DUI offenses are typically related to alcohol intoxication. However, alcohol is only one of any number of substances capable of impairing a person’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, driving under the influence of drugs (DUID), often referred to as drugged driving, can also result in potentially damaging and costly DUI charges.
Driving while impaired by drugs, even perfectly legal prescription muscle relaxers and medical marijuana, is legally the same as driving drunk, and can also be considered a DUI offense according to drug driving law. A doctor’s prescription is no defense against DUI charges.
A 2010 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey revealed approximately 10 million people in the U.S. drove while impaired from illegal drugs the year before. The survey didn’t even take into account legally prescribed medication. Another survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Administration found that one out of every five car crash fatalities in 2009 involved the use of drugs. While these numbers are a few years old, they serve a sobering point.
What Is Impairment?
In the case of DUI law, you are generally considered impaired if you’re unable to safely operate a motor vehicle due to the consumption of alcohol, prescription medications, or illegal drugs. Since different substances affect people differently, measurable limits are set according to “per se” laws. For example, drivers with a blood-alcohol content, or BAC, of 0.08 or greater are automatically assumed impaired. In some states, people with trace amounts of certain substances in their bloodstream can also be considered impaired.
How Is Drug Impairment Measured?
Operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater is against the law in all 50 states. Alcohol is flushed from the body very quickly, making it easy to measure the BAC of a driver during a traffic stop. Alcohol breathalyzer tests are also fairly accurate, resulting in a higher percentage of DUI guilty pleas and convictions.
With other drugs, however, this isn’t always the case. For instance, THC from marijuana can be detected in a person’s bloodstream or urine for up to a month or longer after use. Therefore, there is no way to detect a person’s actual level of marijuana-related impairment.
While cocaine and certain other drugs leave the body in only a day or two, the NHTSA wrote a letter to Congress stating current knowledge regarding marijuana, prescription medications, and all drugs other than alcohol is “insufficient to allow the identification of dosage limits that are related to elevated crash risk.”
Nonetheless, some police and sheriff jurisdictions utilize Drug Recognition Experts to determine whether or not certain motorists are impaired. When determining impairment, these “experts” will perform a roadside drug test and closely examine the driver’s behavior, eye movements, and any other clues that may be pointing towards drug impairment.
Currently, nearly every state has instituted Drug Evaluation and Classification Programs specifically to train Drug Recognition Experts how to properly perform each and every drug driving test. However, even with blood and urine samples, only the presence of a drug is detected, not the amount.
In fact, a report co-released by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and the Governors Highway Traffic Association stated, “…the data only records the presence of drugs, not the amount of the drug that could be used to compare to an equivalent blood-alcohol level.”
“Per Se” Laws
Although prosecuting drivers charged with driving under the influence of drugs is more difficult than it is with alcohol due to ambiguous drug-driving limits, 15 states enforce “per se” drug driving laws. These laws make it a crime to operate a motor vehicle with absolutely any measurable amount of certain drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, in one’s system. The states with DUID “per se” laws are:
• Rhode Island
Furthermore, 12 of the states enforce zero-tolerance policies. If you’re facing a DWI Colorado or any of the other 35 states, the burden lies much more heavily on the prosecution to prove your guilt.
Which Drugs Are Most Commonly Linked to DUID?
Aside from alcohol, marijuana is the most common drug found in the bloodstreams of motorists involved in auto accidents. However, the role marijuana plays in auto accidents is still very unclear. Unlike many other drugs, THC from marijuana can be detected in a person’s body weeks after use.
According to a comprehensive NHTSA study, drivers with marijuana in their system do not pose an increased crash risk. However, other studies have found differently, so it’s clear more research is needed on the subject.
In addition to marijuana, prescription medications are also heavily linked to DUID crashes. In fact, a nationwide study of fatal auto accidents found that approximately 50 percent of drivers with drugs in their system had consumed a prescription drug. Pain relievers, such oxycodone, were the most common types of prescription drugs found.
Illegal Drugs and Their Impairing Effects
• Marijuana – Increased heart rate, paranoia, drowsiness, relaxation, disorientation, image distortion, and altered perception of space and time.
• Cocaine – Increased heart rate, increased alertness and focus, excitation, aggressiveness, irritability, euphoria, disoriented behavior, dizziness, and confusion.
• Heroin and Morphine – Depressed heart rate, diminished reflexes, analgesia, drowsiness, sedation, intense euphoria, nausea, and vomiting.
• Methamphetamine – Increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, insomnia, excitation, lack of impulse control, and hallucinations.
• LSD – Tremors, hypertension, hallucinations, altered perception of time and space, and altered mental state.
Impairing Effects of Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs
Some drugs purchased legally over-the-counter (OTC) or via prescription can be equally as dangerous as alcohol for drivers and also result in a DUI charge. If you’re ever in doubt about the impairing effects of a drug, make sure to ask your pharmacist or read the warning label on the back.
Here’s a look at some common OTC and prescription drugs capable of impairing drivers:
• Sleeping Pills – Even 10 hours later, the residual effects of sleeping pills can impair drivers.
• Decongestants – Many decongestants available over-the-counter can cause dizziness and drowsiness.
• Antihistamines – Many OTC antihistamines impair coordination and reaction time.
• Valium – This popularly prescribed tranquilizer can also cause impairment similar to the effects of alcohol.
• Antidepressants – Many antidepressants have sedating effects similar to alcohol that can impair drivers.
• Hydrocodone – This commonly prescribed pain reliever is found in Vicodin and other prescription pain pills. It can cause impairment similar to the effects of morphine and oxycodone.
Free DUI Legal Analysis
Alcohol-related DUI charges are relatively straightforward because alcohol leaves the bloodstream very quickly and BAC testing devices are fairly accurate. However, driving under the influence charges involving other substances are much more complicated. Since it’s difficult for officers to determine a driver’s level of impairment from marijuana and other drugs, a skilled DUI lawyer can often form a successful defense.
While standard sentencing is often mandatory for first-time DUI offenders, in many cases involving second- or third-time offenders, pleading guilty to a DUI charge can often result in reduced sentencing. Rather than taking it to trial, a prosecutor may be willing to offer a reduced sentence for a guilty plea. If it’s a drug-related DUI charge, an experienced DUI Law Firm may be able to negotiate sentences down even further and minimize the drug driving penalties. Many times, drug testing requirements and other conditions of probation can be lessened as well.
When charged with driving under the influence of drugs, deciding whether or not to hire an attorney can be a difficult decision. While a skilled DUI lawyer can help put together a strong defense against questionable or less than solid charges, you may want to save some money by representing yourself.
If you’re facing drugged driving charges, learn more about your case by having an experienced DUI lawyer review your charges for free today.