DOT and Lifespan officials hypothesize legal cannabis behind increase in traffic deaths

By: - June 21, 2023 6:00 pm

Ambulances parked near the Rhode Island Hospital Emergency Room. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — State officials and doctors at Rhode Island Hospital are worried that recreational cannabis legalization may be to blame for a rise in traffic-related deaths over the first half of 2023. 

Over half of the 36 traffic collisions that led to someone dying involved drinking and driving so far this year, according to information shared by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation at a press conference outside the emergency room of Lifespan’s Rhode Island Hospital Wednesday.

With six months left of the year, the state appears poised to nearly double the number of traffic-related deaths, including those involving alcohol or drugs, compared with the prior year, according to Chief of Highway Safety for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation Gabrielle Abbate.

“It is important for the public to understand that driving under the influence is defined as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” she said. “We, like other states, have seen an increase in crashes since passage of the law.”

The smallest state has a big drunken driving problem

Abbate said 36 people died on Rhode Island roads so far this year, just short of the 39 total traffic fatalities recorded in all of 2022 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in which 42% of fatal collisions on R.I. roads — resulting in 14 deaths and 89 severely injured — involved a mind-altering substance. 

“It’s inconceivable we may lose another 20 people in the next three months,” she said. “But that’s the trend we’re on.”

Gov. Dan McKee signed the Rhode Island Cannabis Act into law in May 2022, legalizing recreational sale at a limited number of state-licensed dispensaries. Sales started in December, more than four years behind Massachusetts where multiple studies found no increase in fatal crashes following the legalization of recreational cannabis.

Abbate was unable to specify which drugs — licit or illicit — were involved in the deaths so far, adding that most toxicology screenings reveal a cocktail of substances in drivers’ systems.

Charles Adams, chief of trauma and critical care at Rhode Island Hospital, said his and other doctor’s experience in emergency settings seem to be more than just a coincidence. 

“Anybody that’s driven in Rhode Island has smelled someone smoking weed and seen them drifting on the road,” Adams said. 

Cannabis advocates said officials’ claims about traffic fatalities and marijuana were unsubstantiated.

“Evidence from dozens of other states that have legalized cannabis for adults show there’s no correlation between cannabis reform and traffic fatalities,” Jared Moffat, of the Marijuana Policy Institute, said in an email. “It’s disappointing if state officials are making baseless claims with no evidence.“

Adams said doctors are particularly worried for the summer, when collisions increase due to people being more active, along with more frequent social gatherings involving alcohol and other substances. 

“We call the summer ‘trauma season’ and that’s really important because we’re going to fill our beds with people with devastating injuries,” Adams said. “This is preventable.

“If you’re impaired, you have slow reaction times.”

Officials advised moderation in substance consumption and alternatives like a designated driver,  Uber, calling a friend, or waiting to sober up before getting behind the wheel.


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.