Eyes wide shut: What to expect from drivers now that recreational weed is on the streets

Wide access to recreational marijuana is here in Arizona, and it’s posing new dangers to motorists on our roadways. Arizona law prohibits driving while impaired by marijuana to the slightest degree. We can change the cultural conversation around driving after using marijuana – and make it as socially unacceptable as drunk driving.  

According to NHTSA, several studies have shown that marijuana use can impair a number of cognitive processes that are important for safe driving, such as reaction time and responses to road emergencies, motor coordination, road tracking, and completing complex tasks that require divided attention. 

In neighboring Colorado, since recreational marijuana was legalized seven years ago, traffic deaths involving positive marijuana toxicology have increased 151% while all Colorado traffic deaths have only increased 35%. Also sobering is that the AAA’s 2019 Traffic Safety Culture Index reveals that only 70% of respondents consider driving shortly after using marijuana to be very or extremely dangerous. 

There is no breathalyzer in use to detect tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. However, that technology is on the horizon. Some law enforcement agencies outside of Arizona are experimenting with technology that detects THC following a swab of the cheek. For instance, the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute recently provided 52 Indiana law enforcement agencies with a handheld analyzer that uses an oral fluid swab to detect the presence of six kinds of drugs including cannabis. 

Arizona’s law prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle when a person is impaired to the slightest degree, but the presence of marijuana in a person’s body alone does not make them guilty of DUI. There is no objective standard in Arizona that defines impairment. Impairment is a subjective determination by the police officer based on the totality of circumstances leading up to and surrounding the stop, such as the driver’s observed behavior, the officer’s detection of marijuana odor, the driver’s responses to questions and the driver’s performance on standard field sobriety tests.  

If an officer has reasonable grounds to believe a driver was driving impaired, then Arizona law creates “implied consent” to a blood test. If the driver declines, their license will be confiscated and suspended. Arizona police agencies are also deploying drug enforcement vans with police officers who can electronically obtain blood draw search warrants through on-call judges. Those same officers may also be certified phlebotomists who are capable of drawing blood at the scene. THC in the blood and other evidence of impairment can lead to DUI conviction, significant fines and jail time.  

If you have recently consumed marijuana, please follow a simple rule: Don’t get behind the wheel. Remember, if you feel different, you drive different. As a personal injury lawyer over the last 30 years, I’ve seen the results of making poor decisions and getting behind the wheel, time and again. Those decisions can cause permanent injuries, or worse. It can affect countless lives, including your own. Once the damage is done, it cannot be reversed.

Marc Lamber is a Martindale Hubbell AV Preeminent-rated trial attorney. A director at Fennemore Craig, Lamber has been featured in national and local media, including the Arizona Republic, USA Today, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the ABA Journal and many others. 

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