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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Drugged Driving Has No Definition, but It's Definitely Illegal

Posted By on Thu, Dec 20, 2012 at 8:32 AM

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  • I feel fine

A few weeks ago, the Santa Cruz Sentinel ran a story in which the California Highway Patrol warned of a creeping trend: drugged driving.

Marijuana was present in several fatal automobile crashes in the mountainous coastal county, the CHP said, and warned that while there's a prevailing sentiment that it's okay to drive after a few puffs, "DUI for marijuana is the same as alcohol."

Which it is -- and isn't.

There's a scientific standard for alcohol sobriety in California. But unlike in Colorado and Washington, there's no such quantifiable "driving while stoned"

standard here. This means no more than "expert opinion" decides a

potential felony charge -- something to keep in mind while on the way

home from the smoking lounge.

Despite the ad campaign warning that buzzed driving is drunk driving, it is perfectly legal -- if not perfectly safe -- to drive with a slight swerve on. California's standard for sobriety is a blood-alcohol content under 0.08 percent. Anything more, and a driver can be arrested for driving under the influence.

Influence includes more than alcohol. The criminal statute in question prohibits driving under the influence of any drug, CHP Sgt. Diana McDermott, an agency spokeswoman, reminds us.

Cannabis users in Colorado and Washington are similarly allowed to drive after baking, but are breaking the law if they have a THC content of 5 or more nanograms per milliliter of blood (there's a contention that that is a very small amount of marijuana, and one that would be present long after the psychoactive effects have worn off, but that's a separate issue).

Here in California, it's up to the arresting officer to decide if a driver is too stoned, McDermott says. "We look for the signs of consumption," such as red, watery eyes, slurred speech, "green tongue, leafy particulate matter around the lips," and the tell-all "burnt odor of marijuana," before making an arrest, she says.

Here's where it gets a tad subjective: After a stoned driver is arrested, a "drug recognition evaluator" is called in. The DRE takes readings like pulse and temperature, and then judges reaction times to determine intoxication. This evaluation is used by the local District Attorney's Office to decide whether charges should be filed -- and is also used as testimony in any subsequent trials.

There's no quantifiable standard or "safe area" for marijuana intoxication in San Francisco, according to Alex Bastian, spokesman for the DA's Office. Here, a toxicology expert at the Medical Examiner's Office makes a determination similar to the CHP's DRE.

And medical-cannabis laws are no defense. Just as it's illegal to drive loaded on prescription Vicodin or Oxycontin, it's illegal to drive stoned out of one's mind, McDermott said. 

So in other words, there's no strict legal definition of "stoned driving" in California. But law enforcement knows it when they see it -- and it's illegal.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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