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High Driving: Driving Under the Influence of Drugs

Nearly 10 million people said they'd driven while high on illicit drugs sometime during 2012, according to a 2013 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Individuals who are pulled over by law enforcement and charged with driving high on drugs may face many of the same consequences as those who are charged with driving drunk. Driving while high may include impairment due to marijuana use or even drugs that have been prescribed by a physician.

Methods of Impairment Detection

Laws and procedures vary widely from state to state, but most jurisdictions will move through similar steps to detect drivers who have been using drugs. Law enforcement cannot as readily rely on breathalyzer-style testing to measure levels of drug impairment, so many jurisdictions use drug recognition experts to render opinions. A drug recognition expert is, generally speaking, a police officer who has gone through special training to recognize driver impairment due to substances other than alcohol. Additionally, several companies are reportedly developing a THC breathalyzer, but their efforts have produced no reliable device for marijuana use as of yet. THC, more formally referred to as tetrahydrocannabinol, is the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Part of the problem with measuring levels of drugs in a person's system is that different drugs are flushed from the body at different rates. Cocaine, for example, is usually out of the body after one or two days. Marijuana may remain detectable in the bloodstream or urine of a person for as many as five weeks after consumption.

Drugged Driving Per Se Laws

At least 15 states have per se drugs and driving laws, which make it illegal for a person to drive with any detectable level of certain drugs in his or her system. The states of Nevada, Ohio and Virginia have established limits for levels of certain intoxicants in a person's system, and 12 states have established zero-tolerance policies. Driving high, whether under the influence of illegal drugs, medical marijuana or legally prescribed pharmaceuticals, is in most cases just as illegal as driving drunk.

Drivers are affected by different drugs in different ways. Drugs that impact judgment, concentration, motor skills or alertness are treated as just as dangerous as alcohol. The impairing effects of various drugs cause drivers to make driving errors and significantly increase the risk of accidents.

According to a 2010 study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 10 million people in the United States drove while under the influence of drugs during 2009. Nearly 20 percent of fatally injured drivers in 2009 were found to have at least one prescription or illegal drug in their system at the time of the crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA also reported that one in five drivers killed in car accidents during 2009 tested positive for the presence of drugs.

Driver Impairment Effects of Different Drugs

Different substances have different effects on people, but generally, they all can make driving more dangerous. For example:

  • Marijuana may cause euphoria, relaxation, disorientation, paranoia or confusion. Use of the drug may cause increased alertness and focus, but only initially. 
  • Methamphetamine use results in excitement and euphoria in most cases and can cause hallucinations, delusions, impulsiveness and insomnia. Meth may also increase blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Users of heroin or morphine experience intense euphoria along with relaxation, drowsiness and mental clouding.
  • LSD may cause an altered mental state, delusions and an impaired perceptive ability for time, depth and space. It may also lead to tremors or hypertension.

Over-the-Counter and Prescription Drugs

There are a number of drugs that are available by prescription or over the counter that are strong enough to make driving dangerous for users. They may also form the basis of a driving high charge in some cases. The following are some of the drugs that are commonly prescribed or used that can cause driver impairment:

  • Antihistamines may impair coordination or impair reaction time.
  • The residual effects of sleeping pills may continue to cause drowsiness and slow reaction time even in the morning.
  • Valium is a popular tranquilizer, 10 milligrams of which can impair drivers similar to a .10 percent blood alcohol content level.
  • Pain relievers like hydrocodone can cause driver impairment in ways similar to codeine or morphine.
  • Antidepressants can have an impact on drivers similar to driving drunk.

Medical Marijuana

Drivers who live in states where marijuana has been approved for medical use, such as California and Colorado, may still be charged with driving while high on drugs even if they have a prescription for marijuana use. Some states that have drugged driving per se laws have included exceptions for approved patients using medical marijuana. Generally speaking, though, if law enforcement has sufficient evidence to bring a case for driving while high, a medical marijuana license will not prevent charges. The same goes for prescribed pharmaceuticals; for impaired drivers, a prescription is not an excuse for illegal activity.

The role that marijuana use plays in increasing traffic accident numbers is not clear, but the NHTSA indicates it causes drivers to perform worse on tasks like lane tracking and cognition. Individuals can help address drugged driving by being responsible with drug use themselves and appointing a designated driver.

Getting Legal Help

Individuals who have been charged with a drugs and driving offense may want to schedule a meeting with an attorney. Drugged driving cases may involve a number of different drugs and unique legal regulations or procedures. An attorney with experience handling driving while high cases may be able to help by challenging the admissibility of evidence, for example, or by attempting to negotiate a plea bargain on the client's behalf. Most criminal proceedings in the U.S., including most drugged driving cases, settle via plea bargain or another outcome before the parties get to trial.

Speak to an Experienced Drunk Driving Attorney Today

This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified drunk driving lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local drunk driving attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.

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