Posted by: sweeneyblog | February 15, 2014

Do Changing Liquor and Marijuana Laws Affect DUIs?

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.

DUIs in Whatcom

DUIs in Whatcom

As you can see, 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.

Yearly Totals

Yearly Totals

Even if you look at yearly totals (starting with 2013 on the left and going back in time), 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 April and May, I will do another round of studies to see whether they have any impact.



  1. the apparent fact that dui’s seem to be holding steady is very telling regarding the effectiveness of our approach to reducing those numbers…(apart from the stat that dui’s are fewer than decades ago proportionately)…still, there’s a problem, and it’s not pot policy at this point…

  2. As Woody Woodbury used to say: a’Booze is the only answer”?

  3. Did you know that in addition to its commissioned (armed) Police force WWU has its own Court system?

    • Yup, the WWU court system includes basketball, volleyball, tennis, racquet ball, hand ball. Not sure about squash…

  4. My point is there is another judicial system that was left out that MIGHT be important. Note the stats on pages 8 & 9 of this 2008 – 2009 WWU Publication

    • if a student commits a crime such as DUI, they would be charged in one of the proper courts Riley’s post mentions…

  5. Thank you for this quantitative (instead of emotional) analysis. The first thing I notice when I have look at the data is that the consistency in the number of arrests. It would be useful to examine police resources available for DUI enforcement over the same time period and whether this a limiting factor on DUI arrests.

    • That is a good point. I’ll look into it and see what I can add.

  6. ~4800 DUI arrests in four years in Whatcom! …. my god… I would like to the per capita/ per county pop comparison for WA state. I imagine the numbers are so high here because of I-5 and Canadian visitors.

  7. Have a look at the stats from WWU’s own reporting that are NOT reflected in Bellingham Muni Court or District Court stats.

  8. Ryan, you can drill down on the map here, I’m not sure how accurate these stats are.

    Bernie, I’m just curious were you not aware of the WWU Judicial Officer program? A student on campus MIP or drug charge dealt with by WWU Police may go through a diversion program and never show up in City, County or District Courts…….

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