop it!

    Legalize Nationwide!…and Support All Marijuana Legalization Efforts!

  • Jack Bass

    I would agree with any of this if it weren’t for the presence of alcohol as a legal substance. But as it remains legal and prohibition was proven to be a laughable failure I simply cannot see marijuana being different. The only difference is the stigma attached to it that alcohol no longer has. We will never conquer addiction to anything by simply making it illegal. Instead we must enforce the consequences of what one does when under the influence of any intoxicant. And it is here that we seem to fail.

  • John farrell

    Mr Whitlock:

    It is NON-progressive people such as yourself that ensure that thousands of Vermonters have the opportunity to become criminals due to archaic state laws.
    I do not know where you obtained your data. Did you cherry pick it from anti cannabis literature?
    An “ostrich” approach to legalization of cannabis just does not work anymore. Legalization is coming regardless of your negative posts.

  • Bob Hooper

    I simply find the representation of this data “hard to believe” in the context of the severity of impact represented, and therefore question the representations. Alcohol and other bridge drugs seem to have a much greater impact upon attention and dexterity, so I would have expected the author to be a vocal proponent of restricting consumption of at minimum alcohol over the years……. since it has long been shown to result in traffic deaths. Since the data looks cherry picked for this purpose, not referencing the studies and source of statistics does the argument no justice …

  • Water is not harmless, unless you engage in harm reduction such as not holding your head in a bucket full of it. In other words the complaints that marijuana cannot be legalized unless it is shown to be harmless are at best ridiculous and at worse an attempt to keep screwing up people’s lives for smoking a little pot.

    The cannabis prohibition has resulted in nothing but great expense, increased police powers over our daily lives and a total lack of an industrial hemp farming community. This is not to mention the mind boggling twists and turns taken by legislators attempting to play doctor regarding medicinal use of marijuana.

    This debate has been going on for more then half a century – time to stop dragging feet and end the cannabis prohibition (even if we can’t affect the federal stuff).

    • Jason Brisson

      Well said!

  • Jason Brisson

    SAM’s reefer madness anti-cannabis propaganda is at a fever pitch!
    Smart Approaches to Marijuana continues to advocate for no approaches to decriminalized or legal cannabis.
    They need to drop the “Smart” from their name, and replace it with “Same Old”.

  • Joe McSherry

    The “Vermont Department of Safety” (paragraph 3) says it all. There is a Department of Fire Safety, but this author makes loose associations and, as others have noted, looses the science in his confusion. Science is clear. Mental health association but not causation. Driving – very little risk with cannabis, big risk with allowed alcohol and benzodiazepines. People use cannabis to mitigate anger (and anxiety, sleep disturbances, pain) so when they cannot get medicine their issues come back to baseline. Diabetics who cannot get insulin have the same sort of problem. Nothing new here.

  • Clancy DeSmet

    Complete utter nonsense. People are already consuming cannabis. You have no clue.

  • Steve Thomas

    Sadly, the truth is coming out. The lies of the marijuana industry “you drive slower and safer” – truth is marijuana doubles fatal crash risk, with alcohol the risk is 8 fold. New data out of Colorado today 4 fold increase in teen ER visits since legalization. The horrors are coming your way.

    • Peter Straube

      Steve, can you please reveal the source of the “new data” you are referring to here? I’d like to know more, since this conclusion directly contradicts a number of other studies I have read about Colorado’s experience since legalization. It’s important that we be able to sort out which version of “the truth” is actually valid, but I can’t do that with just a 1-liner. How about a link to the data?

  • Matt Simon

    The statement “we can be reasonably sure that the drivers had used marijuana recently enough to still be DUI” is ridiculous. No credible expert would claim that presence of a small amount of THC in a person’s bloodstream necessarily indicates impairment. There is also nothing in this data to indicate that marijuana impairment was the cause of these crashes, or even that the drivers with THC in their systems were at fault — the data only indicates that some amount of THC was present in these drivers’ bloodstreams. The author’s admonition to readers that they should “Note the small difference between the number of deaths due to alcohol and the number due to marijuana” is extremely irresponsible, given that alcohol is known to be much more impairing than THC, and it indicates that he doesn’t understand the fundamental difference between correlation and causation. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common mistake in interpreting data relative to driving while impaired, as described in this article: