DUI Drugs in California: What’s Changed in 2017?

view from car at night before a dui accident

Most drivers are aware of the DUI (driving under the influence) laws in California. Yet most also associate this with driving under the influence of alcohol. Not all DUI charges involve alcohol. In California, it is illegal to drive under the influence of ANY drug, even a medication that has been legally prescribed to you or in the case of marijuana, even if it is a legal substance.  After all, alcohol is legal too, you just cannot drive while impaired. Various organizations such as SADD and MADD are taking combining efforts to promote prevent teen car accidents caused by driving under the influence of alcohol.

The California Office of Traffic Safety has started a new campaign to bring awareness to this growing problem and emphasize that driving under the influence of prescription drugs is still a crime that is creating new safety concerns according to OTS Director, Rhonda Craft.

Increased Use of Prescription Drugs and Marijuana

It is estimated that 26.4 to 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide. (UNODC, World Drug Report 2012. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/WDR-2012.html). Several factors are likely to have contributed to the severity of the current prescription drug abuse problem.  They include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using prescription drugs for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.  These factors together have helped create the broad “environmental availability” of prescription medications in general and opioid analgesics in particular.

On November 9, The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64) made it legal for individuals 21 and older to use and grow marijuana for personal use.

What Does “Under the Influence” Mean?

Driving under the influence means that you are driving without the ability to drive “safely” but this is a subjective standard with prescription drugs and marijuana. With alcohol, the law is considered per se meaning, regardless of the circumstances, if you are caught driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, you are guilty of driving under the influence. Outside of arguing that the machine that calibrated blood alcohol content was wrong, it is extremely difficult to get around per see offenses. This is not the case with marijuana (THC) or prescriptions.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles interviewed prosecutors who admitted that “it is difficult to convict for a drugs-only DUI because there are no scientifically based per se impairment levels established for prescription drugs in California. There are more non-scientific tests, however.

How To Determine When Someone is Under the Influence of Marijuana?

Marijuana poses a unique problem because it remains in a person’s system for weeks. This makes it more difficult to prove that a person smoked pot within hours of driving. There are some other ways to test, however. 

  • Field Sobriety Test: The first course of action is typically a field sobriety test which involves a series of physical and mental exercises administered by the police to determine level of impairment. The three main FST’s are:
    1. Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test: In this test, an officer usually moves an object such as a finger or pen from side to side. They are looking for involuntary jerking of the eyes which is associated with high levels of intoxication.  The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that these tests are 77% reliable.  
    2. Walk and Turn Test: With this test, the goal is to split the attention between a physical and a mental task, observing things such as loss of balance, wrong number of steps, breaks, inability to follow directions. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that these tests are 68% reliable.
    3. One-Leg Stand: The final test is one that divides attention, i.e. the ability to balance and count, hold still or do some other simultaneous mental task. In this case, the officer is looking or swaying, hopping or putting the foot down. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that these tests are 65% reliable.
  • Blood, breath or urine: While these work for alcohol consumption, they do not work as well for prescription drugs and THC because (1) Blood and urine tests are unable to determine when prescription drugs or THC were consumed and (2) breathe does not work at all.
  • Saliva Swab: Recently, these swabs have been used in the field to detect illicit drugs as well as THC and some prescription medications.  Because they are new, however there is some debate about how effective they are.  Like other tests, they are not able to scientifically determine the time frame of ingestion. 

Most Dangerous Areas in Sacramento

Sacramento highway signIn Sacramento county alone, there were 410 victims either killed or injured as a result of alcohol involved traffic accidents in 2014 according to the Office of Traffic Safety. The majority were speed related.  In the same year, there were 1123 DUI arrests.  With marijuana now part of the equation and prescription drug abuse on the rise, this number is likely to go up.

There are some particularly notorious areas where there tend to be more DUI accidents than others in Sacramento:

  • Cap City Freeway & I-5
  • Hwy 50 and 99 interchange
  • Interstate 80 & Madison

Things to Keep in Mind to Stay Safe

Marijuana, though legal in the state of California can have detrimental effects if not used properly.  Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Use of marijuana can cause drowsiness, memory impairment, altered sense of time and mood changes, all of which can impact your daily functioning.
  • All motorists are obligated to submit to chemical testing of their blood alcohol level if an arresting officer has probable cause to believe you were driving under the influence. This will likely apply to marijuana. A refusal can increase punishment.
  • Simply because there are no scientific tests, you can still be charged with driving while impaired based upon driving conduct, statements, odor, demeanor, FST’s and the existence of the drug in your car.
  • With the rise of drug use, there are officers trained to determine impairment. These officers called Drug Recognition Experts look for physical signs such as dilated pupils, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, red eyes, for example.

breathalyzer test

Penalties for Driving Under the Influence

Every county is permitted to institute punishment based upon the offense. In Sacramento County, first time offenders will be punished by serving a minimum of 48 hours in jail, $2300.00 in fines, 3 months of DUI school, 3 years informal probation, 6 month driver’s license suspension and mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device.  Second time offenders will experience 10-60 days in jail, files totaling $2300.00, 18 months of DUI school, 4 years informal probation and mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device.  These penalties increase with the number of DUI’s and whether a party was injured, which typically converts a DUI to a felony

The best way to avoid all of these consequences is to avoid driving under the influence of ANY substance.

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