Some CHS Students Take The High Road

By Sara Heimlich, Editor In Chief

High school students have been conditioned to stay clear of drunk driving from a very young age, but it’s often a different story when it comes to driving high.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 121 million people drive drunk each year. According to, 10 million people aged 12 and over reported driving under the influence of drugs in 2014.

Although drunk driving may be more widespread than driving high nationally, driving under the influence of marijuana is much more common at CHS than drunk driving.

In an Observer survey of 45 students, of the 33 who have driver’s licenses, a third of them have driven under the influence of marijuana. However, only two respondents reported ever driving while drunk.

“It may be different for everyone but honestly I feel really focused and in control,” junior John* said. “I feel very differently about driving drunk. I would never even think of it.”

Some people reason that driving under the influence of marijuana can make drivers more aware of their driving capabilities due to the paranoia that often comes with a high.

“I have never gotten in an accident high but I have gotten in an accident sober,” junior Tom* said. “I feel safer, I drive slower, more carefully and I feel like I have more focus on the road. When I drive sober I drive recklessly and above the speed limit and that changes when I’m high. I think that is because of the anxious part of the high.”

According to a Feb. 2014 New York Times article, a driver with alcohol in their system would make more rash decisions and drive very fast, whereas a driver under the influence of drugs will anticipate their impairment and try to compensate for it by driving more slowly and carefully.

Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that is known for its properties of giving someone a relaxed and euphoric feeling, or “high.”

Although people may appear to be able to drive relatively normally while under the influence of marijuana, their deficit from the effects of the drugs comes when an unexpected situation shows up, such as someone crossing the street. In this case, drugged drivers will not process the information in the same way as a sober one, perhaps underestimating the time it will take for that pedestrian to cross the street.

However, there seems to be a different stigma around driving drunk for some drivers.

According to junior Jake*, who admits to driving high “three times a week,” he would never drive drunk because it’s “actually dangerous.”

Now more than ever, marijuana is becoming more socially acceptable, and has even been legalized for recreational use in certain states as well as in D.C.

It isn’t to say that driving high is a better alternative to driving drunk. The true impact of drugs on the risk of car crashes is hard to measure due to a lack of resources to detect drugged drivers. Also, the tendency of drugs like marijuana to stay in the system for longer than just the duration of the high contributes to the effects being hard to measure.

Although marijuana may affect neither motor skills nor balance, its true inhibition is found in thought processing, concentration and memory.

“You have to ask what the appeal is to drugs in the first place,” Rockville police sergeant John Converse said.

Since people seek out marijuana for the high — relaxation and euphoria — they can expect that this will affect their control on the road.

“If it’s because it’s doing something for the person, their ability to cope will be different,” Converse said.

According to Jake*, he drives high because it’s the “best option” to smoke somewhere and then return home.

Still, others always choose to drive sober.

“I would never drive high because you’re not only becoming a danger to yourself, but everyone else on the road,” junior Sydney Brown said.

While drunk drivers are notorious for their swerving, close following distance and extreme speeds (low or high), drivers who are high may not be as easy to spot, as they often drive cautiously. Even when drivers are suspected of being under a drug’s influence, the process of proving it is a more difficult endeavor.

“First we try to eliminate the likelihood that they’re under the influence of alcohol through smelling their breath and sobriety tests,” Converse said. “Cops also learn to pick up on the differences between drug and alcohol cues. If we decide they’re not drunk, but we know something’s up, we try calling for a drug recognition expert.”

Drug recognition experts (DRE) are certified to use tools and their knowledge of physiology to assess both whether a person is under the influence of drugs, and if so which kind of drug they may be on.

However, training for this job is a long and strenuous process. This makes them few in numbers and hard to come by, in turn making it more difficult when a police officer is in need of one’s help.

Chuck Hayes is a coordinator of the drug classification and evaluation training at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Virginia. Through this program, officers are trained to become DREs  to detect drivers under the influence of drugs.

“[Drug recognition experts] are specially trained officers who conduct a twelve-step drug influence evaluation of a suspected drugged driver [when] looking for certain indicators that assist in determining if a person is impaired or not,” Hayes said.

There are only about 8,000 drug recognition experts in the entire country. Since very little is actually known about the exact chemicals in today’s marijuana, everyday police officers are typically not equipped with the right knowledge to detect or prove that drugs are in someone’s system.

“Frequently there is no drug recognition expert to assess the person for an arrest,” Converse said. “If there’s not enough to make a case, we just make sure they have a way of getting home safe and we hope to catch them another time.”

Though it may be hard for someone outside of the car to detect a high driver, the passengers of these drivers are in a different position. Whether they are sober or high, they make their own decisions about driving with someone under the influence.

“I have driven people while high,” John* said. “I always make sure they know.”

In the Observer survey, 36 percent of respondents reported having been a passenger with a driver who was high. This is comparable to the 20 percent of respondents who reported ever driving with someone while that driver was drunk.

“I know not to get in the car with someone who’s not sober,” Brown said. “As a new driver, I know it’s important to be extremely aware while driving because you have to watch out for yourself, people in your car, and everyone else on the road.”

According to Converse, very little happens to the passenger of a driver who is arrested for drug use. Oftentimes, the officer will make sure the passenger is in a condition to get home safely and only takes further measures if there’s a significant amount of marijuana found in possession of the passenger. The person will still only face up to $100 in fines if there’s less than ten grams found in possession as a first offense.

There’s a distinction between getting caught driving high and getting caught driving drunk. Driving high won’t go on the minor’s permanent record like it would for drunk driving. There’s also an identical distinction between a minor getting arrested for driving high compared to an adult.


“If it’s a one time finding especially, their life is still ahead of them,” Converse said. “It’s not going to follow them around as much as it would should they be an adult.”


Though the exact effects of driving high may still be unknown, some students opt to keep their driving-high habits relatively infrequent.

“I would drive high under a few circumstances [such as] if there was an emergency, like my dog getting out of the house at night or needing to pick someone up because they are drunk,” John said.


Very few of the 400 plus chemicals in marijuana are actually well understood. Therefore, the exact effects of marijuana in the body, especially while driving, may be hard to determine.


“People tend to think of the marijuana from the past that had small amounts of THC,” Hayes said. “Today’s typical marijuana is much higher in potency and much more impairing.”


*name was changed for anonymity of the source