Mary Jane isn’t so Merry Behind the Wheel

In December 2015, Representative Kelly Cassidy introduced legislation that would remove criminal penalties for the possession of small quantities of marijuana. These penalties would be replaced with a fine. Currently, Illinois Medical Marijuana (MMJ) dispensaries are overseen by the Illinois Department of Health. This past month, they began serving 4,400 registered patients. It is expected that the legislature will vote later this year to continue the program.

At this time, it remains unclear what impact Illinois’ medical marijuana laws will have on the safety of drivers in Illinois. It is something that Chicago accident lawyers, legislators, and law enforcement representatives are watching closely. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, drivers who consume marijuana are 3 to 7 times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident than drivers who do not consume marijuana.

The negative impact marijuana has on an individual’s ability to operate a motor vehicle is similar to the impact caused by the use of prescription drugs. The consumption of marijuana for any purpose has the following impact on the human body:

  • Vision. The consumption of marijuana causes dilation in the eyes. This can have a significant impact on peripheral vision and make it difficult for drivers to see objects to either side of their vehicle. The consumption of marijuana can also make it difficult to read road signs or detect objects in the road.
  • Situational Awareness. Marijuana depresses the central nervous system. At high concentrations, the THC within marijuana can cause hallucinations and delusions. These can cause a driver to act erratically while driving. Long-term depression of the central nervous system can permanently reduce an individual’s capacity to safely operate a motor vehicle. The effects are especially pronounced on individuals who regularly consume marijuana prior to the full formation of the brain in adulthood.
  • Response Time & Motor Control.  In studies conducted by the US Department of Transportation, motor control and response times were significantly impacted up to 3 hours after subjects consumed marijuana.  These impacts included increased reaction times, decreased ability to react to changing road conditions, improper distance estimation, loss of coordination, and decreased vigilance. These impacts were shown to occur at even moderate levels of consumption.

Zero Tolerance in Illinois

Illinois follows a zero-tolerance policy for drivers under the influence of marijuana. This may be determined by blood or urine testing. However, it is difficult to prove whether a driver was under the influence of marijuana even if testing occurs at the time of arrest. That is because marijuana may be detected up to one month past the date of consumption. An individual involved in a vehicular accident where one of the drivers was under the influence of marijuana should consult a Chicago accident lawyer to discuss their legal options.

For a first offense, drivers convicted of driving under the influence of marijuana can lose their license for up to one year. Additionally, they may be imprisoned, or fined $2,500. Drivers convicted of a second offense face a minimum 5-year loss of their drivers license, a fine of up to $2,500, and a mandatory penal sentence of 5 days in jail or 30 days community service. A third offense is a Class 4 felony and can result in loss of driving privileges for 6 years, imprisonment for up to 3 years, and a $10,000 fine. A third offense also requires mandatory drug treatment counseling.

Impact of Medical Marijuana on Driving Safety in Illinois

The impact of medical and recreational marijuana laws on drivers safety is still being studied. Given the fact that these laws are new, it will be some time before the full impact is known. However, in states such as Washington where medical marijuana has been legal for some time, the evidence is clear. Nationally, it is known that driving under the influence of marijuana accounted for 4% of accident fatalities in 1999. By 2010, it accounted for 12%. As such, officials in Illinois expect the statewide numbers to climb over the coming year.

In 2013, Washington recorded 75 fatal accidents where the driver was under the influence of marijuana. This was nearly a 100% increase from 2012. Roughly 50% of drivers in these accidents had THC levels greater than five nanograms per milliliter. Moreover, the majority of drivers who caused these accidents also had alcohol in their systems at the time of the crash. Drivers who simultaneously consume alcohol and marijuana are 24 times more likely to be involved in an automobile accident.

Washington State also recorded a significant 55% increase in the number of drivers testing positive for marijuana consumption. This was much higher than Colorado which experienced only a 1.5% increase in total traffic fatalities caused by drivers under the influence of marijuana.