With Washington and Colorado States legalizing marijuana for recreational use, law enforcement tactics are changing. Laws around marijuana have gone from a focus on prohibition to regulation. New laws are being enacted to regulate distribution, taxation, age restrictions, and how much marijuana is reasonable for a person to possess for personal use. One of the more difficult questions to answer is what constitutes legal intoxication and how that correlates to driving while impaired. How stoned is too stoned to drive safely?
Both the Washington and Colorado State Legislatures passed house bills that declare five nanograms as the legal limit for impairment. If a person is pulled over and a blood screen detects five or more nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in a person’s bloodstream, that individual is considered legally under the influence of drugs.
It can be difficult for a person to know when they are too impaired to drive whether from alcohol or marijuana. The main difference for law enforcement is the easy availability of breathalyzer tests to quantify blood alcohol levels and the relative difficulty of imposing a blood test to check for THC levels. Over time, these sorts of dilemmas will be answered by clear laws but we are not there yet. It is important to note that the body of science describing marijuana’s effects on the brain and body is broad but doesn’t enjoy wide consensus. Five nanograms per milliliter is perhaps a place for policy to start but it might be reasonable to expect changes to the law as scientific consensus is reached.
Driving while stoned is a crime in all 50 states but only some have set actual limits for THC in blood levels. It’s important to note that unlike blood alcohol levels, THC levels in the blood do not necessarily have anything to do with impairment. Marijuana is metabolized in the body’s fat cells and can be detected in the blood for as long as three months after last use in frequent pot smokers.
More than a dozen states have implemented “per se” cannabis driving laws that authorize a DUI conviction, without trial, to anyone exceeding the state’s THC blood limit. Most of those states have legal blood THC limits of zero. The federal government has not gotten on board with the decriminalization of marijuana and is still recommending that all states pass zero-tolerance “per se” driving laws.
The remaining/majority of states have effect-based laws that require evidence of impairment from recent ingestion of a controlled substance before a DUI conviction is authorized. See your state’s marijuana driving laws here.
“Per se” cannabis driving laws have not been shown to reduce traffic fatalities, and they may be inadvertently making criminals out of people who are using a controlled substance in a legal manner.
Washington State passed a “per se” driving law and more and more people are testing positive for marijuana since the substance was made legal for recreational use. It should be noted that the boost in numbers may actually be due to more blood tests rather than an increase in drug use.
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