Ganja - image by Carlos Gracia. via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 text added.
Ganja - image by Carlos Gracia. via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 text added.

Illinois is currently implementing a medical marijuana infrastructure, and many people wonder what that means for recreational marijuana use in the state. Under Illinois’ Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, individuals who have been diagnosed with certain debilitating conditions may be prescribed marijuana to manage their symptoms. As lawmakers, physicians, and those in the marijuana industry get this off the ground, many minds turn to recreational use.

Is Illinois going to join eight other states and the District of Columbia in making recreational cannabis use legal? In 2012, Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana for individuals 21 years and older. Since then, Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia have followed suit. However, many people in Illinois are concerned about this potential future.

Safety Concerns Regarding Recreational Marijuana

There are many legitimate concerns regarding the legalization of marijuana for personal and non-medical use. Lawmakers and health and safety leaders worry that recreational cannabis will increase the number of impaired drivers on the road and drugged driving accidents. While it is illegal to drink and drive, DUIs still occur. It is reasonable to think that despite laws to the contrary, individuals may choose to smoke or ingest marijuana and then get behind the wheel, possibly increasing the risk of accidents.

What about marijuana while at work? Many jobs require workers to be attentive, alert, and ready to respond quickly if the need arises. Will recreational marijuana be used when individuals should be working, when they are on call and may have to respond to an emergency, or too near the start of their workday? If strict workplace rules regarding marijuana are not developed alongside recreational availability, there could be a rise in workers who are impaired while on the clock, which in turn could potentially raise the risk of accidents in the workplace.

Health Concerns with Marijuana

Another concern is whether marijuana will become more available to teenagers and children. Will adolescents, with still developing bodies and brains, be more likely to partake if it is legal for adults? There is also the question of whether particularly young children might accidently ingest marijuana or related products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and whether it could harm them.

Also, some studies have shown that the number of young pregnant women using marijuana may be on the rise – or at least there is more data demonstrating marijuana use by pregnant woman than before. It is unclear to researchers and physicians whether THC can pass through the placenta and reach the fetus, like alcohol and other drugs can. If it does pass through, they do not know what effect THC may have on a developing fetus.

Other States’ Experiences with Pot and Driving

Whether or not marijuana is causing more car accidents and related injuries and fatalities in states with recreational use is up for debate. Some statistics say yes, others say no. A study by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety-Highway Loss Data Institute found between January 2012 and October 2016, collision claims in states with recreational marijuana were 3 percent higher than states without legalization. However, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found no increase in fatal collisions in Colorado and Washington between 2009 and 2015. Looking at these two studies, it is possible marijuana leads to a greater number of minor accidents without causing a rise in traffic fatalities.

Complexities of Driving While High Laws

Two of the biggest issues related to driving and marijuana is how to test for THC and where to set a legal limit. There is no reliable roadside breath test for marijuana like there is for alcohol, which can make it difficult for police officers to determine if a driver is impaired or not. It adds guesswork into traffic stops, which could increase unlawful or unnecessary arrests for impaired driving. However, there are numerous ways to test for marijuana once a person has been arrested or caused an accident, enabling prosecutors to obtain evidence of impairment that may be relevant to a traffic ticket, criminal charges, or a personal injury claim.

THC molecule; image by Benjah-bmm27, (own work), via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
THC molecule; image by Benjah-bmm27, (own work), via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Beyond issues with roadside testing, there is the question of how much THC it takes to impair a driver. People all process alcohol the same way and react consistently to various amounts of alcohol in their blood. This enabled legislators to determine a legal limit for how much alcohol is too much when driving. The same cannot be said for marijuana. Every person reacts to the drug differently, and a person who smokes routinely will have a greater amount of THC in their system without being high than someone who imbibes occasionally.

While some states are attempting to impose a legal THC limit, this is not an accurate way of determining when a person’s driving abilities are impaired. Additionally, a zero-tolerance policy on THC while driving means many people who are not impaired at the time could face charges. It is an issue that requires a great deal more study.

Recreational Marijuana and Workers

It is possible that some of the individuals driving while under the effect of marijuana are going to work. A small survey found a sizeable percentage of marijuana users have gone to work high on more than one occasion and/or smoke during their workday. Many of these individuals also responded that they believed they performed their job better while high. The question of whether THC can improve a person’s work performance is interesting. However, the much more pressing concern is whether workers who are responsible for other people’s health and safety have worked while high, and if so, have they put others in harm’s way?

As of right now, there is no way of knowing whether legal recreational marijuana increases the rate of individuals working while high, and if they do, whether it is causing harm. It may take a great deal more time to derive any statistical conclusions in this regard. In the meantime, businesses can develop their own internal policies on the matter.

Teen Marijuana Use Has Not Increased

When Washington and Colorado started the trend of legalizing recreational marijuana, many people feared this would increase teenager’s access and desire to use the drug. Fortunately, it seems that fear has not come to pass. Numerous surveys have found that teen marijuana use rates in states with legal cannabis have not increased. Some studies have noticed a drop in teen use in Colorado, which may be due to an increased focus on education regarding the risks of cannabis use and the limited availability of the drug on the street.

Illinois Can Continue to Watch How Recreational Marijuana Affects Other States

While there is a growing percentage of individuals who support recreational marijuana, there are many legitimate concerns legislators must address before making a final decision on the matter. Some of those concerns already occur and need to be addressed, such as marijuana-related car accidents.

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