Marijuana Goggles and ‘Stoned Babies’: Why AAA is Propping Up Prohibition

AAA, which is the official new name of the American Automobile Association, has recently thrust itself into the cannabis legalization fight as an outspoken critic of cannabis legalization, which has raised eyebrows among some in the legalization movement. The travel map and roadside-help company? Why are they even getting involved?

One AAA official voiced fears that legalization would mean ‘more babies will be born high.’

Most of the pro-prohibition advocacy is coming from the AAA’s Mid-Atlantic office in Wilmington, Delaware. Earlier this  year Ragina Cooper Averella, that office’s spokesperson, argued against legalization in Maryland based on what she characterized as “the increasing plague of drugged driving.” Another Mid-Atlantic AAA official raised the bizarre fear that “more babies will be born high” during a forum to discuss legalization in Delaware.

Legalization advocates contacted by Leafly said they agree with the need for vehicle safety and unimpaired driving, but they think AAA is misusing its public credibility. In fact, the data on cannabis legalization and impaired driving has not yet yielded any definitive conclusions.

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Two studies published in the just the past week came to conflicting conclusions about the effect of legalization on driving habits. One study, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that collision claim frequencies in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon were about 3 percent higher than in neighboring non-legal states. A second study, published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), researchers at the University of Texas concluded that changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado between 2009 and 2015 were no different than rates in similar states that did not legalize adult-use cannabis.

Meanwhile, traffic fatalities fell 11% in states that legalized medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, traffic fatalities have actually decreased. A 2013 study found that traffic fatalities dropped 8% to 11%, on average, in the year after states legalized medical marijuana. A similar study released in 2016 found that traffic deaths fell 11%, on average, in states that legalized medical marijuana. And yet there has been no call from any AAA officials to expand the legalization of medical marijuana, based on that correlation (which, remember, is not the same as causation) between medical marijuana legalization and a drop in fatalities.

“AAA could be the group to come in and separate the facts from the myths so that politicians and others actually do pursue some evidence-based policies,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “Instead they’re largely fearmongering and further politicizing the issue.”

Apart from its iconic roadside assistance, AAA offers insurance, travel planning, and various automotive services to 56 million members in the U.S and Canada. Officials with the nonprofit organization declined to comment for this story.

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Pivoting Away From Neutrality

The organization’s newly embraced anti-legalization stance is a hard turn from AAA’s previous position—which is to say, no position at all.

When advocates in Western states like Washington and Colorado began campaigning for adult-use legalization, AAA said little. Now that the legalization movement has reached the East Coast, it’s a different story. Responding to concerns shown in a Pennsylvania poll on drugged driving, AAA officials have advised lawmakers in Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, to resist legal adult use cannabis.

‘If you’re impaired by marijuana, you’re less likely to be able to evade a crash.’

Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy

AAA’s Ragina Cooper Averella aired the organization’s pro-prohibition policy in a Baltimore Sun editorial on February 1. “AAA opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use because of its negative traffic safety implications and the current challenges in discerning and addressing marijuana-impaired driving,” she wrote.

In a June 20 article, BuzzFeed reporter Alyson Martin quoted Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research at AAA.

“If you’re impaired by marijuana, you’re less likely to be able to evade a crash,” he said. “You are slower to respond to get out of the way of a driver coming down the way towards you. It will contribute to a crash, whether you are responsible for a crash.”

AAA’s concerns grew out of statistics from a May 2016 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analysis of Washington State Patrol data that concluded: “Fatal crashes involving drivers who recently used marijuana more than doubled — from 8 percent to 17 percent. One in six drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for active-THC.”

Last week’s American Journal of Public Health article seemed to contradict that conclusion—kind of. The two studies didn’t look at the same exact data. The AJPH study compared overall vehicle crash rates in legal states to non-legal states. The AAA/Washington State Patrol study looked at the blood THC levels of drivers involved in fatal crashes. The data in the latter study can be affected by a number of significant factors, including the State Patrol’s greater propensity to test for THC, and the agency’s greater ability to conduct those tests, in the legalization era.

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Which Study is Valid?

Further, the authors of the AJPH argued that measuring cannabis levels in crashes—as in the AAA/Washington State Patrol study, is an inaccurate method. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, doesn’t check for cannabis in drivers in every state, and lab testing for cannabis levels is still an imperfect science.

Most cannabis-related traffic studies contain a common theme: Law enforcement agencies may be testing more for THC in states where it is legal than they did prior to legalization, or consumers may be consuming more cannabis, but there is no definitive causal link between an increase in crash fatalities and  any given state’s rate of cannabis consumption.

“This study of crash risk found a statistically significant increase in unadjusted crash risk for drivers who tested positive for use of illegal drugs (1.21 times), and THC specifically (1.25 times),” reads a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. “However, analyses incorporating adjustments for age, gender, ethnicity, and alcohol concentration level did not show a significant increase in levels of crash risk associated with the presence of drugs. This finding indicates that these other variables (age, gender ethnicity and alcohol use) were highly correlated with drug use and account for much of the increased risk associated with the use of illegal drugs and with THC.”

AAA Really Dislikes Cannabis

Besides safety concerns, AAA has some reasons to dislike legalization, some of which relate to its lobbying activities and some of which seem to come from an entrenched Drug War attitude.

There are obvious financial reasons. If cannabis indeed has a safety impact, DUI-stricken drivers are more expensive to insure – which is one of the reasons AAA has always lobbied in favor of more and stricter DUI laws.

But AAA seems to step beyond its realm of expertise in several cases, making broad statements about cannabis and society that sound more like rhetoric than data-based policy suggestions.

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During an April meeting in Delaware, Cathy Rossi, vice president of public and governmental affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said legalization would be a bad idea for reasons that had nothing to do with vehicle safety.

“It also creates an entirely new, costly public infrastructure,” she said. “It means a lot of young people will begin to munch on the edibles that has a much higher potency and more babies will be born high.”

AAA’s Mid-Atlantic office lobbied hard against a pro-cannabis bill in Delaware, even going as far as to offer the state’s lawmakers the chance to wear “marijuana goggles” so they could imagine the changes in perception THC creates.

Official statements from other spokespeople ask Political Science 101-type questions that veer far off the interstate highway system.

In a March 7 testimony submitted to the CT Public Health Committee, Amy Parmenter, public and governmental affairs manager for AAA Allied Group, listed three key reasons the organization opposes legalization, among them the “complexities and challenges legalization would present to law enforcement, our courts, state agencies, and public health.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska, officials tasked with integrating legalization laws into courts, state agencies, and police departments typically only seem to have problems implementing cannabis legalization changes when they run into federal laws–which still declare cannabis illegal.

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