Driving Under the Influence and Prescription Drugs

When it comes to the operation of a motor vehicle while impaired where the sole intoxicant is prescription medication, the waters quickly get murky. 

The opioid epidemic has been a catalyst for several changes to criminal statutes in nearly every state. New laws setting harsh penalties for doctors or pharmacies complicit in running “pill mills,” or individuals with valid prescriptions who turn around and sell their medications for top dollar have become ubiquitous as legislatures seek ways to stem the flow of Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycontin, Fentanyl and several other powerful prescription medications. However, there is one area of criminal law which has grappled unsuccessfully with how to address the usage of these drugs and their potential implications on a person’s actions. When it comes to the operation of a motor vehicle while impaired where the sole intoxicant is prescription medication, the waters quickly get murky. Despite the ability to scientifically identify both the substances and their respective levels in a person’s body, the law remains vague on how to determine whether the prohibition against impaired driving was actually violated.

The obvious question, left completely unanswered by the New York legislature, is how to tell whether a person is impaired by drugs while operating a vehicle. By their very nature, prescription drugs are legal when appropriately taken and are, in many cases, necessary to allow a person to function. Without certain opioid pain medication, muscle relaxers, or mood stabilizers, some individuals have difficulty with everyday activities. But many of these medications have physiological effects, slow down reaction times, dull reflexes and cause fatigue, all of which could negatively influence a person’s ability to reasonably and safely operate a motor vehicle. When, then, can it be said that a person has become impaired by the use of these drugs?

In New York, the statutes that criminalize intoxicated driving are found in the Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL), specifically in §1192. In that section, subsections (1)-(3) very clearly define when a person can be arrested for drunk driving, and how to determine which alcohol-related statute applies. Notably, the law specifically states that when any individual has a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, they are considered intoxicated for the purposes of a criminal prosecution. There is no such delineation or bright-line limit when the charges involve prescription drugs.

To further complicate the issue, some people are afflicted with serious injuries or conditions and require long-term medication simply to get through the day. The body builds up tolerances to medications over time, and consequently there are individuals who require a significantly higher dosage of a drug to get the intended effect. There are also issues when multiple drugs are present in an individual’s system. Prosecutors are not pharmacists, and the pharmacokinetic effects of multiple drug interactions are often complex and difficult to predict. Additionally, many drugs do not present with the visible signs of intoxication that are commonly associated with alcohol use (red watery eyes, slurred speech, unsteady gait, etc.) and drugs emit no discernible odor.

New York Code of Criminal Justice: A Practical Guide is a guide to the criminal statutes in New York. In addition to the full text of the New York Penal Law and Criminal …

Our firm recently tried a case in California where our client, who had been taking prescribed medications, was charged with murder after a horrific motor vehicle accident resulted in the fatality of a young girl. The trial revolved around the issue of impairment as California, similar to New York, does not clearly define when an individual is impaired by prescription drugs under the law. Contextual arguments made based on witness observations as well as our client’s statements took center stage after the State’s forensic crime laboratory expert testified that looking solely at the levels of medications in person’s system could never lead to a scientific conclusion regarding impairment. In the absence of a credible expert opinion on the issue of impairment, the jury was left with no scientific standard by which to measure the facts in order to determine whether our client was actually impaired.

The unfortunate truth is that far too often the decision on whether to charge impaired driving when prescription drugs are involved is results-driven. If there is an accident, especially one with serious injuries or a fatality, where the driver has taken prescription medication, the prosecutor is likely to charge driving while impaired. To prove their case at trial, since the medication levels alone do not establish intoxication, prosecutors must also focus on the quality of the defendant’s driving in order to show that there was actual impairment to the ability to operate the vehicle safely. But with no frame of reference, it can be difficult to differentiate between bad driver who simply caused an accident, as opposed to a person whose ability to drive was impaired by drugs to the degree that their driving was a criminal offense. Alternatively, if a serious injury or death does occur, a jury may be looking for an excuse to hold someone accountable, and impairment by prescription drugs presents a convenient explanation for why a traffic collision took place.

Because of the complexities inherent in these specific prosecutions, selection of a toxicology and pharmacology expert is vitally important. Toxicologists perform tests to determine what specific drugs are present and pharmacologists explain the effects of the substances on the body, or how multiple drugs would interact with each other. During a trial for impaired driving based on the use of prescription medication, it is necessary for the defense lawyer to present a clear and consistent alternative theory of the events leading to the arrest, one which explains why the defendant was not impaired, supported by something other than mere speculation. Without another possibility to consider, the jury will credit the prosecutor’s claim that the drugs were overpowering, and that the defendant should have known better than to drive in that condition. Witness observations and statements, photographs and accident reconstructions are integral in crafting a strong defense.

There is no question that DUI cases involving prescription medication are complicated and present a unique set of challenges. But after a thorough review of the evidence in the case, with attention to detail and putting all of the discovery into the appropriate context, top lawyers using credible experts craft strong defenses and use the lack of legislative clarity to their benefit, giving their clients the best chances for success. https://www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/2019/12/31/driving-under-the-influence-and-prescription-drugs/?slreturn=20200004101722

12 Million U.S. Residents Drove Under Influence of Marijuana in 2018

TUESDAY, Dec. 24, 2019 (HealthDay News) — In 2018, 12 million U.S. residents reported driving under the influence of marijuana in the previous 12 months, according to research published in the Dec. 20 issue of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Alejandro Azofeifa, D.D.S., a consultant from Washington, D.C., and colleagues provide the most recent national estimates of self-reported driving under the influence of marijuana and illicit drugs other than marijuana for persons aged ≥16 years using 2018 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The researchers found that during 2018, 12 and 2.3 million U.S. residents (4.7 and 0.9 percent) reported driving under the influence of marijuana and under the influence of illicit drugs other than marijuana, respectively, in the previous 12 months. The prevalence of driving under the influence was increased among men and persons aged 16 to 34 years.

“Impaired driving is a serious public health concern that needs to be addressed to safeguard the health and safety of all who use the road, including drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists,” the authors write. “Collaboration among public health, transportation safety, law enforcement, and federal and state officials is needed for the development, evaluation, and further implementation of strategies to prevent alcohol-, drug-, and polysubstance-impaired driving.” https://www.physiciansweekly.com/12-million-u-s-residents-drove-under-influence-of-marijuana-in-2018/

That last toke for the road could be a downer with pot breathalyzers coming

A Hound Labs marijuana breathalyzer, which the Oakland-based company says can detect minuscule amounts of THC on a user’s breath, lies on top of its base-station in Newark

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – One toke for the road could end up being a total bummer for drivers who smoke pot, with several companies in the United States preparing to market cannabis breathalyzers as legalized marijuana spreads across the country.

Law enforcement agencies will require breathalyzers to detect marijuana as they are “faced with the necessity of stopping more and more motor vehicles being operated under the influence of THC,” said Brett Meade, a retired police chief and a senior program manager for Washington-based non-profit group the Police Foundation.

Nearly a dozen U.S. states allow recreational marijuana consumption and 33 states permit pot for medical use. But all states prohibit driving under the influence of marijuana.

Oakland, California-based Hound Labs is one of the companies developing a breathalyzer to detect THC – the component in marijuana that gets people high – and plans to market it in 2020.

Construction companies could be a big part of its market, said Hound Labs Chief Executive Officer Mike Lynn.

“Nobody wants a crane operator 50 stories up to be smoking a joint,” he told Reuters.

Lynn, a physician, said pregnancy tests, which can detect minute quantities of hormone, inspired him to tackle the challenge of measuring THC on users’ breath.

Separately, Cannabix Technologies Inc based in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby is testing a pair of devices at different price points.

Its THC Breath Analyzer could be cheap enough at a few hundred dollars per unit to potentially allow parents interested in testing their teenager before turning over the keys to the family car, said Cannabix CEO Rav Mlait.

The U.S. court system would need to consider how to treat evidence from THC breathalyzers.

Assuming a motorist who tested positive with a THC breathalyzer was impaired behind the wheel could be “problematic,” said Stanford University law professor Robert MacCoun.

Unlike with alcohol, scientific research has not yet established firm correlations between the amount of marijuana people consume and how impaired they become, MacCoun said in an email.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, expressed similar concerns.

But he welcomed breathalyzers as an improvement over existing tests used by police and employers, such as urine analysis that is unable to determine whether marijuana was used recently with the potential for impairment, or days or weeks in the past. Breathalyzers are likely to only detect a user who consumed cannabis within the last few hours.

“A test like that would frankly make sense,” Armentano said. “Just like we wouldn’t allow employees to have a couple drinks and show up to work.”

Police say people who smoke weed have ‘green tongues,’ though there’s no scientific evidence

Police say people who smoke weed have ‘green tongues,’ though there’s no scientific evidence

YORK, Pa. – In the early morning hours of May 2, 2018, Amanda Guimond was driving through York County when the red and blue flashing lights came on. She was going more than 15 mph over the speed limit.

The Northern York County regional police officer smelled marijuana coming from inside her vehicle. Guimond, he wrote in an affidavit of probable cause, had glassy, bloodshot eyes, lethargic speech and a dazed and confused appearance.

The police officer requested that Guimond stick out her tongue and noticed there was a “green film” on it.

Guimond was arrested on DUI charges after failing standardized field sobriety tests. She said she hadn’t smoked in about four hours. More than one year later, she said she’s still bothered about the allegations concerning her tongue.

“Not once has my tongue ever changed to green,” said Guimond, 20, a cook and manager who’s a medical marijuana patient and lives in Frederick, Maryland. “I was extremely shocked. I was very angry.”

Police officers have alleged in some DUI cases that people who recently smoked marijuana had green tongues. There’s no scientific evidence that police cited that shows marijuana causes someone’s tongue to turn green.
Police officers have alleged in some DUI cases that people who recently smoked marijuana had green tongues. There’s no scientific evidence that police cited that shows marijuana causes someone’s tongue to turn green.

Police officers across the USA alleged in some DUI cases that people who recently smoked marijuana had green tongues. Law enforcement is told to look for a “possible green coating” in one specialized training program that’s taught all over the world.

Police point to no scientific studies that show marijuana causes someone’s tongue to turn green.

“If someone is going to be convicted, it should be based on facts proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Bradley Myerson, a defense attorney in Vermont. “Green tongue has nothing to do with marijuana ingestion, let alone impairment.”

‘As sound as the science behind the earth being flat or that lying makes your nose grow’

The York Daily Record/Sunday News analyzed more than 1,300 DUI cases that reached the York County Court of Common Pleas in 2018 and found at least 28 that mentioned phrases such as “green coating,” “green film” and “green tint.” https://news.yahoo.com/police-people-smoke-weed-green-152508019.html

Nurse, 22, caught behind the wheel while more than 29 times the ketamine limit

Emily Roebuck, of Stockport, Greater Manchester, was caught drug driving three times in less than three months


Emily Roebuck was caught drug-driving three times in less than ten weeks (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

Get the biggest Daily News stories by emailSubscribeWe will use your email address only for the purpose of sending you newsletters. Please see ourPrivacy Noticefor details of your data protection rights

A trainee dental nurse who drove after taking more than 29 times the ketamine limit has been banned from the roads.

Emily Roebuck took the sedative before getting behind the wheel of her Peugeot 107.

After police pulled her over in Manchester city centre in January, tests showed ketamine levels in her blood were more than 29 times the limit for the driving on the drug.

Roebuck, from leafy Bramhall in Stockport, was arrested for a second time just five weeks later in Stockport after a passer-by found her slumped in the driver’s seat.

They moved her into the passenger seat, fearing she would drive off.  

While police were investigating those incidents, Roebuck ploughed her Peugeot into the back of a car.

The 22-year-old woman had taken the anaesthesia drug ketamine (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

She had been trying to read Google Maps on her phone.

Roebuck drove away as police travelled to the scene, but she crashed into two other vehicles.

A Mercedes A200, a Seat Ibiza and a VW High Up were damaged in the incident near her former home in Hayfield, Derbyshire.

Tests showed she was more than four times the drug drive limit for ketamaine and almost twice the limit for the painkiller diazapam.  

Roebuck admitted two charges of drug driving; possessing diazepam; and failing to stop after an accident at Stockport Magistrates’ Court.

She was banned from the road for three years.

Roebuck, of Stockport, has dodged jail for the offences (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

Roebuck was disqualified for 22 months for the first drug driving offence at a hearing in June.

She has to get two buses to work.

The court heard the three incidents happened between January 23 and April 2 after Roebuck obtained the drugs while battling anxiety and depression.

On the first occasion, she was stopped on Ducie Street in Manchester city centre.

Tests showed ketamine levels in her blood of 591 microgrammes per litre of blood. The driving limit for ketamine is 20 microgrammes per litre of blood.

Roebuck was released under investigation, before being caught at the wheel of her car in Cheadle, Stockport, at 9.15pm on March 2 while under the influence of drugs.

The defendant now has to get two buses to work (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

Victoria Newman, prosecuting, said: “Police were called initially to reports of a drunk driver slumped at the wheel of a Peugeot 107.

“A member of the public had moved the female over to the passenger side as feared her driving away.  

“The police noticed the defendant was drowsy and under the influence of some substance her eyes being glazed and slurring her words.

“She was asked to take a seat in the police van, but needed assistance of police to get over there.

“She was found to have a packet of blue tablets, which she admitted were diazepam.

“She said they were not prescribed to her, but that she just buys them and had taken one before driving.” 

The last offence happened on April 2, when police stopped Roebuck at 10.20pm in New Mills, Derbyshire, just outside Stockport.

Roebuck admitted two charges of drug driving; possessing diazepam; and failing to stop after an accident (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

Ms Newman added: “The witness said she was stationary in her car and waiting for traffic to pass, when her vehicle was struck from behind by the defendants car.

“It was hit with enough force to set off both of the airbags.  

“The witness got out of her vehicle and told the defendant not to move whilst she called 999.

“The witness was asking if she was okay, but the defendant then left the scene before the police arrived.

“She then came to a stop after colliding with another two vehicles and police and ambulance attended the scene.

“She was arrested on suspicion in possession of a controlled substance and it was confirmation that ketamine was in her system.”

Tests showed levels of ketamine and diazepam in Roebuck’s blood were 86 microgrammes per litre of blood and 800 microgrammes per litre of blood respectively.

The driving limit for diazapam is 500 microgrammes per litre of blood.

In mitigation, defence lawyer Steve McHugh said: ”I don’t think it’s been my clients finest three months in her life.

“But she has cooperated throughout and entered guilty pleas at the first opportunity.

“It’s unfortunate that all matters could not have been dealt with together, but she is under no illusions as to the serious predicament she’s in.  

“Since this happened, however, she has happily turned her life around and gained employment. 

“She has effectively taken on board all the assistance that could be offered as she suffers from anxiety and depression.

Roebuck had been looking at Google Maps before the incident (Image: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

“The only good news of this particular matter is her timely guilty pleas. There is no more that can be said to salvage the situation.

“She is disappointed in her self and her father is mortified at the position his daughter finds herself in.

“As regards the failure to stop she had been looking at Google Maps and it was a relatively short distance. It was not as serious as it could have been.

“She needs some assistance by the probation service to keep her on the straight and narrow together with the input of her family.

“She has always wanted to put these matters behind her and has been waiting for a few months for forensic examination and court proceedings to be completed, which is nothing to do with her.

“Her current employment involves her taking her two buses in the morning and two buses in the evening.”

Roebuck was ordered to complete a 12-month community order and enroll on a six-month drug rehabilitation course. She must complete 180 hours of unpaid work – and pay costs and surcharges of £170. https://www.smdailyjournal.com/news/local/sheriff-s-sergeant-faces-dui-charge-in-redwood-city/article_ca9a3f68-f607-11e9-8e12-2f48393e126e.html

Marijuana funk no longer probable cause to search people; Maryland appeals court cites Bob Dylan in ruling

Marijuana funk no longer probable cause to search people; Maryland appeals court cites Bob Dylan in ruling
Police officers in Maryland can still search your car if they small marijuana during a traffic stop, the state’s highest court ruled, but they can’t search you unless they find evidence beyond simple possession of the substance. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Citing Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin,” Maryland highest court ruled this week that the smell of marijuana alone is not enough justification for law enforcement to search a person.

The 7-0 Maryland Court of Appeals opinion differentiates between the necessary level of probable cause that law enforcement must obtain to search a vehicle and what it needs to search a person.

Police still can use the smell of marijuana as justification to search a vehicle, the opinion said. But they can’t search anyone in the vehicle unless they find evidence of a crime, not even if police find a small amount of marijuana.[See Also] Maryland’s plan to diversify medical cannabis market attracts 160 applicants for 14 new licenses despite snags »

“The same facts and circumstances that justify a search of an automobile do not necessarily justify an arrest and search incident thereto. This is based on the heightened expectation of privacy one enjoys in his or her person as compared to the diminished expectation of privacy one has in an automobile,” the court wrote.PAID POSTWhat Is This?

The opinion comes five years after the state legislature decriminalized marijuana possession of 10 grams or less. Such small amounts are considered a civil offense, not a criminal offense, and can result in a citation that carries a $100 fine.

The ruling is a sign of the changing landscape for marijuana, something the justices noted — somewhat playfully — by placing Dylan’s famous lyric in a notation at the very top of their order.

The opinion stems from the arrest and search of Michael Pacheco who, on May 26, 2016, was sitting in a parked vehicle in Wheaton with a marijuana joint when he was approached by two Montgomery County Police officers. Officers testified that they smelled “fresh burnt” marijuana, found Pacheco seated in the driver’s seat alone, and a marijuana cigarette in the vehicle’s center console, the opinion said.

Officers ordered Pacheco out of the car, searched him and found cocaine in Pacheco’s “left front pocket.” Then they searched his car where they found a marijuana stem and two packets of rolling papers. He was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it. He also was given a citation for possessing less than ten grams of marijuana.

Pacheco moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing it was an illegal search of his person because officers lacked probable cause to believe he possessed ten grams or more of marijuana. But prosecutors argued the marijuana odor provided probable cause to search both the vehicle and Pacheco, the opinion said.

Pacheco entered a conditional guilty plea, which still allowed him to appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. He lost at that level when the court found the officers did have probable cause. But the Court of Appeals said the lower court’s opinion largely relied on “pre-decriminalization cases.”

Pacheco’s search and arrest “was unreasonable because nothing in the record suggests that possession of a joint and the odor of burnt marijuana gave the police probable cause to believe he was in possession of a criminal amount of that substance,” the opinion said.

Pacheco’s trial attorney, Richard A. Finci, praised the ruling, saying the court’s opinion mirrored his own argument.

“Evidence of possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana is not probable cause for arrest and therefore a search is not lawful,” he said in an interview.

But Finci said he believes the court also should find that the odor of marijuana is not sufficient justification to search a vehicle.

“I think it needs to go further,” he said, noting that odor of alcohol alone doesn’t warrant the lawful search of a vehicle.

In a separate, concurring opinion, judges wrote that the court’s latest opinion is “reasonable and thoughtful” but limited.

The concurrent opinion said officers still must be allowed to search a vehicle if they smell marijuana. 

“In particular,” they wrote, “it may be evidence of: possession of 10 grams or more of marijuana, possession of the drug with the intent to distribute, or the operation of a vehicle under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance.”

An officer in similar circumstances to the Pacheco case “will be duty-bound” to investigate whether the individual could be driving under the influence, the court said.

“In many situations involving those circumstances, the officer will have probable cause — which (this Court has agreed) “is not a high bar” — to arrest the individual for that offense,” the concurring opinion said.

The concurring opinion cited vehicle crashes “linked to marijuana-impaired driving rose by nearly 40 percent” between 2017 and 2018.

A spokeswoman with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in Court of Appeals cases, did not respond to a request for comment. https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/crime/bs-md-cr-marijuana-opinion-20190815-f5eqymioevej5laapnhz6jucfm-story.html

Drug use caused crash that killed truck driver and passenger, Coroner rules

Coroner Elizabeth Ryan of the NSW Coroners Court has concluded that Cameron Bloomfield (29) and his partner, Meaghan Bird (27), died as a consequence of drug use that caused driving impairment. That led, in turn, to their heavy freight vehicle, a prime mover and two trailers fully laden with flammable chemicals, to leave the road, roll over and catch fire.

Bloomfield’s driving was likely impaired owing to the effects of the methylamphetamine that he had consumed. Both Baird and Bloomfield had “toxic to lethal” levels of methylamphetamine in their post-mortem blood samples.

Bird died directly as a result of fatal head injuries when the truck rolled over. Bloomfield died directly because of inhalation of smoke as the truck caught fire when it rolled.

Both Baird and Bloomfield died in a single vehicle crash on the Pacific Highway on the mid-north New South Wales coast on April 10, 2014.

On April 8, 2014, Bloomfield, accompanied by Baird, were driving the 936 kilometer (582 miles) Brisbane-Sydney route on behalf of Archerfield Transport & Storage, a sole proprietorship owned by Allen Mark Aitchison. Archerfield owned a freight depot in Brisbane. Aitchison directed the use of heavy freight trucks and scheduled operations.

Bloomfield and Baird arrived in Sydney early in the morning of April 9. During the day, Bloomfield was contacted “several times” by Aitchison during “what was supposed to be his seven hour continuous rest break”.

Bloomfield, again accompanied by Baird, started off from Sydney en route for Brisbane at about 20:30pm.

The vehicle, a 2005-built prime mover, was towing two trailers and was hauling a load of corrosive chemicals, paint thinners and other flammable and hazardous materials.

A witness stated that at 03:00am, about 175 miles to the north east of Sydney, Bloomfield’s truck overtook his car. The witness saw the car drive off the left side of the road, fall over, and slide. The cabin caught on fire and spread to the trailers.

Police and other emergency services arrived to find “the cabin and trailers were engulfed in flames. The heat was intense and aerosol cans from the load were exploding into the air”.

It took firefighters at least two, to two-and-a-half, hours to put the fire out before the two bodies were retrieved.

Forensic examiners were unable to say why the vehicle left the road. There was no evidence of braking or sharp turning, which would suggest the truck was out of control. There were no other vehicles. There was no evidence of mechanical defects in the prime mover or the trailers.

The post-mortem examiner discovered “toxic to lethal” levels of methylamphetamine in the blood samples of Baird and Bloomfield. A specialist toxicologist concluded that they had ingested the drug within “a few hours” of their deaths. In her opinion, the toxicologist believed the drug could have contributed to the crash by impairing the driver’s ability or it could have caused the driver’s death by coma, respiratory depression or a fatal heart attack.

The Coroner accepted the conclusion that a toxic-to-fatal level of drugs in Bloomfield’s blood explained the loss of control of the truck.

It was also considered whether fatigue had any role in the crash.

A week before the fatal crash, Baird’s parents visited the couple at their home. Baird was apparently worried that Bloomfield was “so exhausted” from driving that he might fall asleep at the wheel, according to Baird’s mother. She also described a dinner with Bloomfield who complained of being exhausted from work. The coroner also noted that there were statements from people in contact with Bloomfield on the day of the crash saying he looked tired or that he had been complaining of a lack of sleep.

Following the crash, Aitchison and various others at the freight depots in Brisbane and Sydney were charged, tried, convicted and fined in relation to fatigue related offenses. These included failing to take all reasonable steps to ensure that business practices did not cause Bloomfield to drive while in breach of work-rest hours; there was no system to check the work diaries of drivers; there was no fatigue management training for drivers; there was no use or monitoring of in-vehicle GPS systems; there were no trip plans that allowed drivers to complete trips other than within strict time limits. Truck loaders were charged with failing to take reasonable steps to ensure Bloomfield did not driver while apparently fatigued. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/down-under-trucking-drug-driving-153820038.html

BEHIND THE WHEEL: Special Investigative report examining marijuana and DUI

AUBURN, Ala (WRBL) The deadly crash that killed the Voice of the Auburn Tigers – Rod Bramblett and his wife Paula, followed by the arrest of a 16-year-old on a manslaughter charge- is forcing our community to confront issues regarding suspected Marijuana DUI.

On July 1st – Auburn Police arrested 16-year-old Johnston Taylor on warrants charging him with two counts of manslaughter. 

Court documents say a blood sample taken from the teen after the crash contained T-H-C – indicating “recent” use of marijuana.

The electronic data recorder from Taylor’s Jeep Laredo alleges he was accelerating from 89 miles an hour to 91 miles an hour – with no braking – when it rear-ended the Bramblett’s SUV on May 25th in the deadly crash along Shug Jordan Parkway. 

The legal system will decide if the teen was impaired while behind the wheel that night.

News 3 Investigative Reporter Elizabeth White spoke with one of the country’s foremost experts on marijuana-impaired driving.

Chris Halsor spent eight years as a Denver prosecutor and more recently as Colorado’s Traffic Safety Resource Prosecutor, where he provided impaired driving training for law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I just so happened to start that job when medical marijuana really took off in Colorado, so I was sort of very early on jumping on the subject of marijuana impaired driving for the better part of the last decade and have really invested myself into developing expertise in that area,” said Halsor. 

Halsor is now in private practice – and founder of Understanding Legal Marijuana, LLC, where he trains state and local governments considering or dealing with legal marijuana initiatives.

“I always try to hold myself out as the objective rational actor. I don’t take an advocacy position on weather it’s a good idea or  bad idea, I just present the facts,” said Halsor.

Our first question for Halsor focuses on how toxicologists determine recent use of marijuana. 

“There is a test, Elizabeth, you can utilize to determine whether somebody has recently utilized marijuana. There are different metabolic markers out there so some would assert that THC would remain in the system up to 30 days.  In fact there is a biological marker that can test for that either in blood or urine, so that itself my not be dispositive.
However, if you give somebody a blood test and you test for what’s called DELTA 9 THC, the active impairing ingredient in marijuana then in fact you might be able to establish to a degree of certainty that a person had recently consumed or otherwise ingested THC. Different studies have established that dissipation rates for at least smoked marijuana might be two or four hours,” Halsor responded.

Halsor says driving under the influence of marijuana is just as dangerous as driving drunk or any intoxicating drug.

Halsor believes marijuana impairment can vary depending on the individual – and the type ingested. 

He says research indicates the most common impairments are short term memory lapse, inability to navigate curves, failure to recognize stops and speed limits. 

Halsor stated, “Speed, interestingly enough, in several studies is regarded as one of the tell-tale clues. Popular conventional wisdom suggests that somebody under the influence of marijuana may be driving slow, but the data and statistics actually suggest speeding is more likely to be common and attached to marijuana use.”

In Alabama, medical and recreational use of marijuana is illegal. Although, in June of this year, Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill creating an Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission to study the effects of medical marijuana. 

Haslor says with more states legalizing the use of marijuana for medical and or recreational purposes, he urges the community to educate themselves – above and beyond a Google search.

News 3 spoke with Johnston Taylor’s defense attorney out of Birmingham.

Attorney Tommy Spina said: “There are no words I could say, on behalf of my client and his family, that would adequately express the remorse and contrition this child and his family feel for the loss caused to the Bramblett family as a result of this tragic accident.”

Spina says Taylor had not smoked marijuana and was not impaired at the time of the crash. 

The attorney maintains Taylor fell asleep at the wheel and remembers nothing of the crash.

A preliminary hearing was set for July 31st – which Taylor’s attorney tells News 3 he is waiving, so the case will automatically go to a Lee County Grand Jury.

Count on News 3 to continue to follow this important story for you. https://www.wrbl.com/top-stories/behind-the-wheel-news-3-special-investigative-report-examining-marijuana-and-dui/

How high is too high? 5 years after legalization, Colorado struggles to test marijuana impairment for drivers

As more Coloradoans smoke marijuana, legislators and law enforcement officials have struggled to develop sobriety tests that accurately determine when someone is too high to drive. 
Shutterstock / Stock photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In 2014, when recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, Matt Karzen, an assistant district attorney in Routt County at the time, noticed a lot of criminal cases coming to his office involving drivers arrested on suspicion of driving stoned. 

It was the first time such cases had gone through local justice system under the laxer laws, and he was not sure how they would play out in court. So, his office brought a case in front of a jury as a sort of litmus test for convicting high drivers.  

The case involved a man pulled over in Steamboat Springs for having a dirty windshield. It started as a routine traffic stop for driving with obstructed vision, but law enforcement officials noticed the man behaving strangely. Resulting tests showed he did not have alcohol in his system, but he was over the legal limit for marijuana. 

When jurors reviewed body camera footage and reports from law enforcement, they weren’t convinced the tests proved beyond a reasonable doubt the man was impaired.  

“The guy was acquitted in about five minutes,” Karzen said. 

As marijuana becomes more widely used across the state, much uncertainty remains about how the drug impairs the body and at what point someone becomes too high to drive. A lack of clarity and research has made it difficult for law enforcement officials to test for marijuana impairment during traffic stops and for the courts to convict people accused of driving high. 

According to current state law, people can be prosecuted for driving under the influence if their blood contains more than 5 nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the cannabinoid in marijuana that causes its coveted psychoactive effects.

But marijuana users, particularly those who partake regularly for medicinal purposes, worry they would test over the legal limit, even when they are not impaired. 

Trends in marijuana use

A recent report from the New York Times investigated the legacy of the last five years of legal marijuana in the state and found, more than anything, the drug has become a more commonly accepted part of life for Coloradoans. 

About twice as many residents smoke marijuana compared to the rest of Americans.

During a June session of the Steamboat Springs Police Department’s Citizens Academy, which teaches the public about the work of local law enforcement, officers said they have spoken with many people who think it is OK to drive stoned. This worried officer Lisa Wilson, who does not want a lower perceived risk to cause accidents.

As she explained, “If you feel different, you drive different.”

According to a 2018 study from the Colorado Department of Transportation, the number of highway deaths involving drivers with marijuana in their system has nearly doubled since legalization, with 75 deaths in 2014 and 139 in 2017. 

But, the number of drivers involved in a fatal crash who tested over the legal limit for marijuana — that 5-nanogram threshold — has decreased sharply in recent years. In 2017, 35 drivers in such accidents were over the legal limit, down from 52 in 2016.

As the study advises, “The presence of a cannabinoid does not necessarily indicate recent use of marijuana or impairment.”

Cannabinoids have a stubborn way of sticking around in people’s fat cells, meaning someone could test positive for the drug, even over the legal limit, days or weeks after they smoked. This is especially true for frequent users.

“People can be heavily saturated with THC in their system and not be under the influence,” Karzen said.

Concerns among marijuana users

Larisa Bolivar admits to using marijuana almost every day. The executive director of the Cannabis Consumer Coalition, based in Denver, Bolivar has been an advocate for the drug long before it became legal. 

The Washington Post, in a 2014 article, called her “one of the city’s most well-known proponents of decriminalizing marijuana nationally.” In 2004, she visited Steamboat to advocate for a cancer patient who was facing charges for using medical marijuana, which was legal at the time. 

Fifteen years later, she is seeing a similar, enforcement-heavy approach to nabbing people suspected of driving high, despite a lack of certainty for testing impairment. 

As Bolivar explained, many marijuana users, especially those consuming it daily and at higher doses for pain management or other medicinal purposes, will have large amounts of THC in their blood but not feel or act impaired. 

“I haven’t consumed (marijuana) today, but I can guarantee you I have more than 5 nanograms in my system,” she said. 

As someone who drives on a regular basis, Bolivar is always concerned she could be cited for a DUI even if she does not feel or act impaired.  

“That is a very scary thought, and it’s totally unfair,” she said. 

Sobriety tests for marijuana

Local law enforcement officials tend to agree with people like Bolivar, arguing the current science on marijuana impairment often does not reflect reality. Nor do they see it as a new issue.

“This challenge has been around as long as cannabis has been consumed,” Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen said of measuring a person’s intoxication.

As he explained, field sobriety tests for alcohol have been researched and standardized over decades. Dating back to 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has honed the tests to such an extent that recent studies report accuracy of 91% to 94%.

“We have a lot of experience with drunk drivers,” Christensen said. “We know what that person looks like, and you can smell it.”

Much less researched and certain are sobriety tests for marijuana. Law enforcement officials usually employ two methods to test for any kind of drug impairment. One way is to ask the driver to undergo a blood test to determine if they are over the 5-nanogram limit. 

Some agencies also have drug recognition experts who have been trained to evaluate a driver for substance impairment. Several local troopers with Colorado State Patrol have the certification and are able to assist other law enforcement officials with roadside sobriety tests specific to drugs. Many of the criteria for impairment seem similar to alcohol, such as the one-leg-stand test. 

Drug recognition experts use this form to determine if someone is under the influence of substances other than alcohol.
Source: Drug recognition expert seven-day instruction course

Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com

Other considerations, such as redness in the eyes, could be the result of other, non-drug related conditions, like allergies or irritation.

“There is no go-to tool that is considered reliable across the board to determine if someone is impaired by marijuana,” Karzen said. “Right now, we’re just stuck with body camera footage and an officer’s assessment.”

Most such cases result in a plea deal, according to Karzen. Drivers usually plead guilty to driving while ability impaired, or DWAI, which is a traffic infraction — not a crime. It typically results in a fine and the revoked driving privileges for 90 days, a laxer sentence than for DUI offenses. 

In many instances, people suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana also have an illegal amount of alcohol in their system, according to Karzen. If that is the case, prosecutors typically pursue a DUI conviction solely for alcohol because jurors feel better-versed at recognizing when someone is drunk.

Need for new tests and laws

What all of this points to is a need for more accurate measures of marijuana impairment, something state lawmakers are trying to accomplish through legislation. 

One bill proposed during the 2019 Legislation Session would have thrown out the 5-nanogram threshold and given law enforcement full discretion in determining impairment through field sobriety as well as blood tests. 

It faced strong backlash before lawmakers postponed it indefinitely in February. 

Complicating the issue is the fact that marijuana is still federally illegal, so conducting accurate, legal research on how the drug affects the body has proven difficult. 

With no changes for the foreseeable future, Karzen has been advising prosecutors in his office to be prudent in pursuing DUI convictions for marijuana, and to limit convictions to cases in which people showed obvious signs of impairment.

 “I’m very uncomfortable proceeding with a criminal prosecution on impaired driving based only on the 5-nanogram limit,” he said. 

For an example, he alluded to a scene in the cult classic, “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke,” in which the two, red-eyed stoners get pulled over after smoking a joint the size of a salami.

Karzen chuckled at using such a reference, but those clear indications — poor driving, memory loss, marijuana smoke billowing from the windows — “those are what our prosecutors look for,” he said. 

Christensen’s officers have a similar policy.

“If drivers don’t demonstrate any signs of impairment, we don’t take any action,” he said.

Regardless of the lack of clarity on marijuana impairment, people still have an obligation to drive sober.

“There is no excuse to drive impaired in any way,” Christensen said. https://www.summitdaily.com/news/how-high-is-too-high-5-years-after-legalization-colorado-struggles-to-test-marijuana-impairment-for-drivers/

Woman flees on foot after traffic stop by police, faces numerous charges including OUI alcohol and drugs

6-8-19 — Monson— A 31-year-old Connecticut woman, who fled police on Route 32 early Saturday after she was stopped on Route 32 for speeding, faces numerous charges including operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs. (Monson police / Facebook)
6-8-19 — Monson— A 31-year-old Connecticut woman, who fled police on Route 32 early Saturday after she was stopped on Route 32 for speeding, faces numerous charges including operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs. (Monson police / Facebook)

MONSON — A 31-year-old Connecticut woman, who fled police on Route 32 early Saturday after she was stopped on Route 32 for speeding, faces numerous charges including operating under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

The incident began about 1 a.m. when Officer Tyler Wilk saw the suspect, southbound, speeding towards the downtown area, according to a post on the department’s Facebook page.

Western Mass News reported the woman got out of her vehicle after the stop and fled on foot. A state trooper was summoned to help for the suspect and she was found a short time later.

Police have not yet released the woman’s name. She is from Wilmington, Conn.

She was charged with drunken driving (2nd offense), operating under the include of drugs, operating with a suspended license (subsequent offense), negligent operation, open container of alcohol in motor vehicle, speeding, possession of heroin (subsequent offense), possession of a Class E drug and resisting arrest.

Police were assisted by a Palmer officer trained in the recognition of drug impairment. Western Mass News is television partner to The Republican. https://www.masslive.com/news/2019/06/connecticut-woman-flees-on-foot-after-traffic-stop-by-monson-police-faces-numerous-charges-including-oui-alcohol-and-drugs.html