Marijuana’s dark side: Driving while high

February 24, 2020

Jeffrey J. Kroll is a founding partner of Kaveny + Kroll LLC. He has achieved settlements and verdicts in a wide range of cases, from trucking accidents to medical malpractice and sports safety cases. He can be reached at

With my son getting ready to embark on the next phase of his life, heading off to college, the topic of opioid drugs, smoking pot and other related topics have been at the forefront. Forefront for me that is. I am pretty sure he ignores me most of the time.

Yet, 2020 brought a host of changes to the city of Chicago with a number of new laws, none of which garnered as much media attention as the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

With $3 million in sales alone on the first day and lines extending around the block for approved vendors, the decision appeared to be a hit. But, as we know too well, each and every action causes an equal or potentially greater reaction.

Distracted driving is a prevalent problem in our society. First, we had individuals driving under the influence of alcohol. Then distracted driving became a bigger issue with the increased use of mobile devices combined with social media.

Now a new area of concern has surfaced. There is a big difference between taking the high road versus taking the road high.

Enter driving while high to the mix, a phenomenon where we currently have almost no tools to subjectively, or worse yet, objectively measure, test or penalize. Unlike testing for blood alcohol levels, even at the roadside, in Illinois we have no standardized roadside test to measure marijuana impairment.

Part of the problem is that marijuana, unlike alcohol, does not have a predictable effect and different amounts can have varying effects based on the individual or other substances or even prescription medicines they might have consumed.

We do not even have a measurement of THC in the bloodstream which can be considered to interfere with a driver’s ability.

Pilot programs are getting underway in a few locations throughout Illinois to measure levels in saliva. However, currently, the cutoff detection would need to be lowered (currently at 40 nanograms of THC) to identify those impaired. Ideally, the technology would improve to detect levels at 10 nanograms.

As with any change or new laws, we must be careful to ensure the safety of the millions of adults and children who are drivers and passengers on our roadways. We only hope that this process is not fraught with mistakes along the way.

Yet, with all the unknowns lurking on our roads, there are some irrefutable facts.

According to a recent report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute, crashes were up by as much as 6% in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington state compared with neighboring states that had not legalized recreational marijuana.

Similarly, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in December revealed that the number of people who acknowledge operating a motor vehicle after consuming marijuana is up 47% in the last four years.

We also know, undeniably, that marijuana affects spatial judgment and overall cognition and decision making and reaction time; all crucial factors for safely operating a motor vehicle. Only a few weeks into the year, emergency rooms and physicians are already reporting a growing number of cases of marijuana users presenting with everything from anxiety to psychosis.

And what of the far too common combination of pot and alcohol? In the words of many a toxicologist, it’s a recipe for disaster for those behind the wheel.

It has been said that a lane change can cause a life change. This statement rings particularly true this year, calling upon us in the legal profession to come to action in adjudicating and enforcing systems and laws to meet this newest threat to our roadways head on.

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