High Driving: Driving Under the Influence of Drugs
According to a 2018 study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.5 million people drove under the influence of alcohol and 12.6 million people drove under the influence of illicit drugs. The effects of alcohol and drugs can both impair driving, increasing the risk of an accident. Drivers who are suspected of alcohol-impaired driving, drug-impaired driving, or driving after a combination of alcohol and drugs can face serious criminal charges.
All states have laws against driving under the influence of drugs or controlled substances. Some states have per se drugged driving laws. Like drunk driving, if the driver tests positive for drugs in their system, there may be a presumption the driver was impaired. Some states base their per se drug driving laws for marijuana on the level of THC, based on testing for THC metabolites in the blood.
The penalties for drugged driving are similar to drunken driving penalties. The penalties and consequences of a criminal conviction vary by state. A first-time offense could result in:
- Jail time
- Impaired driving course
- Substance abuse counseling
- Community service
- Loss of driving privileges
- Points on your driving record
- Criminal record
- Higher insurance rates
A second impaired driving offense generally has increased penalties. Drunk driving and drugged driving may be combined when the impaired driver is facing a subsequent impaired driving arrest. Multiple drunk driving offenses or a fatal accident DUI could even result in felony charges.
Impaired drivers may also face criminal charges related to illegal drug possession. If the driver has illegal drugs in the vehicle, they may face criminal possession or trafficking charges.
Commercial drivers can face more serious penalties after a drug or alcohol charge. A commercial driver could have their license suspended or lose their CDL permanently after a conviction for operating while impaired.
Traffic stops where the police suspect the driver is under the influence of alcohol can ask drivers to blow into a breathalyzer, to test the level of alcohol in their body. However, there are no widely adopted traffic stop tests for checking for drugs. There are several things that law enforcement officers are looking for in drugged driving stops, including:
- Evidence of paraphernalia
- Smell of marijuana
- Smell of inhalants
- Slurred speech
- Blood-shot eyes
Some police officers are trained as Drug Recognition Experts (DREs). DRE officers go through some basic training to learn what they should look for to identify when a driver may be under the influence of drugs and what types of drugs may be involved. However, drug recognition is not evidence of drug use but more of a guideline. Many sober drivers are wrongly accused of using drugs because of an innocent reason. The police may improperly suspect a sober driver of being high because of:
- Medical issues
- Physical disability
- Mental health condition
- Drowsy driving
The police may suspect impaired driving after a motor vehicle crash. A serious injury accident or fatal crash could cause the police to request or get a warrant to take a blood sample for chemical testing. Chemical tests can include blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tests, as well as looking for traces of drugs. Even after the effects of these drugs wears off, there may be traces of the drugs left in the body. A blood or urine test may still show evidence of taking drugs days after the effects have worn off. Generally, breath tests are not used where the driver is suspected of being on drugs because breathalyzers primarily check the blood alcohol level.
Police may ask the driver to perform some tests to evaluate their impairment levels. However, these field sobriety tests may not be required. It is important to understand the problems with these tests to decide whether you want to refuse or try and pass. The standardized field sobriety tests include:
- Walk-and-turn test
- One-leg stand test
- Horizontal gaze nystagmus test (eye test)
These roadside tests can be highly inaccurate and dangerous. However, police officers still use these tests to get the probable cause they need to make an arrest.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 65% of drivers involved in serious injury and fatal crashes test positive for at least one drug. Different substances have different effects on people. In some cases, substances can make driving more dangerous. Depending on the controlled substance involved, driving after taking drugs can:
- Slow reaction time
- Impair hand-eye coordination
- Impair perception of time
- Impair depth perception
- Cause hallucinations
- Decrease muscle coordination
- Increase anxiety and paranoia
- Impair judgment
- Increase aggression
- Cause drowsiness
- Impair cognitive function
- Increase heart rate and blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
When people are under the influence of alcohol drugs, they often underestimate the effects it has on their body. Even if the driver can get home fine, they may have a loss of control when reacting to an emergency driving situation.
The effects of some controlled substances only last for a few minutes, while other drugs can impair the body for hours. Many drivers who may be under the influence of drugs may also be under the influence of alcohol. Combining drugs and alcohol can be even more dangerous for driving.
The laws against impaired driving are not limited to illicit drugs or street narcotics. Operating under the influence of drugs can include prescription medication and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Drivers can be charged with drug-impaired driving when taking medication prescribed by their doctor. Even if the driver did not know the drug would impair their driving skills, the driver may still face criminal charges.
Prescription drugs can impair the ability to drive safely. Some of the drugs that are commonly prescribed or used that can cause driver impairment include:
- Antihistamines, which may impair coordination
- The residual effects of sleeping pills may continue to cause drowsiness and slow reaction time, even in the morning
- Valium can impair drivers similar to an over-the-limit blood alcohol content level
- Painkillers like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl can cause driver impairment, including drowsiness and impaired judgment
- Antidepressants can have an impact on drivers similar to a drunk driver
The majority of states have now legalized medical marijuana for use and possession. A growing number of states are now legalizing recreational marijuana. Even though the state allows individuals to buy and consume marijuana, driving while high is still against the law. Even if you are a marijuana user with a marijuana card or prescription, you may still face criminal charges if the police suspect you are driving under the influence of a cannabis product.
Many drivers who are arrested for a drug DUI plead guilty because they don’t think they have a chance. However, before accepting a plea bargain, make sure you understand your rights. Talk to a criminal defense lawyer about your options and how you can avoid serious criminal penalties. Your attorney may also be able to negotiate a deal so you can avoid jail time or participate in a diversion program to get the charges dropped.
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