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California Drivers Need Greater Clarity on Marijuana DUI ViolationsCalifornia had time to prepare for the legalization of recreational marijuana since voters passed Proposition 64 in November 2016. Even before that, there was legalized use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, California has yet to answer an important question related to recreational marijuana use: How much marijuana must a driver have in their system in order to be legally impaired? Drivers know that the legal limit for alcohol is a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration and approximately how much alcohol they can consume before they reach that limit. California drivers and police officers can only guess how much marijuana is needed to make someone legally impaired, which puts marijuana users at a disadvantage when they are trying to be safe drivers.

Uncertain Answer

To be fair, it is difficult to quantify the point at which marijuana in a person’s body impairs a driver’s function enough to be a violation of DUI laws. The scientific consensus is that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels are the closest equivalent to BAC levels, but THC can linger in a person’s body for weeks after marijuana use, by which point any impairing effects have subsided. Amongst the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only Colorado has created a THC limit. Prosecutors in that state can bring DUI charges against a driver who has five nanograms of active THC in their blood. Still, Colorado says that officers should primarily rely on observational signs of impairment when determining whether to arrest someone for DUI.

Upcoming Studies

California officials have recognized their lack of knowledge about the relationship between marijuana use and impaired driving. California recently enacted a law that authorizes the California Highway Patrol to conduct a study of the effects that marijuana has on driving. The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, is also researching driving under the influence of marijuana. Through controlled tests involving drivers with different levels of THC, researchers hope to understand:

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How Has Legal Marijuana Affected DUI Rates?Since states first started legalizing recreational marijuana use a couple of years ago, there has been a debate as to whether the new laws have caused an increased number of impaired driving incidents in those states. Those who believe it has caused an increase will cite arrest statistics for driving under the influence charges in which the suspects had THC in their systems. Skeptics argue that the testing procedures do not definitively prove when marijuana use is responsible for impaired driving. With the recency of California’s legalization, it may take years to determine how the new law has affected DUI incidents and arrests.

Bay Area Data

The California Highway Patrol suspects that a San Jose man was under the influence of marijuana when he allegedly caused a fatal crash in Fremont in May. The CHP’s Golden Gate Division released statistics of DUI arrests involving marijuana in 2017, which was before the new marijuana law was enacted. According to the statistics:

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Recreational Marijuana Brings California's Subjective DUI Laws to LightThe legalization of recreational marijuana in California has led to increased police attention towards driving under the influence of marijuana. DUI of marijuana has long been a crime, with the same penalties as DUI of alcohol. Police officers are looking for the same signs of driver impairment that accompany both DUI of alcohol and drugs. Even physical symptoms can be similar for alcohol and marijuana users, such as blood-shot eyes and slow reactions. However, California’s DUI laws have not caught up to legalized recreational marijuana. Police officers and prosecutors have less experience handling cases of DUI of marijuana than they do with DUI of alcohol. Yet, California law forces them to be more subjective in determining when to arrest and charge someone with DUI of marijuana. There are several problems with DUI of marijuana laws that affect all states where recreational marijuana use is legal:

  1. No Objective Definition of Being High: With DUI of alcohol charges, the results of blood alcohol concentration tests are legally accepted to help determine when someone is impaired by alcohol. California does not yet have an equivalent test to determine when someone is legally impaired by marijuana. Other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use THC levels as an indicator of impairment. However, states do not agree on what the THC limit should be. There is also continued debate on whether THC levels accurately reflect a driver’s impairment.
  2. More Difficult to Test for THC: There is not a breath test that can determine the level of THC in a driver’s system. Blood and urine tests are considered the only reliable ways to detect the presence and level of drugs in a person’s body. Police officers are not qualified to perform such tests in the field. The suspect will likely be transported to a police station or medical facility for the testing. Thus, the police officer will have come to the subjective conclusion that someone should be arrested for DUI of marijuana before the tests are administered.
  3. Misleading Test Results: Traces of drugs such as marijuana stay in a person’s body longer than alcohol. It can take weeks for all traces of THC to dissolve in a person. A blood or urine test may show levels of THC when a driver is no longer impaired by the substance.

Contesting DUI Charges

Arrests and charges for DUI of marijuana mostly rely on subjective observations of whether a driver seemed high. However, more objective laws could be problematic for drivers if they do not accurately measure whether a driver is impaired. With the uncertainty surrounding DUI of marijuana laws, you need an experienced attorney to represent you. A San Francisco DUI defense attorney at Burglin Law Offices, P.C., can identify ways to contest your DUI charge. To schedule a free consultation, call 415-729-7300.

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