A new California bill could see drivers under the age of 21 lose their driver’s license for a year if they are caught behind the wheel with marijuana in their system.
State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who has been behind several DUI-related bills, proposed the law so that the state would have the same “zero tolerance” policy for marijuana as it does for alcohol when the driver is under the age of 21.
California’s current “zero tolerance” law, under Vehicle Code section 23136, prohibits drivers under the age of 21 from having any alcohol in their systems. If a driver under the age of 21 tests positive for any alcohol in their system, their driver’s license will be suspended for one year through the DMV, but the matter is not considered criminal. Drivers under the age of 21 who have a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or higher, however, can be charged with Vehicle Code section 23140 which is an infraction with a $100 fine, a possible alcohol education class, and the one-year suspension through the DMV. Lastly, a driver under the age of 21 can also be charged with the standard DUI charges under Vehicle Code section 23152 that adults face when they are driving under the influence.
“This bill will save lives by making it illegal for drivers under age 21 to drive under the influence of marijuana, just like current law for alcohol,” Hill said in a statement.
It should be made clear, notwithstanding Hill’s statement, that the law would target the presence of marijuana in the driver’s system, not whether the underage driver was “under the influence” of marijuana.
Currently, there is no reliable way to determine exactly how intoxicated or under the influence someone is as a result of marijuana ingestion even though the psychoactive component of marijuana (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or “THC”) might be present in a person system. A person could have smoked marijuana weeks ago and, while the intoxicating effects have long since passed, the THC may still be detectable in the person’s blood.
Hill foresees law enforcement officers being able to use oral swabs to determine if marijuana has been consumed recently. Although, local law enforcement has experimented with such devices recently, the LA Times reported that no such product has yet been approved for use by California law enforcement agencies.
“We don’t have a device in the field to measure impairment of cannabis,” Richard Desmond, an assistant chief for the California Highway Patrol, told legislators this week.
“[The bill] will do nothing to make the roads safer, nor to reduce youth drug abuse,” Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), told the San Francisco Chronicle. “What it will do is encourage cops to conduct random screenings of young drivers without any evidence of dangerous driving and grab their licenses for no good reason.”
Although the proposed law requires that law enforcement have reasonable suspicion that the driver might have marijuana in their system before they forcibly test them, I would not put it past some (maybe many) law enforcement officers to fabricate the reasonable suspicion so that they can conduct random screenings as Gieringer suggests.
Fortunately, the bill provides an exemption for drivers under 21 who use medical marijuana if the officer determines that they are not impaired.