Police: States where marijuana's legal see more accidents

Police: States where marijuana's legal see more accidents

CHAMPAIGN — As Illinois inches closer to legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults, some local police officials are dreading the potential impact of more stoned drivers on area roads.

Monticello Police Chief John Carter doesn't have to look beyond his own community for a recent example of what can happen when people are high behind the wheel. A juvenile driver who'd been vaping cannabis oil crashed into a house about a year ago, he said.

Carter predicted legalization would mean more cannabis-impaired drivers on the roads.

"I would rather not see it," he said.

Mahomet Police Chief Mike Metzler said his department encounters drivers "almost daily" who either have marijuana or smoking devices with them in their cars, and he has some real concerns about the potential for more users.

"I'm not looking forward to having this happening," he said.

Patients with certain medical conditions have been legally buying and using cannabis in Illinois since the first licensed dispensaries opened in 2015. As of earlier this month, nearly 58,000 medical cannabis applications had been approved for qualifying patients, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Demand for cannabis is poised to grow beyond what the state's licensed cultivators can supply, according to a recent study commissioned by two Chicago Democrats, state Sen. Heather Steans and state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who are sponsoring legislation to legalize cannabis use for adults.

The study by the consulting firm of Freedman and Koski concluded the existing industry could supply only 35 percent to 54 percent of the adult-use demand, and Illinois could potentially reap $440,000 to $670,000 in annual revenue by taxing cannabis sales — not including excise taxes on cannabis cultivators.

The state already broadened its medical cannabis program this year by allowing patients who could receive a prescription from a doctor for opioid medications to use cannabis as an alternative.

One way or another, legal weed seems to be what most Americans — six out of 10 — want, though that varies by generation, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year. By age group, the most supportive generation is millennials, 74 percent of whom are in favor, researchers found.

Illinois residents already using cannabis legally for medical purposes don't get a pass under state law if they drive impaired and unsafely.

The penalty for drivers suspected to be under the influence of drugs (including marijuana) who either refuse or fail chemical testing is an automatic driver's license suspension.

Drug-impaired drivers fail chemical testing if they have 5 nanograms or more of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, per milliliter of blood, 10 nanograms or more of THC in another body substance, or any trace of a drug other than cannabis, illegal substance or intoxicating compound, according to the Illinois Secretary of State's office.

That agency has already taken a position against legalizing cannabis for recreational use.

"We don't like the idea of having people on the road who may be impaired," agency spokesman Dave Druker said.

Michigan users driving stoned

Illinois can look to other states with a longer history of legal cannabis for what may be in store here.

The first two states, Colorado and Washington, approved legalization in 2012 and began retail cannabis sales in 2014. The third state, Oregon, started its own retail sales in 2015.

The Highway Loss Data Institute took a look at collision claim frequency in those three states since they legalized cannabis sales for recreational use, and concluded in a report last year that legalization was associated with a 6 percent increase in collision claim frequency, compared with nearby control states.

In the first three years after recreational weed sales were legal in Colorado, fatal crashes involving drivers who were THC-intoxicated also increased — from 31 in 2014 to 77 in 2016, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration report last year.

One of the more recent states to legalize, Michigan started allowing medical cannabis use in 2008 and legalized cannabis for recreational use this past December.

Even by mid-2018, Michigan already had more than quadruple the medical cannabis users Illinois has now, and at least some medical users in that state have admitted to driving while high, according to University of Michigan research published in January.

Of 790 Michigan medical cannabis users who were surveyed, 56 percent acknowledged they'd driven within two hours of using cannabis in the past six months, and 21 percent said they were "very high" while driving, researchers found.

One in five cannabis users in Colorado also admit to driving after using cannabis, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

That agency warns the effects can be different for everyone, but some of the common effects in addition to the relaxed "high" feeling are slower reactions and hand/eye coordination, distorted perceptions of time and distance, anxiety, panic or paranoia and trouble thinking, learning and remembering. The effects typically last two to four hours after marijuana is smoked or inhaled, but can last four to 10 hours after consuming edibles.

"People may think they're safer drivers while stoned since they drive more slowly," the agency warns on a website about cannabis rules and effects. "However, research shows that driving while high may increase your risk of a crash."

'Whole other set of problems'

One of Metzler's concerns is the lack of a reliable roadside test to help police in determining cannabis-related driving impairment, he said.

While police can administer a breathalyzer test to drivers suspected to be under the influence of alcohol, they have to depend on their observations for drivers they suspect are under the influence of drugs, follow up with blood or urine testing and wait on the lab results.

Another concern Metzler has is what Colorado has experienced on the roads.

"Their numbers of traffic-related incidents have increased," he said.

Both Champaign and Douglas county sheriff's officials project legalized recreational marijuana would call for more deputies undergoing further training (beyond what they have already had on field sobriety testing) for detecting drug-impaired drivers they stop.

"We would probably, more than likely, have everybody certified, if not a large majority of our deputies," said Shannon Barrett, chief deputy of the Champaign County sheriff's office.

Her concerns if Illinois proceeds with legalizing recreational weed are centered on making sure the public is safe, Barrett said, "and it comes down to driving."

"It's just going to widen the horizon of who can actually have it," she said.

The Douglas County sheriff's office already has a deputy set to attend Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement training in April, according to Sheriff Joshua Blackwell. He hopes to send more this year as classes are available, and to have at least one deputy attend the more advanced Drug Recognition Expert training in the next year.

Blackwell opposed the state's medical cannabis program, and he doesn't want to see cannabis legalized for recreation, either, he said.

"It's unfortunate, I think, the Legislature is probably going to pass it anyway," he said. "From a law enforcement standpoint, we're kind of looking at it from not if but when."

One problem Blackwell sees is that the THC in cannabis can potentially stay in the body for up to about a month.

"You could potentially use marijuana one day and the next day, if there's still enough of it in your system, that could lead to a traffic crash," he said.

What he finds interesting is that Illinois is looking at raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarettes, "but yet, we're saying it's OK for people to use cannabis."

It's not just traffic safety that concerns him but other issues he's seen developing in states that have legalized cannabis, among them the impact on health care.

A 2017 study looking at marijuana use and health care contacts in Colorado between 2000 and 2015, for example, concluded legalization in that state has been associated with an increase in hospitalizations, emergency department visits and regional poison center calls.

"I think it just opens up a whole other set of problems," Blackwell said.