UMass-Amherst Symposium on the Health and Transportation Safety Impacts of Marijuana Legalization

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

 

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In early April, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences hosted a symposium on “Marijuana Legalized: Research, Practice, and Policy Considerations” to examine and discuss the potential public health and transportation safety impacts of marijuana legalization in Massachusetts. Massachusetts legalized marijuana for recreational use through a ballot initiative in the November 2016 election, and retail marijuana sales were permitted in the state in July 2017.

The keynote speaker at the symposium, Darrin Grondel, heads the state Traffic Safety Commission in Washington State and has over 25 years of traffic safety and law enforcement experience. His talk and webinar held the same afternoon, focused on the issues and impacts of impaired driving and drugged driving, and considerations for states developing policies and regulations in response to marijuana legalization.  The slides from the webinar are available here. Washington State was one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, in 2012, and his presentation focused on Washington’s experiences after legalization. For example, 2014 FARS (Fatal Accident Reporting System) data for Washington revealed that speeding occurred in 35.8% of all fatal marijuana driving cases compared to 25.9% of non-alcohol or non-drug cases.  Also, in Washington, after legalization, more drivers were found to be THC-positive one year after retail sales began, in 2014 than immediately before the sales. THC — tetrahydrocannabinol — is the principal psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana.

Unlike with alcohol and Blood Alcohol Concentrations (BAC), there is no THC-level that has been scientifically proven to be the level above which a driver would be significantly impaired. Alcohol stays in the bloodstream whereas THC goes to fat cells including in the brain.  As discussed in a previous Innovative Outlook article, there are tests and technology, including smartphone apps for assessing impairment.

Other presenters at the symposium included Professors Jennifer Whitehill and Elizabeth Evans, from the UMass-Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and Cheryl Sbarra, senior staff attorney and Director of Policy and Law with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards. Professors Whitehill and Evans are currently finishing a study with the UMass Donahue Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to estimate marijuana use rates before legalization.  As reported in Daily Hampshire Gazette, Whitehill did not discuss any detailed results but she did speak about some general findings and areas for future research.  From that news story: “One thing Whitehill noted is that when looking at fatal motor vehicle crashes, more attention needs to be placed on testing for marijuana and other drugs so as to understand the impact that they might be having on drivers.” She indicated that currently, only about 75% of drivers killed in a crash are tested for drug use after the crash. For non-fatal crashes, almost no drivers are tested for drugs. Drug testing more drivers in non-fatal crashes are one potential future research area. Another is the development of better quantitative methods and measurements for assessing impairment resulting from marijuana use.

For their presentations, Professor Evans discussed gender differences with regards to marijuana use, and lawyer Sbarra talked about municipalities regulating marijuana at the local level.

Among those attending the symposium were local health officials, local police, representatives from the marijuana industry, academic researchers and two members of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission which is charged with implementing and administering laws for adult marijuana use and access in Massachusetts.

 

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