Alcohol is not the only drug that can get you arrested for driving under the influence or for driving while intoxicated. If you consume any kind of drug or substance that intoxicates you, whether that drug or substance is legal or not, and if you then get behind the wheel and start driving, you can be arrested and charged with driving under the influence. Drug-related DUI cases can be quite a bit more complicated than alcohol-related charges, primarily because the laws in most states set no precise “legal limit” for intoxicating drugs or for substances other than alcohol. It’s illegal in every state to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) level at 0.08 percent or above, for example, but there’s no established legal limit for marijuana intoxication in a number of states including California. How do you know when someone’s too high to drive after smoking marijuana? There’s no easy answer. If you are charged with driving under the influence of marijuana, speak with a good DUI attorney at once, and in southern California, contact an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer as quickly as possible.
While several states experimented with marijuana decriminalization as long ago as the 1970s, it’s only in the last decade that marijuana reform has genuinely gained momentum nationally. As more and more states legalize marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes, more drivers are being arrested on marijuana-related DUI charges. Determining and measuring levels of marijuana intoxication is difficult and perhaps ultimately impossible, but it’s a growing public safety concern. In fact, three out of ten of the drivers in fatal crashes in California now test positive for an intoxicating drug or substance other than alcohol, according to figures reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Some states’ lawmakers have responded by attempting to set a “legal limit” for marijuana intoxication. In the state of Washington, for example, where marijuana has been legal for adults for recreational consumption since 2012, a user cannot drive with more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – is the active chemical ingredient in marijuana.
THE PROBLEM FOR LAWMAKERS
A half-dozen other states have also set legal limits on THC levels for drivers, and fourteen more states have a zero-tolerance approach regarding marijuana intoxication and driving. Legislators in the state of California have been debating the best approach to the problem for several years, but even the clinical researchers themselves disagree on how best to determine levels of marijuana intoxication. A marijuana high peaks about thirteen minutes after smoking, and the sensation can remain strong for about forty minutes before it begins to subside. Those are rough, average estimates – different people react differently, and different blends of marijuana may produce stronger or weaker “highs.” THC, however, can be detected in blood and urine days and even weeks after the user is no longer high. Frequent pot smokers – and presumably most persons using marijuana for medical reasons – will almost invariably have some level of THC in their blood, whether or not they’re intoxicated at a given moment.
Thus, the problem with establishing legal THC limits is that a driver could have five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in his or her system for days or even weeks after smoking and being high on marijuana. Alcohol traces exit the bloodstream in mere hours because alcohol is water-soluble, but traces of marijuana linger in the system long after the user’s intoxication has faded because marijuana is fat-soluble. In other words, in some states a driver could be entirely sober for days but still be charged with driving under the influence if THC is found in the bloodstream.
WHAT THE SYSTEM NEEDS
As legalized medical and recreational marijuana consumption expands across the nation, the criminal justice system requires tools to determine with some precision the intoxication levels of marijuana-impaired drivers. What police departments and the courts really need, however, is something that isn’t here yet and may or may not even be possible. The key to marijuana-related DUI enforcement would be a device similar to a breathalyzer – that is, a hand-held device that law enforcement officers can use to determine if a driver is, at the moment, not only high on marijuana, but a device that can determine “how high” that driver is.
As you read this, a number of researchers and businesses are working hard to develop a reliable marijuana breathalyzer device. Researchers at Washington State University, for example, are trying to create a handheld device that uses a technique called “ion mobility spectrometry.” Lifeloc Technologies, a Colorado-based breathalyzer manufacturing company, has received a $250,000 grant from Colorado’s Office of Economic Development to develop a hand-held marijuana breathalyzer for police use. While blood tests have long been able to indicate if THC is in someone’s bloodstream, there is still no sure way to determine how long it’s been there or to determine anyone’s current level of intoxication.
THE MEERSEMAN CASE
One recent and tragic driving under the influence case in Illinois highlights the immediate urgency of reforming the way the criminal justice system handles marijuana-related DUI prosecutions. About a week before he caused the traffic collision that resulted in his passenger’s death, a 20-year-old Illinois man, Brock Meerseman, reportedly smoked some marijuana. Eventually convicted on a charge of aggravated DUI based on the THC in his bloodstream, Meerseman was sentenced to fourteen years in an Illinois state prison. At the time he was arrested, a blood test discovered tetrahydrocannabinol in his blood, according to court records.
Whether the THC actually impaired the young man’s driving at the time of the crash was not even an issue in the case because under Illinois law, if THC traces can be found in your blood, you are by definition “legally” intoxicated. If Meerseman was in fact responsible for his passenger’s death, he should properly be held accountable, but pretending that he was high on pot if he wasn’t is just dishonest. The Meerseman case in Illinois is the kind of case that makes the courts and the laws look foolish.
WE CAN DO BETTER
We can do better in this country. The criminal justice system in the United States of America should be able to administer justice openly, honestly, and effectively. UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman is among the many observers who believe that California’s current marijuana-DUI law, which emphasizes actual, impaired driving behavior, is the best approach to the problem, but some prosecutors insist that a precise, legally-established measurement would give them a more exact and effective legal tool for keeping the streets and highways safe.
DUI laws are here to prevent driving under the influence and to punish those who are guilty, not to penalize drivers who were intoxicated – privately, at home, and in many cases legally – two weeks earlier. Soon perhaps, a better marijuana test may be able to indicate whether someone has smoked marijuana recently and is driving while still intoxicated. Or maybe not. Either way, for the moment, and in every state, if you are convicted for driving under the influence of marijuana, your sentence will depend on the particular circumstances and details of the case, the particular DUI or DWI laws of your state, your previous criminal convictions, if any, and possibly other factors as well.
SOMETHING YOU WANT TO AVOID
In a typical California DUI-marijuana prosecution, the state’s case will rely on field sobriety tests, the testimony of the arresting officer or officers, and the results of the blood test. The penalties for a DUI or DWI conviction are different in each state, but all fifty states take the crime quite seriously. For a first-offense misdemeanor DUI conviction in California, you could be sentenced to up to six months in jail and three-to-five years on probation, fined up to $1,000, ordered to attend a twelve-week DUI school, and lose your driving privilege for six months. In four California counties, you’ll be ordered to install an ignition interlock device on your personal vehicle. Your auto insurance rates will go up, and if you drive for a living, you may have to find other work. In other words, you very much want to avoid a DUI conviction.
In every state, drivers facing a DUI-marijuana charge or any other driving under the influence charge will need high-quality defense representation immediately. Any DUI conviction anywhere will have serious personal repercussions, so it’s imperative to know and understand your legal rights and options. A driving under the influence charge is a threat to your future, your finances, and your freedom.
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you are charged with driving under the influence, don’t try to act as your own lawyer. Far too much is at stake. Instead, let an experienced DUI attorney evaluate your case, gather evidence and question witnesses on your behalf, and bring your case to its best possible conclusion. Courts in every state are getting tough on marijuana-related DUI suspects, so if you face the charge, you can’t presume that you’ll be treated with leniency because it’s only a misdemeanor or a first offense. You’ll need the advice and services of a knowledgeable DUI attorney, and in southern California, you’ll need to contact an experienced Orange County DUI lawyer immediately after any arrest for driving under the influence.