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Study: Legalizing medical marijuana reduces traffic fatalities

States that have passed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana have also seen a decline in traffic fatalities, according to a new study out this week by the Institute for the Study of Labor.

Opponents of medical marijuana often focus on the social detriment to making America’s most valuable cash crop available to those approved by doctors, arguing that medical marijuana legalization makes it easier for teens to buy pot and that they’ll soon move to more dangerous drugs. They also suggest that legalization would increase the number of vehicle accidents — and that very argument was one of the main reasons why California voters did not approve full legalization in 2010.

But far from marijuana acting as a “gateway” to more dangerous drugs, as authorities often claim, researchers found that it’s more commonly used as a substitute for alcohol, which is often more harmful and inebriating than marijuana.

Studying data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers also found that legalizing medical marijuana did, in fact, drive up usage among adults. But contrary to medical marijuana critics’ claims, they were unable to find evidence of it growing the number of minors on the drug.

A further analysis of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, spanning from 1990 to 2009, revealed that states which legalized medical marijuana saw a decline in alcohol consumption. A decline in traffic fatalities was a direct side effect of that.

Traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death for Americans age 35 and under.

“Specifically, we find that traffic fatalities fall by nearly 9 percent after the legalization of medical marijuana,” researchers wrote.

They also found that legalization has an even more pronounced impact on the overall instances of alcohol playing a role in traffic deaths, suggesting that its reductive effect on the number of drunk drivers is even stronger than its overall effect on fatalities.

“Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol for the user and society,” explained Mason Tvert, director of SAFER, a group which advocates for legalization in Colorado. “It should come as little surprise that when we allow adults to make the safer choice to use marijuana it results in less drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems.”

So far, just 16 states have legalized medical marijuana, even though polling shows eight in 10 voters, from both political parties, favor allowing marijuana use if recommended by a doctor. According to the polling firm Gallup, a full 50 percent of Americans even favor outright legalization and regulation, which would see marijuana treated similarly to alcohol.

Despite the White House’s recent admission that parts of the marijuana plant may have “some” medical value, President Barack Obama adamantly opposes legalization. Similarly, his administration’s Justice Department has continued the policy of cracking down on the sales of medical marijuana in states that allow it.

Read the full study here (PDF).

Photo: Flickr user Alex E. Proimos.

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