San Diego Begins Using Mouth Swabs to Detect Drugged Drivers

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

I’ve been writing for some time now that roadside drug tests for suspected DUI of drugs stops are not far off. The increase in drug usage and the growing acceptance of marijuana has law enforcement agencies and law makers clamoring for a device that can quickly and accurately test whether drivers are under the influence of drugs. While current devices are not quite yet capable of telling law enforcement how intoxicated a driver might be, they can say whether a driver has drugs in their system. And San Diego became the latest city to use such devices roadside.

Last week, San Diego police began using roadside oral swabs to test drivers for the presence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, methadone, opiates, and benzodiazepines. The oral swabs cannot, however, test the amount of drugs in the driver’s system nor can it test for the driver’s level of intoxication.

The inability to test for quantity of drug or intoxication is legally important because, under California law, a person can only be arrested, charged, and convicted of a California DUI if they are “under the influence of a drug.” This means that a person’s physical or mental disabilities are impaired to such a degree that they no longer have the ability to drive with the caution characteristic or a sober person of ordinary prudence under the same or similar circumstances.

With the swab test only able to indicate the presence of one of the drugs listed above, a prosecutor must still prove that a person was not driving with the care of that of a sober person. This is done with officer testimony of poor driving patterns, failure of field sobriety tests, and visual symptoms of drug impairment.

Although many, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, often forget, the mere presence of drugs in a driver’s system does not necessarily mean that they are driving under the influence. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component in marijuana, for example, can stay in a person’s system for up to several weeks after the smoking or ingestion of marijuana. While, the THC may still be present, the person may no longer be “under the influence.”

San Diego began using the oral swab test, called Dräger 5000, after officials met with authorities in Colorado which legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.

Under San Diego protocol, law enforcement will only request the oral swab after they suspect that the driver might be under the influence of a drug. And before that, the officer must have probable cause to even stop the driver in the first place.

Like the preliminary screening alcohol test (PAS) test in DUI of alcohol cases, the oral swab test is also optional. And like the PAS test, it is never suggested that a driver voluntarily submit to the test. Never give law enforcement and prosecutors any more information than they already have.

Only after a person is arrested must they submit to a chemical test and if law enforcement suspects that a person was driving under the influence of a drug, they’ll have to take a blood test.

According to a study by the California Office of Traffic Safety, 38 percent of drivers killed in vehicle collisions during 2014 tested positive for either legal or illegal drugs. This is up six percent from 2013. While this may seem like a high number, testing positive does not necessarily mean that those drivers were actually under the influence and impaired by a drug.

Although drugged driving is and will always be a problem, we can’t continue to arrest people for driving for the mere presence of drugs in their system because presence does not mean impairment.

 

Share

California Lawmakers Seek to Create Drugged Driving Task Force

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

With the legalization of recreational marijuana in California, lawmakers are pushing efforts to pass new legislation regarding marijuana, particularly when it comes driving after marijuana use. Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), who is no stranger to introducing anti-DUI laws in California, has introduced a bill that would create a drugged driving taskforce under the supervision of the Commissioner of the California Highway Patrol.

“The bill, AB-6, is a reasonable approach forward to address our fight against drugged driving,” Lackey told the Los Angeles Times. “The urgency of this should be very clear to all of us.”

The bill, which was proposed by the California Police Chiefs Association and introduced by Lackey, if approved, would add a completely new section to the current California Vehicle Code.

The Legislative Counsel’s Digest for the bill says the following:

“This bill would require the commissioner to appoint, and serve as the chair of, a drugged driving task force, with specified membership, to develop recommendations for best practices, protocols, proposed legislation, and other policies that will address the issue of driving under the influence of drugs, including prescription drugs. The bill would also require the task force to examine the use of technology, including field testing technologies, to identify drivers under the influence of drugs, and would authorize the task force to conduct pilot programs using those technologies. The bill would require the task force to report to the Legislature its policy recommendations and the steps that state agencies are taking regarding drugged driving.”

The task force would include representatives from local law enforcement, prosecutors, various representatives from the marijuana industry, representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, representatives from the Office of Traffic Safety, representatives from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, and licensed physicians.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee unanimously recommended the bill after a hearing in which Karen Smith, a teacher from Antelope Valley, provided emotional testimony about how her husband had been killed a driver who was under the influence of marijuana.

“He was just 56 years old. We had been married for 34 years,” said Smith. “It was all wiped out in just one second by a person who chose to drive under the influence of THC.”

There’s no question that marijuana affects driving ability. Exactly how and to what degree, is up for debate. What is certain however, is that there is a very important difference between being under the influence of marijuana and having THC in your system, and the task force, if AB-6 passes, had better understand the difference.

It is well known that the "per se" limit for how much alcohol can be in a person’s system is 0.08 percent blood alcohol content. With alcohol, there is a fairly strong correlation between blood alcohol content and intoxication. In other words, there is a high probability that a person with a 0.08 blood alcohol content is feeling the effects of alcohol intoxication such that they cannot operate a vehicle as a reasonable and sober person would.

The same cannot be said about the intoxicating effects of marijuana use and the amount of THC in a person’s blood. Unlike alcohol, THC is fat soluble which means that it leaves the body at a much slower rate. In fact, chronic users of marijuana can have THC in their blood weeks after use. Therefore, someone who has smoked marijuana three weeks ago can still be arrested in states with a "per se" THC limit even though they are no longer under the influence of marijuana and perfectly sober.

Share

New Efforts to Push Roadside Marijuana DUI Test

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

In April of 2015 I wrote about Assembly Bill 1356, written by Assemblyman Tom Lackey from Palmdale, California, which would have allowed law enforcement to use a device similar to a breathalyzer that could detect the presence of marijuana and a number of other drugs in a driver’s system.

That bill however, failed to pass the Assembly Public Safety Committee the following May because of reliability concerns.

However, with the passing of Proposition 64 which allowed the use of recreational marijuana in California, Lackey who is a former sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, has introduced a new bill similar to that of the failed AB1356.

The newly proposed Assembly Bill 6 would allow tests using saliva samples taken from drivers suspected of driving under the influence. The test would let the officer know whether a driver has recently used a number of drugs including marijuana.

“The ballot initiative passed this year to legalize marijuana will result in more marijuana consumers on our state’s highways and roads,” Lackey said in a statement. “It is imperative that we invest in a broad spectrum of technologies and research to best identify marijuana-impaired drivers.”

The measure is supported by Chief Ken Corney, president of the California Police Chiefs Assn.

“Our federal partners have demonstrated the efficacy of oral fluid testing, and we look forward to utilizing the technology at a state level,” Corney said in a statement.

While the current devices referred to by Corney tests for the presence of drugs, it does not test for drug  quantity nor impairment of the driver.

There is an established correlation between blood alcohol content, specifically the legal limit of 0.08 percent, and alcohol impairment. Unlike alcohol, however, there is no such correlation between the presence of drugs and impairment. In other words, a person can have traces of drug in their system without being impaired by that drug.

Marijuana, for example, can stay in a person’s system for weeks following the smoking or ingesting of the marijuana and well after the person was intoxicated or stoned. The purpose of DUI laws is to prevent impaired driving, not to punish sober and unintoxicated people merely because they ingested drugs at some point in the past.

It is unclear how the presence of a drug may affect the subsequent arrest or DUI case since presence doesn’t necessarily mean impairment. Until we can establish a correlation with drugs including marijuana like we have with alcohol, namely the correlation between quantity and impairment, we shouldn’t be using pushing for laws like this.

Assembly Bill 6 will be brought up for a vote early next year.

 

Share

California DWI – Driving While Addicted

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Believe it or not, it is a crime in California to drive while being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Lesser known California Vehicle Code section 23152(c) provides: “It is unlawful for any person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

You may be asking yourself the same thing I did when I first read it. Huh?

The “huh?” was the reactionary expression of two other questions: What’s the purpose? And who is an addict?

In the 1965 case of People v. O’Neil, the California Supreme Court addressed both of these issues by looking at the legislative intent of 23152(c). The court determined that “when an individual has reached the point that his body reacts physically to the termination of drug administration, he has become ‘addicted’ within the meaning and purpose of [23152(c)]. Although physical dependency or the abstinence syndrome is but one of the characteristics of addiction, it is of crucial import in light of the purpose of [23152(c)] since it renders the individual a potential danger on the highway.”

While the court focused on the theory that an addict going through withdrawals can pose a risk to the roads, it said that a person need not be going through withdrawals to be arrested, charged, and convicted of California’s driving while addicted law.

“The prosecution need not prove that the individual was actually in a state of withdrawal while driving the vehicle. The prosecution’s burden is to show (1) that the defendant has become ‘emotionally dependent’ on the drug in the sense that he experiences a compulsive need to continue its use, (2) that he has developed a ‘tolerance’ to its effects and hence requires larger and more potent doses, and (3) that he has become ‘physically dependent’ so as to suffer withdrawal symptoms if he is deprived of his dosage.”

So let’s get this straight. You can be charged with a crime if you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol even if you’re not intoxicated or you’re not going through withdrawals. So then that begs the question: What’s the point?

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court has yet to answer that question.

Fortunately, however, the law does not apply to those who are participating in a narcotic treatment program.

Well it’s nice to know that the law only protects those who are receiving treatment for their disease, but not those who aren’t.

Share

Does Presence of Marijuana in Blood Constitute Drunk Driving?

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

It is, of course, against the law to driver under the influence of marijuana (sometimes called "stoned driving"). In most cases, a blood sample will be drawn and analyzed to provide evidence of impariment. And as I've discussed in previous posts, there are nearly insurmountable problems law enforcement and prosecutors have with this.  See, for example, Identifying and Proving DUI Marijuana ("Stoned Driving"), Driving + Traces of Marijuana = DUI, How Accurate is Detection and Evidence of Drugged Driving? and DUI Marijuana: Does Marijuana Impair Driving?     

Quite simply, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to prove that the presence of given levels of marijuana in the blood proves that the suspect was impaired when driving.  First, there is very little agreement on how much marijuana it takes to impair a driver's physical and mental faculties.  Second, it is difficult to determine from blood tests what the active levels were at the time of driving. It is a scientific fact that inactive metabolites of marijuana remain in the bloodstream for weeks.  

But, of course, there is a simple solution — similar to one created a few years ago which made it easier to convict citizens accused of driving while under the influence of alcohol.  Fqced with difficulties in proving alcohol impairment, the various states simply passed so-called "per se" laws — laws which made having .08% of alcohol in the blood while driving a crime.  Impairment was no longer an issue to be proven; the crime was simply having the alcohol in your blood.  And the conviction rates increased dramatically.  

Today, a similar approach is being used by a growing number of states:  making the mere presence of marijuana in the blood while driving a crime — regardless of whether it had any effect.

Some courts, however, are beginning to have concerns about this "per se" approach:


Presence of THC Metabolite in Blood Does Not Prove Impaired Driving , Arizona Supreme Court Finds

Phoenix, AZ  – Arizonans who smoke marijuana can’t be charged with driving while impaired absent actual evidence they are affected by the drug, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The justices rejected arguments by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that a motorist whose blood contains a slight amount of a certain metabolite of marijuana can be presumed to be driving illegally because he or she is impaired, saying medical evidence shows that’s not the case.

The ruling most immediately affects the 40,000-plus Arizonans who are legal medical marijuana users. It means they will not be effectively banned from driving, given how long the metabolite, carboxy-THC, remains in the blood.

It also provides legal protection against impaired-driving charges for anyone else who drives and has used marijuana in the last 30 days — legal or otherwise — as well as provides a shield for those who might be visiting from Washington or Colorado, where recreational use of the drug is legal.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said Tuesday’s ruling will result in roads that are less safe. He said if courts will not accept carboxy-THC readings as evidence of impairment, then there is no way of knowing who is really “high” and who is not…


A breath of fresh air in the ongoing hysteria of MADD's "War on Drunk Driving"…
 

Share