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DUI and Marijuana -- A Closer Look at some of the Impacts of Legalization and Driving Safety

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Feb 21, 2016 | 0 Comments

In 2012, fifty-six percent of voters approved ballot Initiative 502, allowing an adult over the age of 21 to possess up to one-ounce of cannabis for their own private, personal use.  Part of the Initiative contained language concerning driving under the influence of marijuana, including “maximum thresholds for THC blood concentration.”  The law took effect on December 6, 2012 -- and since that time, a myriad of court decisions and statutes have come into effect with the goal of regulating “drugged driving.”

Driving under the influence of . . .  Marijuana: Drugged Driving in Washington State

In the state of Washington, a person is deemed guilty of driving under the influence of… marijuana or any drug if the person drives a vehicle within the state, while under the influence of or affected by… marijuana or any drug -- or if the person is under the combined influence of, or affected by, intoxicating liquor, marijuana, and any drug.

Penalties for driving drugged are the same whether or not a person is driving under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs and can include: imprisonment of not less than 1 day, fines of a minimum of $350, license suspension, and the possibility of the installation of an ignition interlock device.  Nevertheless, penalties are subject to increase for subsequent offenses and there are mandatory fees associated with drug testing.

A 1995 case, State v. Wilhelm, found that in order to convict a person of DUI, evidence must be sufficient to prove that the “ability to handle an automobile was lessened in appreciable degree by the consumption of intoxicants or drugs.”  Washington's law now includes a per se drugged driving law enacted specifically for cannabis -- meaning, if you meet the requirements of the law, you are deemed legally intoxicated.  If a motorist is found within two hours after driving to have detectable levels of active THC -- the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- in their blood above 5 nanograms per milliliter, they are guilty of driving under the influence.

What Effects have Washington Drivers who use Pot had on Safety?

With cannabis now being legal recreationally for over three years in Washington, many have wondered about the impact of legalization on drugged driving.  The Washington state toxicology lab is the entity that tests blood samples from DUI cases -- and they claim that more samples are testing positive for marijuana with the advent of legalization.  A state toxicology report revealed some intriguing statistics -- in 2009, 18.2 percent of total impaired driving cases tested positive for THC, and in the first four months of 2015, that number increased to 33 percent of all impaired driving cases.  The fact that these statistics are increasing must be considered in light of the fact that these are only drivers who have had their blood tested under the suspicion of DUI -- so we really don't know how many drivers are actually stoned and on the road.

In an Around the Nation report from NPR, Shelly Baldwin of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission noted that in 2014, there was a spike in marijuana-related crashes.  Drivers in fatal accidents had their blood analyzed, revealing that active THC -- the pre-metabolised chemical that indicates recent marijuana use -- was more prevalent.  Furthermore, in the pre-legalization era, about half of fatality blood samples contained active THC.  While post legalization, that metric has increased to 85 percent.

Although the numbers indicate an increased detection of cannabis use in DUI cases, some believe that examining THC levels in blood alone is not enough to form conclusions about a person's level of impairment.  New research suggests that active THC can remain in the body after a “high” has worn off -- particularly in folks who use cannabis heavily.  Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws believes that a greater prevalence of THC in drivers' blood may not correlate with a decrease in traffic safety.  At the end of the day, only time will tell with respect to how the legalization of cannabis affects the number of DUIs and overall traffic safety. Still, the issue of driving under the influence of marijuana is high on the public's awareness due to the novelty of legalized marijuana. As a result, a significant pressure to treat these cases strictly may exist. If you are facing a drugged driving charge, working with an experienced Washington State DUI attorney who understands the potential pressures that comes with a marijuana DUI offense is your best defense.  

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 16 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.

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