Crime, traffic results mixed as legal weed takes root in Nevada

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Nevada is marking the second anniversary of its foray into the recreational weed industry. 

Is legal cannabis the scourge opponents feared it would be, resulting in higher crime and stoned drivers? 

After two years of higher-than-projected sales to recreational users, crime is down (at least in Southern Nevada) but traffic fatalities are up. And Nevadans of all ages are increasingly turning to cannabis, a trend that began before legal use.

It’s difficult to determine trends over just two years,” said Andrew Bennett of the Nevada Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety. “Having quality data is vital to determining how to best address any problems. We expect to have several conversations and studies during this interim session around this topic.” 

Auto fatalities 

Traffic deaths in Nevada increased 6.4 percent from 2017 to 2018. Recreational sales of marijuana became legal July 1,  2017. 

For the first five months of 2019, auto fatalities statewide are down almost 17 percent over the same time last year. Fatalities are down 22 percent in Clark County but up 12.5 percent in Washoe.

In 2017, alcohol was involved in 50 vehicle fatalities statewide and cannabis was involved in 29, according to the Department of Public Safety. Other drugs were involved in 17 fatalities while a combination of substances were involved in 82 accidents with fatalities.

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Chart courtesy State of Nevada Department of Public Safety

Before 2017, the federal government required states to only compile statistics for alcohol-related fatalities. Comparable figures are not yet available for 2018 or 2019.

“Just one impaired driver on our roadways is a risk to our public,” Bennett said. “Nevada experienced a 10-year spike in overall traffic fatalities and every contributing factor must be looked at.”

Studies of traffic fatalities in other states haven’t determine a correlation between recreational use of cannabis and auto fatalities.

“Three years after recreational marijuana legalization, changes in motor vehicle crash fatality rates for Washington and Colorado were not statistically different from those in similar states without recreational marijuana legalization,” according to an August, 2017, study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Driving under the influence 

Arrests for driving under the influence are down almost 23 percent in Clark County for January through May of this year, according to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police.

“People continue to choose to drive impaired regardless of the impairing substance. This has and will continue to result in the loss of life on our roadways,” Bennett warned.

In Colorado, where marijuana has been sold legally since 2014, the state has reported a drop in DUI cases.

The report, issued this month, shows a 2.9 percent drop in the number of DUI cases filed in 2017 (26,454) compared with 2016 (27,244).

In 2017, Colorado authorities screened 4,792 people for the presence of cannabis and confirmed in 66 percent of those cases. Of those, half were at or above the state’s permissible level of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood. 

The criminal element 

Crime is on a downward trend in Nevada, according to the Department of Public Safety, which recorded 91.097 incidents in 2018, the lowest since 2011.

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Crime in Nevada 2014-2018 courtesy Nevada Department of Public Safety

In Clark County, crime has dropped since the recreational sale of marijuana became legal. Through June 22 of this year, violent crime is off 8.6 percent but property crime is up 2 percent, according to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. Total crime is down .7 percent.

In 2018, total crime was off 4 percent, violent crime was down 3 percent and property crime was down 4 percent. Violent crime was down 12 percent in 2017. Property crime was down 5 percent and total crime was down 6 percent for the year.

Metro did not respond to the Current’s request for comment on the drop in crime, but last year, Lombardo attributed the decrease to more cops on the street.

“Last year our jurisdiction saw a drop in violent crime while our total population rose,” Lombardo told Vegas Legal Magazine​ in 2018. “For impacting crime, I believe police officers make a difference; the presence of a uniformed cop or a black-and-white patrol car in a neighborhood deters crime, and with that said, (the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, or LVMPD) recently attained the threshold of two officers per 1,000 residents. … Today, we are seeing the benefits from the decentralization of detectives that were pushed out to the area commands. These two developments have put more officers in neighborhoods, preventing crime before it happens, and at the other end, following up on investigations.” 

“I didn’t know there was a concern about weed and crime other than the millions of tourists who are committing misdemeanors by using what they purchase,” Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom told the Current, in a reference to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s cannabis policy, which puts consumption lounges on hold for several years. 

The City of Las Vegas was poised to allow the establishments until the state intervened. State law prohibits the use of cannabis anywhere but in private homes. 

Use up among all ages 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, cannabis use is on the rise among Nevadans of all ages. 

In 2014-15, 12.95 percent of Nevada youth ages 12 and over reported using cannabis in the past year. That increased to 16.82 percent in 2016-17. 

Among 18-25 year-olds, 30.46 percent reporting using cannabis in the past year in 2014-15. That increased to 35.81 percent in 2016-17. 

Cannabis use among those 26 and older was 10 percent in 2014-15 and increased to 14.3 percent in 2016-17. 

Coming Tuesday: A look at the future of the industry, new laws that offer protections for users and the failure of lawmakers to address Nevada’s marijuana driving law.

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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