Arizona Republic tests the limit of the First Amendment

October 4, 2020 the Arizona Republic’s editorial board endorsed that state’s Proposition 207 to legalize, commercialize and tax recreational marijuana sales.  Anyone has the right to disagree with our position that Proposition 207 should be defeated, but when they misrepresent the facts to support their position, we should respond.

October 21, the newspaper published an online story, “Where recreational marijuana is legal, data show minimal impacts on teen use and traffic deaths.”  The next day, Dr. Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana notified author Ryan Randazzo of major flaws in the citations used to support his claims.  Sabet covered both of Randazzo’s claims but emphasized data that prove teen usage and its consequences increased substantially after marijuana legalization and commercialization.

DUID Victim Voices then submitted a short Letter to the Editor of the Arizona Republic saying that the reference used by Randazzo to support his claim of minimal traffic deaths was obsolete.  The reference’s author repeated his study two years later, reaching opposite conclusions.   Additional studies published in 2020 support the most recent study, repudiating the one used by Randazzo.  The Republic acknowledged receipt of our letter Oct 23.

Also, on Oct 23, DUID Victim Voices submitted a detailed letter to Randazzo and his editor citing the flaws in their traffic fatalities claim.  We requested that the online article be retracted and rewritten, based upon facts that we provided.  Randazzo acknowledged receipt of our letter the same day, promising, “I will review the research you cite here.”

Nevertheless, the online version of the article and its erroneous headline was published on the front page of the Arizona Republic two days later, Oct 25.

Let’s look more closely at the two areas of disagreement.


Teen usage of marijuana

Randazzo based his claim of minimal increase in teen use on surveys of students such as HKCS published in 2017, the year after commercialization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington.  Dr. Sabet pointed out that identical surveys taken two years later contradict those results.  Further data show a 15% increase in Cannabis Use Disorder (aka marijuana addiction) in youth and a 260% increase in youth admitting to driving while under the influence of marijuana in states that legalized recreational marijuana.

Randazzo’s response was that his aim was to address the immediate effects of recreational marijuana legalization, not its longer-term effects.  Since he chose to write about only the incidence of increased teen marijuana use, not its consequences, he discounted Sabet’s comments on Cannabis Use Disorder.  The 260% increase in youth driving while impaired occurred beyond Randozzo’s one-year chosen window and was therefore also discounted.


Traffic deaths

Randazzo based his claim of minimal increase in traffic deaths on a report published by Jayson Aydelotte in 2017.  Aydelotte’s conclusion was, “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. Future studies over a longer time remain warranted.”

Aydelotte’s figures projected 77 “excess crash fatalities” in a three-year period after marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.  He wrote, “We do not view that as a clinically significant effect, but others might disagree.” Presumably the 77 “excess crash fatalities” were not able to disagree.

The fundamental problem with Aydelotte’s study was that it looked at traffic fatalities before and after the vote to legalize recreational marijuana.  But a vote cannot in and of itself increase traffic deaths.  Increased impaired driving fatalities can only occur when more people drive while under the influence.  And that requires widespread access to the impairing drug.  Neither state began commercialization of marijuana for at least two years after the vote permitting commercialization.  Therefore, the post-legalization period in Aydelotte’s study included only one year of commercialization in Colorado and six months in Washington.

 Aydelotte corrected that shortcoming in a report he published two years later concluding that in the five years after legalization, fatal crash rates in CO and WA increased 1.2 crashes/Billion Vehicle Miles Traveled (BVMT) compared with control states.  Control states were those that maintained their medical marijuana or anti-marijuana status during the study period.  Importantly, crash rates increased by 1.8 crashes/BVMT (p=.020) after commercial sales of recreational marijuana began.

The bottom line is that Randazzo relied upon an obsolete study that was repudiated two years later by its author.  And Randazzo knew that before the Arizona Republic put his story on the front page!

Other reports published in 2020 support Aydelotte’s 2019 report and repudiate his 2017 conclusions. 

Santaella-Tenorio created two different synthetic control states, one for Colorado and the other for Washington.  He found that CO experienced an increase in traffic fatalities of 1.5/BVMT (p=.047) after marijuana commercialization.  He did not find a significant increase in fatalities in WA due to his creation of a flawed synthetic control state for WA.  The flaw was using California as the second-highest weighted state, even though California legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. 

Kamer published a study of CO, WA, OR and AK, finding that after commercialization in those four states, traffic fatalities increased by 2.1/BVMT (p=<.001) compared to states that had not legalized either recreational or medical marijuana.  Kamer’s 2.1 number is biased to the high side by including OR which also increased its highway speed limit during the study period.  Kamer’s numbers for CO and WA alone were 1.7 and 1.0 deaths/BVMT respectively.

Even the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) raw data show increases in traffic fatalities after marijuana commercialization in CO and WA of 1.3 and 1.2 deaths/BVMT respectively.  Each state is used as its own control to determine these death increases.  The numbers are biased downward because the pre-commercialization period included large numbers of medical marijuana users.  Both states had active medical marijuana sales prior to commercialization of recreational marijuana.   For example, Colorado reported over 100,000 medical marijuana registrations before legalization of recreational marijuana.



The Arizona Republic’s Ryan Randazzo used selective out-of-date references (HKCS 2017 and Aydelotte 2017) to support the conclusion his editorial board was seeking.  Updated versions of the same references (HKCS 2020 and Aydelotte 2019) both repudiate the findings quoted by Randazzo.

Additional information supports the more current data: NSDUH, Santaella-Tenorio, Kamer and FHWA.

Randazzo acknowledged receipt of the information pointing out his flaws prior to print publication.

The Arizona Republic proceeded with what amounted to a front-page advertisement for the Marijuana Lobby in spite of advanced notice that what they were publishing was false.

The Constitution’s First Amendment on free speech does not protect an individual who falsely shouts FIRE! In a crowded theater.  When does knowingly publishing false information diminish the protection afforded to newspapers by the Constitution’s First Amendment?


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