New scientific research suggests regular marijuana use in the United States has doubled over the last decade.

Woman Smoking JointScientists drew data from two massive surveys on American drug use in an effort to determine whether pot consumption has increased following legalization in four states and Washington, D.C. They concluded the rate of regular use jumped from 4.1 percent in 2001 to 9.5 percent in 2013.

The study also found that problems of cannabis abuse and addiction have spiked since the advent of legalization, but that increase is in line with the jump in overall consumption. The researchers painted their results as bad news for marijuana reformers, but there are good reasons to question their conclusions.

A result of shifting public perception

The increase in pot smoking may in fact be a result of the legalization of marijuana, whether for medical or recreational use. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have legalized weed for recreation, while more than 30 other states now allow some form of MMJ.

And it is concerning that more people are driving while high and developing a dependence on pot, as the study found. But the researchers failed to put their data in any kind of realistic context. Science in a vacuum may suggest we should rethink legal weed, but marijuana does not exist in a vacuum.

The reality is many if not most stoners use cannabis as a substitute for some other drug, usually alcohol. Among other things, this means potheads who formerly drove drunk now drive while stoned instead. Reliable studies have concluded, repeatedly, that driving under the influence of booze is 12 times as dangerous as driving under the influence of marijuana.

That doesn’t mean we should encourage potheads to get behind the wheel while baked. But it does tell us that motorists who switch from alcohol to weed are doing the rest of the world a favor.

Fewer drug-related fatalities

Marijuana in a JarThe substitution effect also means fewer people are likely to die from drug-related causes, including auto accidents. Indeed, scientists have come to exactly this conclusion using other research. Roadway fatalities are down measurably in states where some form of marijuana is legal, even as arrests for stoned driving are on the rise.

The new data tracks with the increasing legalization of cannabis and the public’s improving opinion of the drug. Recent polls have found that a significant majority of Americans now think marijuana is relatively safe, certainly safer than booze.

The study’s lead author, Deborah Hasin, professor of epidemiology in the psychiatry department at Columbia University, said it’s critical that scientists investigate opinions toward marijuana and its use, “give all the changes in attitudes and changes in law.” But, Hasin said, it’s unclear exactly why use rates are climbing.

“We showed that it happened,” she said. “Now, the thing that really needs to be researched is the why. You can speculate that Americans are increasingly viewing marijuana as a harmless substance . . . or [that] laws are changing, but we don’t really know until you do good, empirical studies on what factors are really influencing it.”

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