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The bill would require the state to publish information annually on how many car crashes involve drivers under the influence of cannabis.
Lawmakers may require New Jersey State Police to release statistics on deadly car crashes involving marijuana in an annual report, just like they do for alcohol-related crashes.
An Assembly bill (A5348) introduced last week would direct the state agency to track and publish the statistics in its annual fatal motor vehicle crash report. The sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, said it’s important to quantify cannabis-related car crashes to see if recreational marijuana is contributing to more deadly encounters on our roadways.
“In order to fully understand whether or not it really is a major concern in New Jersey, we need to work alongside the state police and our local police departments and find out if they’re experiencing these types of crashes,” Rooney (R-Bergen) said in an interview.
Drivers under the influence were the leading cause of fatal traffic crashes in the state in 2021, according to the annual report released in January, marking the third year in a row car crashes were up compared to the previous year. Intoxication, including drugs and alcohol, was the top contributing factor in more than 200 car crashes in 2021, a 30% increase from 2020, the report says.
In August, prosecutors said a Toms River woman was under the influence of cannabis when her car was involved in a four-car crash that left two people dead.
Marijuana has been available for adult use for just under a year, so it’s hard to know its impact on deadly crashes, Rooney noted. But if there’s an issue, it should be known so the Legislature can take action, he said.
“We can look at the data and determine whether or not we should change some of the laws or should there be more restrictions,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that question yet. We need to know whether there’s an increase or not.”
This has been an issue in other states that have legalized marijuana for adults. From 2013 to 2017, fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana doubled in Colorado, where recreational sales began in 2014, according to the Denver Post.
And a 2022 report published by Rutgers University found that five states that legalized recreational marijuana saw an increase in traffic accidents and deadly crashes. While Colorado had the biggest jump, fatal crashes decreased in Nevada by nearly 10%.
Experts say exploring a link between marijuana use and car crashes may not be easy.
“Studies looking for a direct causal link between marijuana use and crash risk have been inconclusive,” said Charles Farmer, lead researcher with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Unlike alcohol, there is no good objective measure of just how impaired a marijuana user has become. Until we can accurately measure marijuana impairment, we won’t be able to link it to crash risk.”
Alcohol intoxication can be easier to spot and test for just after a crash, and it lasts for a few hours in someone’s system, while cannabis impairment is harder to measure. It can stay in a person’s system for more than a month, depending on the person’s usage, and impairment can manifest differently.
Drug recognition experts—police officers with special training to recognize intoxication—can determine whether someone is under the influence of marijuana, and their testimony can be accepted in court. But there aren’t many. In 2022, fewer than 6% of police officers were certified drug recognition experts, according to the Asbury Park Press.
Rooney said there needs to be more of these experts accessible to state and local police so they can properly determine whether or not a crash was fueled by marijuana impairment. He said he expects that in the near future, there will be breakthroughs in ways to test for marijuana impairment, like a breathalyzer test used for alcohol.
He added that there needs to be more general education about the dangers of using marijuana and driving under the influence. Rooney abstained from voting on the bill that set up New Jersey’s recreational marijuana market.
“With a stroke of a pen, something that was bad the day prior became OK the day after,” he said. “I don’t think we did enough educating, and from that point, putting out more information to the public.”
The Cannabis Regulatory Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
A Senate companion bill to Rooney’s measure has been introduced.