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Kansas City Police Blame Marijuana For Spike In Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes

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Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3
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Kansas City police prepare for a drunk driving wolf pack patrol over the summer near 40th and Main streets. On this particular night, 13 impaired drivers were arrested, according to police department.

The number of fatal crashes in Kansas City involving marijuana has doubled in the last two years. Kansas City police are worried that a de-emphasis on marijuana possession enforcement could keep the number high.

In two years, the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes in Kansas City involving marijuana use has more than doubled, according to data from the Kansas City Police Department.

In a presentation to the Board of Police Board Commissioners, the department said that in 2018 about 25% of fatal crashes "involved marijuana impairment or combination" with another intoxicant. This year that figure is 53%, police say.

The number of fatal crashes in Kansas City is significant. It topped 100 in December, up 40% from 2019.

“Marijuana use does seem to be at least related in part to fatal car crashes,” KCPD spokesman Capt. David Jackson told KCUR.

But he says there are other factors at play as well.

“Speed and attention and, believe it or not, we still have a lot of indications that people do not wear their seat belts,” Jackson said.

This spike in fatal crashes comes at a time when the city and Jackson County are de-emphasizing enforcement of marijuana possession.

In July, the Kansas City Council voted 9-4 to remove possession or control of marijuana from the code of ordinances, meaning it won’t be prosecuted at the municipal level.

In 2018, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker decided to stop prosecuting some possession cases after voters, by a 66%-34% margin, approved medical marijuana.

Jackson says the police department understands that attitudes have changed.

“I don't want to be like an old fuddy-duddy that's just remembering the good old days. That's not my point," he says. "My point is that, especially this year, as we look into data science research, marijuana use does seem to be at least related in part to fatal car crashes.”

Police are also somewhat concerned about medical marijuana dispensaries starting to open in Missouri.

Mayor Quinton Lucas, who pushed for less enforcement of marijuana possession, says KCPD is out of step with most Kansas Citians.

"I think it is grossly out of touch with what most people in Kansas City think about possession of small amounts of marijuana," he tells KCUR.

Lucas says he wants more data on marijuana use. He doesn't think the increase in fatal crashes has anything to do with marijuana .

Mike Mansur, a spokesman for Baker, agrees more data is needed before blaming marijuana — although the office is not unconcerned.

"We have been concerned about “drugged driving” after voters approved medical marijuana in Missouri," Mansur said in an email.

While the police department doesn't place all the blame on marijuana — for reasons police aren't clear about, fatal vehicular crashes seem to rise in tandem with homicides — the department did point to studies in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

“An estimated 21% of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in Washington State in 2017 were THC-positive, higher than in any other year in the 10-year period examined,” according to a January 2020 study by the American Automobile Association.

Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, and that year 8.8% of fatal crash victims had marijuana in their system. The next year the figure shot up to 14%, according to the study.

The police department also pointed to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving survey showing that many people are unconcerned about driving while high.

“Many (41%) believe that driving under the influence of marijuana is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol,” the survey found.

The last time Kansas City had over 100 fatal crashes was in 2017, when police said they weren't sure why the number was so high.

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