Marijuana DUI Arrests Expected to Increase With Legalization of Recreational Pot

Drive High Get a DUI

Marijuana DUI Arrests Expected to Increase With Legalization of Recreational Pot


Legalization of Recreational Marijuana Use Expected to Increase Marijuana DUI Arrests

Happy New Year! Or is it? As California Patrol Officers plan for a major increase in cannabis-related DUIs, Pro-Pot Drivers Should Exercise Caution!

Beware! In addition to increasing DUI patrols, California is ringing in the new year with a new set of increasingly strict roadway laws including new legislature pertaining to alcohol and cannabis impairment.

Drunk driving laws have become increasingly strict over the last several years and now, drivers and law enforcement officials alike must try to adapt to new laws and regulations that address the legal use of recreational marijuana.  In the November 2016 election, California voters passed Prop. 64- an amendment legalizing the recreational adult use of marijuana- which will take effect on January 1st, 2018 allowing California adults to ring in the new year with pot, legally!

Unlike alcohol, no legal limit exists when it comes to marijuana impairment; however, California state law prohibits all forms of impaired driving.  To understand marijuana related DUI charges first requires a basic understanding of California DUI law, which can be broken up into three sections.  Section one makes it illegal to drive while impaired by either drugs or alcohol.  Section two makes it illegal to drive with a blood alcohol level of more than .08%.  However, if a motorist with a BAC below the legal limit crashes due to erratic driving behavior, he or she can still be charged with a DUI if the arresting officer believes that the accident was a result of driving while impaired.  Below the legal limit, impairment is subjective or at the officer’s discretion.  Section three states that drug impairment is an arrestable offense- there are no minimum levels required- drugs only require the impairment standard.

Will Legalization of Marijuana Increase Drug Induced Accidents?

Law enforcement officials worry that legalization of recreational marijuana use will spark a major increase in marijuana-related DUI crashes.  As a result, law enforcement plans to increase patrol presence and implement additional training programs to help law enforcement officials spot potential motorists driving under the influence of drugs and better identify signs of impairment caused by marijuana.  The expected wave of DUI cases will require police officers and official personnel to have special training when it comes to investigating and prosecuting marijuana-related DUIs.

Without any concrete tests for pot, how can officers accurately determine whether erratic driving behavior stems from marijuana use?  According to CHP Drug Enforcement Evaluator Officer Oscar Chavez, there are specific signs to look for that indicate drug induced impairment.  Specially trained to identify drivers impaired by drugs, not just alcohol, Chavez describes several indicators, including red watery eyes, elevated pulse and dilated pupils, officers look for when checking for signs of impairment.  Officers will often request a field sobriety test similar to the one used to detect alcohol impairment to determine whether a driver exhibits signs of impairment.  In addition to the physical symptoms, slow speech, the smell of or presence of marijuana are factors that can result in marijuana DUI charges.

The legalization of marijuana coincides with the implementation of new laws pertaining to alcohol and marijuana in vehicles.  Similar to current law prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in a motor vehicle, as of January 1st, 2018, it will be illegal to smoke or ingest cannabis while driving or riding in a vehicle.  In response to recreational marijuana legalization, Senate Bill No. 94 establishes a single system of administration when it comes to California’s cannabis laws.  This bill appropriates $3 million dollars to California Highway Patrol to train both state and local law enforcement personnel in drug recognition and impairment.  This bill makes it illegal to posses an open container of marijuana or cannabis product while driving.   In preparation of the legalization of recreational marijuana use and in anticipation of increases in marijuana-related DUI incidents, An Impaired Driving Task Force, led by the CHP Commissioner, was created to develop a series of recommendations regarding best practices, protocols, legislation, and policies to address driving under the influence of cannabis and other controlled substances.

Law Enforcement Officials Anticipate Recreational Marijuana Use Will Increase DUID Accidents

The legalization of recreational marijuana use is less than a week away, and California traffic safety officials want drivers to understand that driving under the influence extends to marijuana use not just alcohol. Office of Traffic Safety Director Rhonda Craft wants the public to understand that a “DUI doesn’t just mean booze.” In response to the expected increase in marijuana related DUIs, officials have launched a multimedia campaign aimed at prevented driving while “stoned.” The campaign slogan conveys a very clear message: “Drive high, Get a DUI.” Ambiguity surrounding what constitutes impairment caused by marijuana and the increased effort law enforcement officials plan to exercise targeting drivers under the influence of pot means drivers need to exercise extreme caution to avoid being charged with a DUI.

How High Is Too High To Drive?

Concerns regarding driving under the influence of marijuana largely stem from the inability to accurately measure the level of THC affecting an individual at a given time.  A breathalyzer allows officers to measure a person’s blood alcohol content at a specific time, and it is widely accepted that at a certain level (.08%), a person will most likely experience a certain level of impairment.  With marijuana intoxication, it more difficult to measure impairment.

It is important to understand why Marijuana DUI cases are scientifically difficult to prove; the federal government presently understands.  For example, NHTSA in 2017 reported to Congress on Marijuana impaired driving:  “While the presence of THC in a driver (blood, oral fluid, etc.) does not establish impairment, it also does not distinguish been active use of marijuana and environmental exposure or contamination. Some studies have shown that people exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke can test positive for THC (Cone, et al, 2015; Moore et al, 2006).”

With tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, impairment doesn’t correlate as closely as it does with alcohol.  THC dissolves in a person’s fat, so the amount in person’s bloodstream at a given time doesn’t accurately correspond with intoxication.  This, among other factors, makes it difficult to pinpoint a specific level where most people would experience a similar level of impairment.  For example, because THC is fat soluble, frequent marijuana users will likely have higher levels of THC that can remain in their bloodstream for days or weeks after their last use. Method of ingestion also impacts a person’s THC level.  Consuming edibles, or food that contains pot can cause severe impairment without being present in a person’s bloodstream.  Different pot strains affect the body differently causing different forms of impairment.  These variables make it difficult for officials to identify a universally accepted determination of how high is too high.  Some states such as Washington and Colorado have tried to set a limit.  Both states limit the amount of THC in a person’s bloodstream to 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood, but in reality, 5  nanograms per milliliter of blood can mean very different things to different people.  Partly because of the reasons discussed, California has not adopted this method.  Instead, California law merely states that a person driving “under the influence” of marijuana or other drugs can be charged with a DUI. The subjective nature of this law gives law enforcement huge discretionary power when it comes to deciding whether to charge someone driving under the influence of marijuana with a DUI.

Tips to Avoid a Marijuana Related DUI

The most obvious tip- don’t get behind the wheel after smoking or ingesting any amount of pot- is the only bulletproof method to avoid a DUI.  However, there are other precautions you can take to reduce your risk.

Don’t Get Pulled Over For an Unrelated Traffic Violation

Avoid behaviors that will surly grab the attention of law enforcement.  For example, always wear your seatbelt, avoid texting or using your cell phone, abide by basic traffic laws- use turn signals, adhere to the speed limit, don’t weave in and out of traffic.  Next, inspect your vehicle before driving.  Make sure your turn signals work, check to make sure that you don’t have a missing headlight or taillight, don’t drive without valid registration. Do not display cannabis-friendly bumper stickers, and make sure you do not smell like weed when you drive.  Simply being aware of your vehicle’s condition, following basic traffic laws and using common sense can help reduce your likelihood of getting pulled over for an unrelated offense that then raises concern as to whether you’re driving under the influence of marijuana.

If You Do Get Pulled Over, Don’t Panic. Be Polite. Be Prepared.

In the event that you do get pulled over, stay calm and have required documents easily accessible.  For example, before driving make sure you have your driver’s license, insurance information, and registration card easily accessible, so you can quickly and easily provide it to the officer.  Be polite but don’t provide additional or unnecessary information that may raise the officer’s concern.  If you’re travelling with pot, make sure it is sealed and securely stored in the trunk.  If your vehicle doesn’t have a trunk, make sure it is sealed and not within reach of the driver.

What To Do If Charged With a Marijuana DUI?

In response to the legalization of recreational marijuana use, law enforcement officials pledge to increase their efforts to detect and prosecute motorists impaired by marijuana.  Despite the “Drive High Get A DUI” signs displayed throughout California and San Diego County, drivers must understand that marijuana DUI charges do not necessarily need to result in a conviction. If you are charged with a Marijuana DUI, the first step is to hire a knowledgeable and experienced DUI attorney.  Due to the widespread reliance on officer discretion when determining whether someone is impaired and without a concrete and reliable standard to measure impairment, in many instances, marijuana DUI convictions will be determined on a case by case basis.   An aggressive DUI attorney will consider all the facts leading up to your arrest and examine all the case details to develop the most effective defense strategy possible.  A marijuana DUI conviction hinges on the San Diego DUI prosecutor’s ability to show that the driver was unable “to drive with the caution characteristic of a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.”  The marijuana DUI rests on a standard that is characteristically vague and ambiguous allowing for several possible defense strategies.  A skilled DUI attorney will be able to identify the most appropriate defense that may result in a reduction or even a dismissal of the charges.


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