The Arizona Supreme Court this week rejected a 1990 state law that classified the presence of inert THC metabolites in blood or urine as a per se traffic safety violation.
Carboxy-THC, the primary metabolite (breakdown product) of THC is not psychoactive. Because it is lipid soluble, the metabolite may remain detectable in blood or urine for periods of time that extend well beyond any suspected period of impairment. As a result, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledges, “It is … currently impossible to predict specific effects based on THC-COOH concentrations.”
Nonetheless, under Arizona law, the mere presence of carboxy THC — absent any evidence of behavioral impairment — was considered to be a criminal violation of the state’s traffic safety laws. (Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Utah impose similar statutes.) On Wednesday, the Court struck down the provision.
Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Brutinel opined: “The State’s interpretation that ‘its metabolite’ includes any byproduct of a drug listed in § 13-3401 found in a driver’s system leads to absurd results. … Most notably, this interpretation would create criminal liability regardless of how long the metabolite remains in the driver’s system or whether it has any impairing effect. For example, at oral argument the State acknowledged that, under its reading of the statute, if a metabolite could be detected five years after ingesting a proscribed drug, a driver who tested positive for trace elements of a non-impairing substance could be prosecuted.”
He added: “Additionally, this interpretation would criminalize otherwise legal conduct. In 2010, Arizona voters passed the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (“AMMA”), legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Despite the legality of such use, and because § 28-1381(A)(3) does not require the State to prove that the marijuana was illegally ingested, prosecutors can charge legal users under the (A)(3) provision. Because carboxy-THC can remain in the body for as many as twenty-eight to thirty days after ingestion, the State’s position suggests that a medical-marijuana user could face prosecution for driving any time nearly a month after they had legally ingested marijuana.”
The Court concluded: “Because the legislature intended to prevent impaired driving, we hold that the ‘metabolite’ reference in § 28-1381(A)(3) is limited to any of a proscribed substance’s metabolites that are capable of causing impairment. Accordingly, … drivers cannot be convicted of the (A)(3) offense based merely on the presence of a non-impairing metabolite that may reflect the prior usage of marijuana.”
The Court did not address provisions in the state’s per se DUI law outlawing the operation of a motor vehicle with any presence of THC in one’s blood even though, according to NHTSA, “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects.”
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has signed legislation, House Bill 1441, into law that criminalizes drivers from operating a motor vehicle if they have any detectable amount of THC and/or its inactive metabolites in their blood, saliva, or urine. Under such internal possession statutes, known as zero tolerance per se laws, a motorist who tests positive for the presence of such compounds is guilty per se (in fact) of a criminal traffic safety violation, regardless of whether or not there exist supporting evidence that the defendant was behaviorally impaired by such compounds.
Residual, low levels of THC may remain present in the blood of occasional consumers for several hours after past use and for several days in habitual consumers — long after any behavior-inducing effects of the substance have worn off. The inert carboxy-THC metabolite, a commonly screened for byproduct of THC, possesses a longer half-life in blood and also may be present in the urine of daily cannabis consumers for several weeks, or even months, after past use.
Oklahoma will become the 11th state to impose such a strict liability per se standard once the law takes effect on October 1, 2013. It is the third state this year to amend its traffic safety laws to include either per se thresholds or presumptive limits for cannabinoids.
Ten additional states – Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin – already impose zero tolerance per se thresholds for the presence of cannabinoids and/or their metabolites.
Five states impose non-zero-tolerant per se thresholds for cannabinoids in blood: Montana (5ng/ml — the new law, HB 168, signed in April, takes effect on October 1, 2013), Pennsylvania (1ng/ml), Ohio (2ng/ml), Nevada (2ng/ml) and Washington (5ng/ml).
Last month, Colorado lawmakers also approved legislation, effective as of July 1, 2013, stating that the presence of THC/blood levels above 5ng/ml “gives rise to permissible inference that the defendant was under the influence.”
However, according to the United States National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA): “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects. … It is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone.”
In addition, a 2013 academic review of per se drugged driving laws and their impact on road safety found “no evidence that per se drugged driving laws reduce traffic fatalities.”
A Michigan traffic safety law that prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle by persons who possess any presence of THC in their blood, regardless of whether or not they are behaviorally impaired by the substance, may not be strictly applied to state-qualified medical cannabis patients. So decided the Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday in the case People v Koon.
In a unanimous opinion, the Court determined that legal protections extended to state-qualified patients under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, enacted by voters in 2008, supersede the state’s zero tolerance, internal possession law. As a result, the Court determined that state prosecutors must establish that authorized patients charged under the statute are actually impaired by their cannabis use in order to gain a DUI criminal conviction.
According to the syllabus of the Opinion:
“The MMMA [Michigan Medical Marihuana Act] does not define what it means to be ‘under the influence,’ but the phrase clearly contemplates something more than having any amount of marijuana in one’s system and requires some effect on the person. Thus, the MMMA’s protections extend to a registered patient who internally possesses marijuana while operating a vehicle unless the patient is under the influence of marijuana. The immunity from prosecution provided under the MMMA to a registered patient who drives with indications of marijuana in his or her system but is not otherwise under the influence of marijuana inescapably conflicts with MCL 257.625(8) [the state's zero tolerance per se DUI law], which prohibits a person from driving with any amount of marijuana in her or system.”
The state’s zero tolerance per se drug law remains applicable to non-patients. Under such laws, motorists are guilty per se (in fact) of a criminal traffic safety violation if they engage in the act of driving while detectable levels of certain controlled substances or, in some cases, their inert metabolites (byproducts) are present in the defendants’ blood or urine. Proof of actual impairment is not a requirement for a conviction under the law.
To date, ten states — Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin — have enacted legislation imposing zero tolerance per se thresholds for the presence of cannabinoids and/or their metabolites. (State-authorized medical cannabis patients in Arizona and Rhode Island are exempt from prosecution under these per se statutes unless the state can provide additional evidence of psychomotor impairment.)
Five additional states impose non-zero-tolerant per se thresholds for cannabinoids in blood: Montana (5ng/ml — law takes effect on October 1, 2013), Pennsylvania (1ng/ml), Ohio (2ng/ml), Nevada (2ng/ml) and Washington (5ng/ml). Most recently, Colorado lawmakers approved legislation stating that the presence of THC/blood levels above 5ng/ml “gives rise to permissible inference that the defendant was under the influence.” State-qualified patients in Colorado, Montana, and Nevada are not provided legal exemptions from these statutes, although legislation is presently pending in Nevada to do so.
Such caution is similarly expressed by the United States National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, which acknowledges: “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects. … It is inadvisable to try and predict effects based on blood THC concentrations alone.”
A 2013 review of per se drugged driving laws and their impact on road safety found “no evidence that per se drugged driving laws reduce traffic fatalities.”
The imposition of so-called per se drugged driving laws, which create new traffic safety violations for drivers who operate a vehicle with the presence of trace amounts of certain controlled substances and/or their inert metabolites (byproducts) in their blood or urine, do not reduce incidences of traffic safety deaths.
That’s the conclusion of a just-published study by economists at the University of Colorado, Denver and Montana State University. The study is available from the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany as a Discussion Paper.
Since 1990, 11 states have passed so-called zero-tolerant per se drugged driving laws which make it illegal for one to drive with detectable levels of a controlled substance in his or her system. Five additional states have passed similar laws specifying non-zero limits for controlled substances or their metabolites. Fourteen (Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) of these sixteen states impose these strict liability per se standards for cannabis. Recently, the White House Office of National Drug Control has recommended zero tolerant per se drug standards for all US states.
Using state-level data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) for the period 1990-2010, authors examined the relationship between the adoption of controlled substance per se thresholds and overall incidences of traffic fatalities. They found that the relationship is statistically indistinguishable from zero and concluded that there is no evidence that these limits reduced traffic deaths.
Authors reported: “Despite the fact that these laws have been touted by politicians and academics as an effective strategy for making our roadways safer, we find no evidence that they reduce traffic fatalities. … [W]e cannot determine why per se drugged driving laws do not work, and leave this issue to future researchers. However, our results clearly indicate that, as currently implemented, laws that make it illegal to drive with detectable levels of a controlled substance in the system have little to no effect on traffic fatalities.”
In November, Washington state voters approved Initiative 502, which legalizes the private use and retail sale of cannabis to adults, but also imposes a 5ng/ml THC/blood per se limit for drivers over the age of 21. In Colorado, where voters on Election Day similarly legalized cannabis, Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican Senator Steven King are calling for the passage of nearly identical per se cannabis legislation.
NORML has consistently opposed the imposition of stand-alone per se limits for cannabinoids, arguing that the presence of THC in blood, particularly at lower levels, is an inconsistent predictor of behavioral impairment, particularly in more frequent consumers who may potentially test positive for trace, residual THC levels in their blood for periods of time exceeding any period of acute impairment.
Operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of cannabis is already a criminal offense in all 50 states. However, in order for one to gain a criminal conviction under most state DUI laws, prosecutors must prove that a motorist recently ingested cannabis and that doing so prohibited him or her from driving safely.
Full text of the study, “Per Se Drugged Driving Laws and Traffic Fatalities,” is available online here. A separate paper previously published by the same authors reported that the passage of statewide medical marijuana laws is associated with decreased incidences of traffic fatalities.
At this year’s NORML Conference, which was held the first week of October, much emphasis was placed on the upcoming legalization initiatives in Washington, Colorado, and Oregon. One of the featured speakers was former NORML Board Member and writer for The Stranger in Washington, Dominic Holden. Dominic delivered an impassioned speech defending Washington’s marijuana legalization initiative, I-502, and spoke at length at the importance of winning initiatives and how we can progress towards full legalization in America.
You can watch the video below:
“The first [complaint of the opposition] is they don’t like a provision…that says if you have 5ng active THC in your blood for every mL of whole blood then you are guilty of DUI.
What the opponents have been saying, is that someone who has used marijuana, a regular marijuana user…a medical marijuana user, will test positive for exceeding that level a day later, two days later, a week later. Well guess what? They don’t have a single f***ing scientific study to back them up. In fact, the science proves them wrong. What science shows is the vast majority of marijuana users drop below that 5ng level within a few hours and none within 12-24 hours and certainly not a day later, two days later, a week later. Their argument is fundamentally flawed, because it’s a lie.
They are also concerned about a federal challenge, they say, “If we pass I-502 the federal government is going to challenge us on legalizing pot.”
News Flash: That’s the damn point.”
Expect much more video coverage of this year’s NORML Conference in the coming days and be sure to visit www.newapproachwa.org to learn more about the effort to tax and regulate cannabis in Washington State this November.