As more states legalize recreational marijuana, the legal system is facing new challenges, specifically, what happens when people who have been using marijuana get behind the wheel of a car.
While we have clear legislation regarding drinking and driving and people generally understand that they will encounter problems if they drive while under the influence of “hard,” illegal drugs like cocaine or methamphetamines, legal substances are a gray area.
So, what happens if you’re pulled over after smoking or otherwise consuming a marijuana product?
The Physical Consequences
In order to understand why driving while under the influence of marijuana is so serious, it’s important to know what this substance can do to your body, specifically to your motor skills and capacity for judgment. Using marijuana can cause a loss of coordination, poor memory and decision-making, and slowed response times, much like alcohol.
In this regard, then, using marijuana and driving puts you and other drivers in just as much danger as drinking and driving.
Can It Be Detected?
Perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to enforcing sobriety on the roads is detecting marijuana use. After all, a cop might pull over a reckless driver and smell marijuana in the vehicle, but not necessarily be able to prove when it was used or by who, right?
Maybe not. New technology is making it possible to evaluate drivers for marijuana, much as you would for alcohol – via a specialized breathalyzer. Unlike blood and urine tests, breathalyzer tests have the kind of short detection window necessary for prosecution, but they aren’t yet in widespread use.
Navigating The Legal System
Given the above information, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of a grey area in terms of prosecuting drivers for marijuana use. In fact, as defense lawyer Rowdy Williams explains, “Legal marijuana use and differences in testing processes, metabolism, and other factors give lawyers a lot of room to negotiate and challenge these cases, especially if no one has been hurt. Too often, people are brought before the court on what amounts to little more than the suspicion of marijauana use behind the wheel, but those cases ultimately don’t have much standing.”
When the only evidence against a driver is that they swerved once or twice and that their car had a distinctive smell, it’s hard to say they weren’t changing the radio or that they might have thought they saw something in the road.
You don’t have the cut-and-dry evidence that comes with many drinking and driving prosecutions, including poor performance on a field sobriety test. Many people pass those easily after using marijuana, throwing yet another wrench in attempts to obtain evidence.
Minimal Use Cases
Another factor that’s worth considering in regard to marijuana use behind the wheel is that it’s legal to consume a small amount of alcohol and drive, and the same may potentially be true of marijuana.
Unfortunately, current legal strategies tend to be quite blunt, punishing people who don’t actually pose a risk to others. Police and courts are still struggling to determine what constitutes safe and unsafe use.
Without that information, is it really fair to bring people before the court?