California has mostly legalized marijuana, but driving under the influence of marijuana is still illegal. In fact, this offense is treated exactly like an alcohol DUI, and the penalties are severe. If you have been arrested for marijuana DUI, you need an experienced defense lawyer.
Isn’t marijuana use legal in California?
In general, yes, but driving under the influence of marijuana is not. California’s marijuana laws are complex and leave many opportunities for marijuana users to be arrested. For example, to possess or use marijuana for recreational use, you must follow certain rules:
- You must be at least 21
- You aren’t allowed to possess more than one ounce (28.5 grams) or its equivalent in concentrated forms
- You can grow your own for personal use, but with a maximum of six plants
- You cannot buy marijuana commercially unless you have a medical marijuana card issued by the state
- Only certain authorized dispensaries are allowed to sell it
- You must smoke or use it privately, not in a public space
If you follow all of these rules it is generally legal to smoke, consume, vape or otherwise use marijuana. But you cannot drive while you’re high or stoned. Doing so is a violation of California’s DUI laws, and those laws apply to all substances whether they are legal or illegal.
How does marijuana affect driving?
Marijuana affects each person differently. Two people could smoke the same amount and feel very different afterward, and one could be stoned much longer than the other. As a result, many marijuana users feel that marijuana does not affect their driving, or that they can use a small amount and drive safely—but the law disagrees.
California tries to base its DUI laws on medical evidence. With marijuana, the research has been mixed. Some studies find that marijuana does impair driving ability, so much so that drivers are about twice as likely to cause an accident if they’ve smoked or ingested marijuana. But that’s a much smaller effect than alcohol, which can increase the accident risk by up to 20 times. It’s also noteworthy that stoned drivers often drive slower, not fast and aggressive like many drunk drivers.
Because of this ambiguity, marijuana DUI laws are somewhat arbitrary. In California, the rule for whether a substance can count for DUI is whether it affects the brain, muscles and/or nervous system. Marijuana has many effects that meet this standard. These can include:
- Mood changes
- Trouble focusing
- Memory problems
- A distorted sense of time
Just because marijuana can cause these effects doesn’t mean that everyone who uses it is unsafe to drive. The prosecution has to prove that you were impaired to convict you of DUI.
How can the prosecution prove that I was impaired by marijuana?
Unlike alcohol cases, there is no easy test for marijuana DUI. Officers will ask you to give a blood sample or urine sample after your arrest—and there are penalties if you don’t do it. But all these tests can do is confirm whether or not you had used marijuana, and how much of its active ingredient (THC) is in your system. Unlike alcohol, there is no magic number for how much THC is too much. Almost everyone experiences impairment at certain blood alcohol levels, but that is not true for marijuana. This is partly because people who use marijuana regularly could have high THC levels even when they are completely sober. It simply stays in the system.
As a result, prosecutors cannot prove impairment with just a blood or urine test. They have to show some evidence of how the marijuana affected your driving. Some of the evidence they may draw on includes:
- Driving behavior. If you were speeding, swerving, driving very slowly, or otherwise driving in an erratic or unusual manner, it will be considered evidence of your impairment.
- How recently you consumed marijuana. Someone who used marijuana within a short period before driving, or while at the wheel, is likely to be impaired. Evidence of this includes visible smoke, a strong marijuana smell, and having the drug with you in the car.
- Statements you made. If you admitted that you smoked recently, or if you talked about how stoned you were, it will be used against you. Statements by others at the scene can also be considered.
- Your behavior and appearance. Bloodshot eyes, difficulty answering questions or focusing on instructions, and other physical signs can suggest impairment.
- Field sobriety tests (FSTs). FSTs like asking you to stand on one leg and count, or walk a line, are designed to test both your physical impairment and your ability to follow instructions. Marijuana affects how well you can perform these tests.
How do I defend against a marijuana DUI charge?
There are three main ways a DUI defense attorney will fight a marijuana DUI charge:
- Attacking the evidence. There are many ways to challenge the prosecutor’s evidence, either on its validity (such as a flawed blood test) or how it was collected. If officers didn’t have a good reason for the traffic stop, for example, or if they broke procedures designed to guarantee your rights, then the evidence they collected could be excluded from your case.
- Showing that you were not impaired. Even though marijuana blood tests and urine tests are not reliable, prosecutors continue to use them as key evidence. This is designed to convince a jury you were impaired while driving. But a good defense lawyer knows how to make this claim look ridiculous—you could have high THC levels on a blood test even 12 hours after you smoked.
- Challenging the FSTs. Field sobriety tests can be failed for many reasons, including fatigue, obesity, poor testing conditions or an officer who doesn’t do the test right. They are weak evidence and can be fought.
Additionally, you could use the no driving defense in some cases.
What are the penalties for marijuana DUI in Los Angeles?
The penalties are the same for all DUIs. They include:
- First DUI: Up to 6 months in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, a license suspension of up to 10 months, and up to 9 months of DUI school.
- Second DUI: Up to 1 year in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, 2 years’ license suspension, and 18-30 months of DUI school.
- Third DUI: Up to 1 year in jail, up to $1,000 in fines, 3 years’ license suspension, and 30 months of DUI school.
- Fourth DUI: A felony conviction that can include 16 months of prison time or more, up to $18,000 in expenses, mandatory alcohol treatment and other penalties.
Additionally, you could face felony charges and prison time if your DUI injured or killed someone, even if it’s your first offense. Any DUI conviction has consequences that last for years. It is essential that you have a professional defending you.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 896-2724 and get your free consultation today.