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Legalizing Marijuana Complicates State Driving Laws

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medical marijuanaThe following is a guest post by attorney Rick Console at Console & Hollawell P.C.

As states across the country continue to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, law officials struggle to create rules to deal with legally medicated drivers. Detecting impairment behind the wheel is particularly important for car accident attorneys in the 16 states where medical marijuana is legal, including New Jersey and Colorado. Proving impaired driving at the time of accidents goes a long way to determining fault for car accidents and who’s entitled to receive compensation for damages.

How states choose to punish those convicted of driving under the influence of a drug, including marijuana, varies widely. In Colorado, driving under the influence of marijuana can carry the same penalties as driving drunk. A first offense imposes a mandatory minimum of five days in jail and a minimum fine of $600, according to Chapter 42 of the Colorado Revised Statutes (PDF).

Authorities may elect to charge a marijuana-smoking driver with driving while ability impaired — a lesser charge. Penalties for that crime include a minimum two days in jail and a minimum fine of $200.

By contrast, New Jersey lumps marijuana use in with alcohol when it comes to getting behind the wheel. The penalty for a first offense in the Garden State includes a minimum sentence of 12 hours in jail, a minimum fine of $300, and seven-month driver’s license suspension, according to Chapter 39 of the New Jersey Statutes Revised.

No matter how stiff the states make the penalties for driving while under the influence of marijuana, no court will convict the accused unless authorities can establish a benchmark to determine impairment. THC, the active chemical in marijuana, remains in the body long after its effects wear off, making a blood test an inaccurate way of diminished driving ability.

Government researchers, according to CBS News, are working on a saliva test to catch users with active chemicals in their systems. States must still set arbitrary benchmarks for when impairment with marijuana use occurs.

A 2011 measure to set a legal limit for THC in the blood never made it out of debate in the Colorado Legislature. At publication, proposed legislation in several states is targeting a legal limit of five nanometers of TCH in the blood to determine legal impairment.

Rick Console is a New Jersey accident lawyer with more than 17  years of experience handling personal injury cases.  

Image by Joseph Adams, used under its Creative Commons license.

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