Do Changing Liquor and Marijuana Laws Affect DUIs

Riley digs through court data and discovers the real impact of privatization and legalization

Riley digs through court data and discovers the real impact of privatization and legalization


As always, you can find me, Riley Sweeney, over at my blog The Political Junkie, where I've been covering our state legislature like crazy. However, I wanted to share this bit of research with you fine connoisseurs of local media here at NWCiz. 

What has been the impact of privatizing liquor and legalizing marijuana on our roadways? In political debates, I hear plenty of rationalizations ("People are smoking at home rather than going to the bars, so DUIs will go down." Or, "The new marijuana DUI laws will greatly increase the number of charges." Or, "Late night Haggen Whiskey run!"). But there are very few actual facts to back them up.

So I rolled up my sleeves and dug into the numbers to find out, but as a good researcher, I wanted to set my parameters. First, I wanted to keep it local, so I only looked at DUIs in Whatcom County. Second, I looked at the numbers from the Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (district and municipal courts) where a vast majority of DUI cases are dealt with. There may be a few DUI charges used in higher courts, but only for cases that involve many other pieces (like a triple homicide).

Third, I only looked at charges, not convictions, since the plea bargain process has no relevance here. Finally, I looked at the rate of population increase in Whatcom (around 3,000 people a year) to see if that would have any impact, and no, it is not statistically significant at this point.

So what did I find? Liquor privatization and marijuana legalization had no impact on the number of DUIs in Whatcom.

As you can see in the chart above, there has been very little change in terms of raw numbers. You can see there is a spike in DUIs right after they started selling hard alcohol at Costco in 2012, but there is a similar jump in 2011 (I suspect July 4th revelers are at fault). Similarly, after marijuana possession is legalized, there is no corresponding increase or decrease in DUI charges for 2013, just the standard monthly fluctuations.

Even if you look at yearly totals (starting with 2013 on the left and going back in time in the chart below), there is very little change over the last four years. Obviously, there are a number of factors that contribute to DUIs: number of patrol officers, public education, access to public transit, but I think we can safely eliminate the changing liquor and marijuana laws for now.

When the marijuana stores start opening up in May and June, I will do another round of studies to see whether they have any impact.

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About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

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