Medical Marijuana Patients Can Now Fight DUI Charges in Arizona

Posted by Jon Ibanez on January 13th, 2017

A recent decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals held that medical marijuana patients who have been arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana can fight the charges by arguing that they were not stoned enough to drive.

In 2013 Nadir Ishak was stopped by Mesa police when they saw his vehicle drift into another lane. The officer who arrested Ishak testified that Ishak admitted to using marijuana that morning and that his eyes were bloodshot and watery.

It was later determined that Ishak had a concentration of 26.9 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of blood.

Ishak was charged with driving while impaired and driving with marijuana in his system. During trial, Ishak wanted to inform the jury that he possessed a state-issued medical marijuana card at the time of his arrest. The trial judge, however, denied his request. The trial judge also determined that Ishak bore the burden of proving that he was not under the influence. Ishak was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Ishak appealed arguing that the denial prevented him from having a fair trial.

The Arizona Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, agreed with Ishak and concluded that the jury should have been made aware that Ishak was medical marijuana user. Additionally, the court also concluded that prosecutors, not defendants, must prove that a medical marijuana license-carrying driver was actually under the influence of the marijuana, not merely driving with the drug in their system.

In 2010, Arizona voters approved the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act which does not absolve stoned drivers from being charged for driving under the influence of marijuana. However, the Act also said that a medical marijuana user cannot automatically considered under the influence of the drug “solely because the presence of metabolites or components of marijuana that appear in insufficient concentration to cause impairment.”

What’s more, the Arizona Supreme Court in 2015 held that medical marijuana users charged with a DUI can argue “that the concentration of marijuana or its impairing metabolite in [his or her body] was insufficient to cause impairment.”

The prosecutor in Ishak’s case argued that the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act requires medical marijuana users who are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence prove through expert testimony that the THC in their system was insufficient to cause impairment. He also argued that it is irrelevant whether Ishak was actually impaired.

What ever happened to the fundamental canon of American criminal jurisprudence, “innocent until proven guilty?” Although I can’t say that it surprises me that a DUI prosecutor would actually argue “guilty until proven innocent.”

Fortunately, however, Arizona Appellate Judge Diane Johnson, who wrote for the majority, disagreed with the prosecutor.

"Nothing in the statute … requires a cardholder to present expert testimony (or precludes a cardholder from offering non-expert testimony) on the question of whether the cardholder was impaired due to THC,'’ wrote Johnson. "And, according to evidence here, there is no scientific consensus about the concentration of THC that generally is sufficient to impair a human being.”

I’m happy to say Judge Johnson got it right.

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