How Do California's Existing DUI Laws Apply To Recreational Marijuana?

While more than half of all U.S. states (along with the District of Columbia) have legalized medical marijuana over the past decade or so, significantly fewer states have legalized marijuana for purely recreational use. As an "early adopter" of legal recreational marijuana, California has blazed the trail when it comes to enforcement of drugged driving laws; however, many users have found themselves shocked to be subjected to a field sobriety test or even placed under arrest for operating a vehicle after legal marijuana consumption. Read on to learn more about how the Golden State's restrictions on driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI) apply to the use of recreational marijuana. 

What are the potential penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana in California? 

Despite marijuana's legality for recreational use, it's still against the law to operate a vehicle on a public road while under the influence -- just as it's illegal to operate a vehicle while under the influence of legally prescribed medication that impedes one's reflexes or reaction times. 

Those who are arrested for a marijuana-related DUI will face the same charges and potential penalties as those arrested for alcohol-related DUIs, which can vary widely based on the circumstances of the arrest, the defendant's previous criminal history, and even sometimes the defendant's age. Those who have already been convicted of one or more DUIs in the past may find that a marijuana-related DUI is enough to ratchet them up to "habitual traffic offender" status, which can mean a lengthy license suspension and significant increases in auto insurance rates. Meanwhile, those who test positive for marijuana or demonstrate other evidence of intoxication at the scene of an injury-causing accident could face enhanced criminal charges if their marijuana use is determined to be a contributing factor in the accident. 

How can you be charged with DUI or DWI when marijuana tests can only indicate the presence of a metabolite? 

While alcohol intoxication can be relatively easily assessed by a law enforcement officer through the use of a portable breathalyzer or blood test, there exists no such test for marijuana -- and the drug tests commonly used by employers and probation officers test only for THC metabolites, which can remain in the body for weeks or even months after marijuana use. As a result, many (legal) users of marijuana may assume that they can't be cited or arrested for DUI, as it is all but impossible for law enforcement to determine whether a positive drug test indicates recent use. 

However, this is an erroneous belief, and law enforcement officers are not limited to the more quantifiable and tangible evidence they may obtain (like a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or greater) when it comes to making a DUI arrest. Instead, they can rely on their own judgment of your ability to safely operate a vehicle -- usually obtained after putting you through a battery of concentration and balance tests. Factors like glassy eyes, weaving across the center line while driving, and the telltale odor of marijuana can all contribute to the probable cause needed to place you under arrest. 

If you do find yourself facing DUI charges for allegedly driving under the influence of marijuana, your conviction will likely rest on the arresting officer's testimony. Without concrete evidence of your level of intoxication (like a breathalyzer result), the judge or jury will rely on the officer's description of events. This can give you a tactical advantage, especially compared to those in states without legalized marijuana in which a positive blood test may be all that's needed to secure conviction. 

For more information, contact an attorney like Jeffrey D. Larson, Attorney at Law.