Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Russ Belville Headshot

Obama Drug Policy Calls for Drugged Driving Charges for Unimpaired Marijuana Users

Posted: Updated:

From the Obama Administration's recently released National Drug Control Strategy (hat tip to NORML reader Glen):

Encourage States To Adopt Per Se Drug Impairment Laws [ONDCP]

State laws regarding impaired driving are varied, but most State codes do not contain a separate offense for driving under the influence of drugs (DUID). Therefore, few drivers are identified, prosecuted, or convicted for DUID. Law enforcement personnel usually cite individuals with the easier to prove driving while intoxicated (DWI) alcohol charges. Unclear laws provide vague signals both to drivers and to law enforcement, thereby minimizing the possible preventive benefit of DUID statutes. Fifteen states have passed laws clarifying that the presence of any illegal drug in a driver's body is per se evidence of impaired driving. ONDCP will work to expand the use of this standard to other states and explore other ways to increase the enforcement of existing DUID laws.

Here are the states President Obama would like the others to emulate:
  1. Arizona: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, mandatory 24 hours jail, up to 6 months upon conviction.
  2. Delaware: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites.
  3. Georgia: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, mandatory 24 hours jail, up to 12 months upon conviction.
  4. Illinois: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, up to 12 months upon conviction.
  5. Indiana: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, up to 60 days upon conviction.
  6. Michigan: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, up to 93 days upon conviction, vehicle immobilization for up to 180 days.
  7. Nevada: 15 ng/ml for cannabis metabolites.
  8. Ohio: 15 ng/ml for cannabis metabolites, mandatory 72 hours in jail, up to 6 months upon conviction, 6 month to 3 year license suspension.
  9. Pennsylvania: DUID for cannabis metabolites, amount unclear.
  10. South Dakota: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites for persons under the age of 21.
  11. Utah: Zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites, mandatory 48 hours jail, up to 6 months upon conviction.
Nine of the fifteen states cited have "zero tolerance for cannabis metabolites".  What this means is that if the inactive (read: non-impairing) THC metabolite (THC-COOH) is detected in the urine of a driver, that driver is impaired in the eyes of the law.  (There are actually 17 states that have per se DUID laws, but Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Wisconsin exclude metabolites of cannabis.)  Nevada and Ohio have 15 ng/ml levels which are very low; most workplace pre-employment screenings set the initial screening limit at 50 ng/ml.  At the confirmation level of 15 ng/ml, the frequent cannabis user will be positive for perhaps as long as 15 weeks.

Of course, faithful NORML readers and most of the public know that cannabis metabolites can remain detectable in the urine for up to 100 days or longer for a regular cannabis consumer and up to fifteen days for the casual consumer, even after quitting cold turkey.  Metabolites in urine don't tell you a driver is actually impaired, they tell you someone used cannabis, but not when.  Even the US Department of Transportation admits that a positive test for drug metabolites is "solid proof of drug use within the last few days, it cannot be used by itself to prove behavioral impairment during a focal event."

Cannabis metabolites are funny things; they don't eliminate from the body in any predictable fashion. In fact, when you think about it, a metabolite is produced when the body metabolizes, or breaks down, a substance.  The presence of metabolites for THC tells you the body has already broken down the THC!  You could actually call a urine screening for metabolites a non-impairment test!

Now some of these laws do have per se standards for actual THC in the blood and you could argue that is a more realistic determinant of current impairment, but do you think most cash-strapped city, county, and state police are going to use an expensive, invasive blood test when a cheap urine screen is available and more likely to get them a conviction for DUID?

These per se DUID "zero tolerance" laws are nothing but discrimination against cannabis users, plain and simple.  Metabolites for every other drug, legal and illegal, are eliminated from the body much more quickly: So you could smoke some dust, snort some coke, shoot some smack, and pop some pills at the party Friday night, and possibly be considered an unimpaired driver by Monday (you could even have a couple of drinks before you got pulled over), but if you smoked a joint last month, in eleven states you could be going to jail and losing your license for endangering the public on the roadways.

These "zero tolerance" laws are criminalizing an entire population - cannabis users - for molecules in their bodies that have nothing to do with impairment or driving ability.  Can you imagine the uproar if police harassed drivers based on the melanin content of their skin... whoops, never mind.

Register To Vote