As more and more states legalize marijuana, the question on many minds has changed from “Is marijuana legal in my state?” to “What kind of trouble can I get in if I drive while high?”
Under the influence, or impaired = illegal
“Under the influence” doesn’t refer only to alcohol. Cannabis can be just as problematic for a driver who’s been pulled over by authorities. In every state – even those that have legalized recreational marijuana – driving high is illegal.
Phoenix attorney Marc Lamber, an attorney at Fennemore Craig, reinforces the message that driving while impaired is illegal, no matter what the intoxicant. “As an example, in Arizona, it is unlawful for a person to drive while under the influence of a drug if he is impaired to the slightest degree.” And, he adds, if the driver is impaired, it doesn’t matter whether the pot was prescribed by a medical provider. “The distinction between lawful and unlawful use of the drug will not matter if the driver is impaired to the slightest degree.”
There is no breathalyzer for marijuana
Law enforcement has not yet developed a method for determining whether a driver has been impaired by toking. Serge Chistov, the financial partner of Honest Marijuana Company, says that currently there is no scientific field test to determine whether a driver is high on pot.
“All of the tests are a combination of subjective behavioral analysis (recite your ABCs) and physical requirements (balance on one foot for 15 seconds),” says Chistov. “The only numerical measure of impairment requires a blood test, and even that is not an accurate measure of impairment for all individuals.”
States like Colorado have arbitrarily set 5 nanograms as the cutoff for blood levels of THC [the psychoactive agent in marijuana], but blood tests for marijuana intoxication are subject to misinterpretation. “Unlike the situation with alcohol, it is difficult to determine whether someone is impaired if they have cannabis or its metabolites measured in their blood,” says Lamber. “The reason is that cannabis, in contrast to alcohol, remains in the bloodstream much longer after use and after the effects of the drug have worn off.”
The penalty for driving while high
Penalties for driving under influence – regardless of the substance consumed – vary from state to state, are subject to the judge’s discretion, and typically involve some combination of jail time, fines, or public service.
“The real kicker comes if you are charged in a state where marijuana is still illegal,” cautions Chistov. “Not only will you be charged with DUI, DWI, or DWAI, [driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated, or driving while ability impaired, respectively]
Penalties for possession are much more serious than those for impaired driving. In Kentucky, for example, first-time offenders can receive two to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 for possession.
Make good decisions
“We generally recommend that you wait at least three hours before driving a car after having a toke,” says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “This is the best way to ensure that most of the THC has dissipated in your system.”
The cop who pulls you over might not be able to tell whether or not you’re high, but you should know if you’ve become impaired by marijuana use. “It’s never okay to operate a motor vehicle of any kind if your ability to do so is impaired,” says Chistov. “It puts your life and the lives of other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians at risk. Don’t do it.”