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Safety implications of legalized recreational marijuana use

It is a simple reality that when social attitudes and norms change the reaction on the law front tends to lag. The result is that certain issues can suddenly stand out in stark relief. The move in Alaska and many other states to allow recreational use of marijuana may stand as one example.

Federal law still makes possession and use of marijuana illegal, but Alaska voters opted to reverse course and legalize the substance in 2015. Of course, that raises concerns about how to prevent impaired driving and reduce the risk of serious, perhaps deadly accidents, caused by negligence in the use of marijuana.

What Alaska law says

To be clear, while the book regarding effective enforcement of marijuana impairment is still being written, some things are a matter of legal record now. For example:

  • Recreational use of marijuana is only legal for adults 21 and over.
  • If you are marijuana impaired, driving any motorized vehicle is illegal and unsafe.
  • Police have a right to test for impairment and many officers are trained on how to do it.
  • State policy is to revoke driving privileges of any driver who refuses to agree to a legitimate police request to submit to chemical testing.
  • Fines and penalties are stiff for any form of impaired driving, and can increase if the substance involved is marijuana.
  • Medically approved use of marijuana is not a legal excuse for driving impaired.

That marijuana impairment can raise accident risk is not in dispute. According to a recent study by the Insurance Information Institute (III), early data indicates that in the 10 states where recreational marijuana use is legal, accident rates are on the rise.

Proving marijuana impairment after a crash can be difficult but may be important to attempt on behalf of victims seeking compensation for their injuries and losses.

Meanwhile, the III study acknowledges that while marijuana is a known intoxicant, standard personal and commercial auto insurance policies don't address the implications of impairment in the context of liability. That may change in time, but for now it seems fair to expect that insurers will seek to weigh in on the matter by raising premium rates when it's appropriate.

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