Per se driving limits for the presence of THC are arbitrary and may improperly classify motorists who are not behaviorally impaired, according to the findings of a study published today by the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Per se driving limits criminalize the act of operating a motor vehicle if the driver possesses detectable amounts of specific drugs or drug metabolites above a set threshold. Under these laws, drivers are guilty per se of violating the traffic safety laws even absent evidence of demonstrable behavioral impairment.
Five states – Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington – presently impose per se limits for the detection of specific amounts of THC in blood while eleven states (Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin) impose zero tolerant per se standards. In Colorado, the presence of THC in blood above 5ng/ml “gives rise to permissible inference that the defendant was under the influence.” Legislation similar to Colorado’s law is presently pending in California.
However, the AAA report concludes, “[A] quantitative threshold for per se laws for THC following cannabis use cannot be scientifically reported.” This is because the body metabolizes THC in a manner that is significantly distinct from alcohol. In particular, acute effects of cannabinoids lag well behind the presence of maximum THC/blood levels. Additionally, residual levels of THC may be present in blood for extended periods of time, long after any psychomotor-related effects have ceased.
The Automobile Association’s finding is similar to that of the US National Highway Traffic 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.”
NORML has long articulated a similar opposition to the imposition of per se driving thresholds for THC and/or its metabolites, stating, “[R]ecently adopted statewide per se limits and zero tolerant per se thresholds in the United States criminally prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle by persons with the trace presence of cannabinoids or cannabinoid metabolites in their blood or urine are not based upon scientific evidence or consensus. … [T]he enforcement of these strict liability standards risks inappropriately convicting unimpaired subjects of traffic safety violations, including those persons who are consuming cannabis legally in accordance with other state statutes.”
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday issued an amendatory veto to House Bill 218, which seeks to decriminalize minor marijuana possession offenses.
As initially approved by the legislature in May, HB 218 reduced personal use possession penalties (up to 15 grams) from a Class A criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to 6 months in jail, a $1,500 fine, and a criminal record, to a petty offense, punishable by a fine only (up to $125.00) – no arrest, and no criminal record. Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto seeks to decrease the proposed possession limits from 15 grams to 10 grams, whole also seeking to raise fines to $200.00.
Governor Rauner also seeks to lower the state’s proposed per se THC/blood limit from 15ng/ml to 5ng/ml. Under present Illinois law, drivers with any detectable amount of THC in their blood are in violation of the state’s traffic safety laws.
If a majority of lawmakers fail to approve of the Governor’s amendments, the measure will be dead for this year’s legislative session.
To date, 20 states and Washington, DC have passed legislation eliminating the threat of incarceration for marijuana possession offenses via either legalization or decriminalization.
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.”