Medical Marijuana Patients Can Now Fight DUI Charges in Arizona

Friday, 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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California Law Attempts to Prevent Marijuana Use While Driving

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

As many of you now know, California passed proposition 64 this past November making recreational marijuana use and possession legal. According to Senator Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, proposition 64 contains a loophole that they intend to close.

Last week, the legislators introduced Senate Bill 65 which will criminalize smoking marijuana while driving. Although Proposition 64 legalized the recreational use and possession of marijuana, it still made it illegal to have an open container of marijuana in a vehicle. Proposition 64 did not, however, address the use of marijuana while driving according to Hill and Low.

If you recall from previous posts, Hill has been known to introduce legislation aimed at preventing drunk driving. Last year he passed a law requiring ignition interlock devices for convicted drunk drivers who wished to reinstate their licenses.

“I have a real passion for solving our impaired driving in California from substance abuse,” Hill said. “I don’t want to go in a positive direction on one end and open up the door for deaths on the other end.”

One complaint that opponents have to Senate Bill 65 is that it also bans consumption of cannabidiol, the component of marijuana which is often used by those suffering from chronic pain or to alleviate the symptoms associated with cancer. Cannabidiol does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the chemical in marijuana that causes impairment.

As I see it, another problem with Senate Bill 65, if passed, is that if a person is arrested for driving while smoking marijuana, they will also inevitably be arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana. While a person may have been caught smoking while driving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “under the influence” of marijuana.

To be under the influence of marijuana, the person’s use of marijuana caused their mental or physical abilities to become impaired such that they can no longer drive a vehicle with the same caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances.

While police can utilize field sobriety tests, if the person agrees, to assess whether motor skills are impaired, there is no way to determine how “high” a person is after smoking marijuana. As I’ve said in many previous posts, this is different from alcohol where these is a correlation between a person’s blood alcohol content and impairment. No such correlation exists with marijuana.

Therefore, if Senate Bill 65 is passed, a person arrested for smoking while driving not only faces misdemeanor charges under that law, but they can also inevitably expect DUI of marijuana charges as well.

You can be sure I’ll be keeping my eyes on the progress of this one.

 

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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.

 

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If Prop 64 Passes, Will We See More Marijuana-DUI Traffic Collisions?

Monday, October 31st, 2016

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how California DUI law could be affected generally should voters pass Proposition 64 this coming November.

If you haven’t read it, here’s the gist:

If Prop. 64 is approved, California would legalize recreational marijuana this November 8th. As the sixth largest economy in the world and an already existing thriving medical marijuana market, it is estimated that the marijuana industry could become a $6 billion industry by 2020.

While THC is the psychoactive component of marijuana that is detected in cases of DUI of marijuana, there is no way to determine how impaired someone is regardless of how much THC is in their system Unlike alcohol, there is not an established correlation between THC and impairment. As a result, a number of companies are racing to create a roadside test to determine impairment of marijuana rather than just presence of THC.

If Prop. 64 passes, there are many more questions that need answering. One of these questions is whether we will see more marijuana-DUI traffic collisions.

The Los Angeles Times consulted with Beau Kilmer, senior researcher at RAND Corp. specializing in drug policy and co-author of the book “Marijuana Legalization” to ask the very same question.

The Los Angeles Times made mention of the fact that AAA announced last week that it was opposing efforts to legalize marijuana in California and Maine citing statistics showing an increase in marijuana related fatal collisions in Washington, a recreational marijuana state. While AAA opposed Prop. 64, it also conceded, “While the data analyzed for the study did not include enough information to determine which driver was at fault in a given crash.”

To this Kilmer responded, “The bulk of the research suggests that driving drunk is worse than driving stoned, but driving stoned is worse than driving sober. The research suggests that when people are under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol, it does increase the probability of getting into a crash.”

But, he added, “If you are going to be objective about this and you really want to know how marijuana legalization is going to affect traffic safety, you don’t just look at the number of people in crashes who are testing positive for THC. You want to look at total crashes and total accidents. It might be the case that yeah, more people are driving stoned, but some of them are now less likely to drive drunk.”

Kilmer added that the studies are not definitive.

Kilmer’s statements are correct in that, if we are to be objective about this, we can’t just look at AAA’s cited statistic. Just because a person has THC in their system at the time of a collision does not mean that the person is driving under the influence. What’s more, it may be that the amount DUI of alcohol related collisions have reduced since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington.

 

 

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Marijuana Legalization and the California DUI

Monday, September 5th, 2016

It would not be a surprise to many if California was the next state to legalize recreational marijuana with Proposition 64. If approved, California would follow the heels of Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and the District of Columbia. California is among five states to vote on the legalization of recreational marijuana this November 8th. As the sixth largest economy in the world and an already existing thriving medical marijuana market, it is estimated that the marijuana industry could become a $6 billion industry by 2020.

In 2010, voters failed to pass Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana, by a 53.5% majority of vote. So do California voters have the same sentiment six years later? Current polls show support for the passing of Proposition 64 by 60% or more, making it the initiative most likely to pass on the ballot.

Since Proposition 64 is likely to pass, it would be appropriate to discuss how it might affect California DUIs and California DUI law.

California Vehicle Code section 23152(e) makes it illegal to drive a vehicle while under the influence of drugs including marijuana. Unlike California’s DUI of alcohol law, there is no legal limit for marijuana, or more specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the psychoactive component of marijuana. Therefore, a person can only be arrested and convicted of a marijuana DUI if the ingestion of marijuana impairs a person’s ability to drive a vehicle as a sober person would under similar circumstances.

To prove that a person is driving under the influence of marijuana, a prosecutor can use officer observations of driving patterns, observations during the traffic stop, performance on field sobriety tests, and the presence of THC in any blood test done.

Since “under the influence” is an extremely subjective standard, it is often very difficult to prosecute DUI of marijuana cases. This is especially true if the driver refused to perform the field sobriety tests and/or the officer did not observe driving that would be indicative of someone who is under the influence of marijuana.

If proposition 64 is passed, law makers could seek some sort of per se limit for how much THC can be in a person’s blood while driving. Several states have set a per se limit of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Colorado, has set a five nanogram per milliliter of blood limit to allow for the presumption that a person is “under the influence.” Unfortunately, current per se limits for THC, however, are an inaccurate measure of how impaired a person is.

Unlike alcohol, THC is fat soluble and remains in a user’s system long after they have ingested the marijuana, sometimes by several weeks. This creates the possibility of being arrested with five nanograms of THC in the system weeks after a person has smoked marijuana and well after the “high” is gone. Yet, because the THC is present, a person can either be arrested or, in Colorado, presumed to be under the influence.

In June of last year, Cannabix Technologies Inc., a Vancouver based company announced the testing of a prototype marijuana breathalyzer. The company says that the breathalyzer will be able to test whether a person has ingested alcohol within the past two hours. Although the machine will not test for a quantitative amount of THC, it will provide a timeframe for marijuana usage, which is a better indicator of impairment that nanograms of THC in a person’s blood.

In April of this year, the California state legislature awarded UCSD’s cannabis research center $1.8 million to study THC impairment and develop an accurate roadside test for marijuana impairment.

While an accurate test for marijuana impairment may be in the offing, nothing yet exists to provide lawmakers with the ability to create an accurate per se level. Until that happens, which may be before pot shops open up in January of 2018 if Proposition 64 is passed, law enforcement and prosecutors will have to continue to rely on California’s flimsy standard of “under the influence.”

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