People who don’t drink do not get arrested for driving under the influence – usually. But if your physician has prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, you can’t just “abstain” from your prescription medications the same way you can abstain from drinking. Your medicine may be necessary, prescribed, and legal, but that doesn’t mean that you can drive a vehicle while you are under its influence.

As we age, some of us must take prescription drugs, and as the general population grows older, more DUI charges are being filed against older drivers who are impaired by those medications. Many, if not most prescription medications – and scores of over-the-counter medicines as well – can severely impair your ability to drive safely. According to noted Orange County DUI defense attorney Todd Landgren, prescription drugs are now “the new and upcoming aspect of drunk driving, because more people are getting arrested for prescription medications.”

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Vicodin, Demerol, Dolophine, and Oxycontin are especially apt to impair your driving skills. These drugs can slow your thought processes, reflexes, and reaction times, so driving or operating machinery while using them should always be avoided. In 2009, eighteen percent of the fatally injured drivers in the United States tested positive for at least one prescription drug or illegal substance, according to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

CAN A DOCTOR’S PRESCRIPTION GET YOU OUT OF A DUI CHARGE?

Mixing drugs with driving, whether it’s medical marijuana for pain management or even some sleeping pills that you’ve purchased over-the-counter, is just as illegal as driving under the influence of alcohol and can also constitute a DUI violation. A doctor’s prescription is no legal defense against a DUI charge, either. Never, ever use legal prescription drugs in combination with illegal street drugs or alcohol. Driving under the influence of prescription drugs could get you arrested for DUI or worse – you could cause a collision, injuries, and in the worst scenario, fatalities.

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Driving with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) level at or above 0.08 percent is a crime in all fifty states. It’s not difficult for a police officer to measure a driver’s BAC level at the time of a traffic stop by using a breathalyzer device. BAC readings of 0.08 percent or higher often result in a DUI guilty plea or a conviction if the traffic stop was carried out according to the legal rules and if the breathalyzer device was in proper working order. However, with prescription drugs and substances other than alcohol, it is a lot more difficult to determine a driver’s “level” of impairment.

For example, the psychoactive element in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol or “THC”) can be detected in a person’s urine or bloodstream for up to four or five weeks after use – weeks after the sensation of being “stoned” has faded. There is no way to detect actual impairment at a particular moment. Cocaine, on the other hand, leaves no trace in the body after just a day or two. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has admitted that our current knowledge about drugs other than alcohol is “insufficient to allow the identification of dosage limits that are related to elevated crash risk.”

Some jurisdictions – including Orange County, California – employ what are called “Drug Recognition Experts” (DREs), specially trained police officers who follow specific guidelines to determine drug impairment in motorists. DREs assess a driver’s eye movements, behavior, and other indications of drug intoxication. In fact, 44 states and the District of Columbia have Drug Recognition Experts. The presence of drugs in the system is still typically determined through urinalysis or blood testing.

WHAT LEGAL DRUGS ARE LIKELY TO IMPAIR DRIVERS?

A 2010 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that roughly 10 million Americans admitted to driving under the influence of prescription or illegal drugs during the previous year. Different drugs affect drivers in different ways, but drugs that can impair alertness, judgment, concentration, and motor skills are considered just as dangerous under the law as alcohol. The seven legal drugs that are most likely to impair drivers include:

  1. Antidepressants: Many antidepressants cause impairment similar to drunk driving.
  2. Valium: Ten milligrams of valium is similar to a blood-alcohol concentration level of 0.10 percent.
  3. Antihistamines: Antihistamines slow reaction times and impair coordination.
  4. Decongestants: Some decongestants cause drowsiness, dizziness, and anxiety.
  5. Sleeping Pills: The residual effect of sleeping pills can impair drivers even the next morning.
  6. Hydrocodone: The main component of Vicodin, hydrocodone’s effect is similar to opiates and causes impairment similar to morphine and codeine.
  7. Medical Marijuana: Drivers in states that permit the recreational use of marijuana or the medicinal use with a doctor’s approval may still be charged with driving under the influence. Medical marijuana is treated no differently than other prescription drugs with the potential for impairment.

If you are taking any prescription drugs, share your concerns with your physician, and ask your physician to explain how the medications will affect you. Always read any warning labels and instructions that come with your medicines, and don’t forget that you can always go online to learn even more. If you are arrested and charged with a prescription drug-related DUI in California, it’s just like any other driving under the influence charge. Exercise your right to remain silent, and politely insist on having an attorney present before you answer any questions.

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WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES FOR DUI IN CALIFORNIA?

The penalties for those drivers convicted of driving under the influence of prescription drugs are the same in California as the penalties for any other DUI conviction. A first offense is typically charged as a misdemeanor if there is no property damage or injuries. The usual sentence for a first DUI conviction in California is up to six months in jail, a fine of $390 to $1,000, a temporary driver’s license suspension, and mandatory attendance at a DUI school. But do not assume that an arrest for driving under the influence is the equivalent of a conviction.

A good DUI defense lawyer can help those charged with driving under the influence by challenging the arresting officer’s testimony and the test results and by working to have the charge reduced or, in some cases, dismissed entirely. Anyone facing a driving under the influence charge in southern California should speak quickly with an experienced Orange County DUI defense attorney. It’s wiser, of course, to avoid DUI-related legal trouble entirely and to speak with your physician first about any medications that you’re using.