For the millions of people who now use marijuana legally under their states' laws, driving in Arizona is technically a crime.
Motorists with pot metabolites in their bloodstreams who want to avoid a marijuana DUI -- which comes with nasty fines and a one-year suspension of driving privileges, instead of the regular 90 days for booze DUIs -- may want to consult our quick primer below.
As our cover story this week points out, state law prohibits driving with marijuana or "its metabolite in the person's body." In February, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the "zero-tolerance" rule in a case that's now being appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Because the appellate court ruled that "its metabolite" could be plural as well as singular, even an inert metabolite of marijuana's active ingredient, THC, which can stay in the body for weeks after the last use of the drug, counts under the proscription.
Cops say they only bust motorists for a marijuana DUI if the person is exhibiting signs of impairment. But sometimes police are overly aggressive in their hunt for dangerous drivers, or just plain wrong about what they believe are signs of marijuana intoxication. In those cases, the suspected impaired driver will have his or her blood drawn. If the blood shows any sign of pot metabolites, the state can obtain a conviction.
We drive, and therefore do not want to encourage other motorists to drive while stoned, wasted, fried, zombified, or any other adjective that implies a high chance of hitting us, or you, gentle readers.
Motorists are not allowed to be "impaired to the slightest degree" in Arizona. However, as every cop who's been to a happy hour knows, it's not against the law to have a few drinks and get behind the wheel, even if you feel the effects of those drinks, as long as you're not impaired.
The same logic may or may not be applicable to marijuana. Science isn't yet able to predict how impaired a person might be based on how much marijuana was ingested. Another way to put that: Some people seem to be very impaired after consuming a little pot, while others don't seem to be impaired at all after consuming a lot of pot.
Putting aside the difficult questions those facts raise when it comes to enforcing highway safety, Arizona's zero-tolerance law means that someone who appears high to an officer, but hasn't used pot in days, is at risk of a marijuana DUI. Here's what we learned about preventing a conviction or getting stopped in the first place:
Click through to the next page for tips on how to avoid a pot DUI.
* Don't use marijuana. Gotta say it. No metabolites, no conviction.
* Get educated: Know that marijuana metabolites can stay in your body for a month or longer. If you used marijuana legally under the recreational marijuana laws of Colorado or Washington, or under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, realize that it will be weeks before you can drive legally in Arizona.
* Don't drive while using alcohol or other drugs. Studies show that driving can be impaired after just a few drinks. If you get pulled over because you're driving stupidly with a .05 BAC, it's possible that an officer may order a drug test that reveals marijuana metabolites, making your DUI case a lot less defensible despite the low alcohol reading.
* Worth repeating: Don't drive on drugs. In the roughly 200 pot-DUI and accident reports we looked through for this week's feature article, plus the many dozens of blood-test results of suspected impaired drivers in serious crashes in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Chandler, only one injury crash -- in Scottsdale -- was believed by police to be due to a driver impaired only by cannabis. Most of the impaired-driver crashes involved booze. But it seemed like a significant number of drivers had half a pharmacy in their bloodstreams. Others had used illegal drugs. Some studies suggest that illicit drugs like cocaine or meth can impact driving more than marijuana.
The police reports revealed to us that driving with drugs that end in "-lam" is probably a terrible idea. In Phoenix last year, there was only one injury accident (and no fatals) in which a suspected, non-alcohol-using impaired driver tested positive only for a single drug, and it wasn't pot: It was midazolam, a.k.a. Versed, a light anesthetic that causes sleepiness and acute memory loss.
* Don't make driving errors that can lead to getting stopped. This one's tough. Especially, and we'll be blunt, if your skin isn't lily white. Taking a wide right turn, forgetting to come to a complete stop while exiting a parking lot, or driving with no license-plate light or a cracked windshield might be all it takes to attract the attention of Officer Friendly, who doesn't care about the cracked windshield but is looking for impaired drivers. In any case, failing to speed, weave, drive too slowly, or leave your headlights off at night will tip off nearby officers to the fact that you're not impaired, leading them to pull over someone else.
* It's possible to look high on pot when you're not. The Phoenix area is one of the country's allergy capitals, causing the eyes of many non-pot-using residents to turn red. Someone who's hung over on legal booze might have red, watery eyes, too. Various brands of eye drops claim to cure bloodshot eyes, which might be advisable to unimpaired drivers with metabolites in their bloodstreams. If you use marijuana even infrequently, this is information you already knew.
* As ridiculous as it sounds, one of the signs of recent pot use that cops look for is a green-coated tongue. If you notice your tongue is green, it's possible you may need a primer on oral hygiene, too.
* Don't cruise around in a car that smells like you're the chauffeur for the Choom Gang. If your passenger tokes, the fact that you haven't smoked won't save you if those metabolites are in your blood. After a cop takes a whiff of that stanky shite in the vehicle, an unimpaired driver could well be arrested, tested and convicted.
It doesn't always go down that way, though, according to cops. For instance, a driver and vehicle may reek of weed, but the driver exhibits no sign of impairment. One officer related how he saw -- and smelled -- pot smoke coming from a parked car not far from where he himself was parked. The suspect then drove away and was pulled over. But the officer didn't write a DUI ticket, he says, in part because the drug clearly hadn't had time to impair the driver.
* If the officer truly believes you are too high to drive, or he's just gonna hassle you because he hates stoners and you're wearing a shirt that says, "It's 4:19 -- got a minute?", then you can forget about going home anytime soon. You're going to be arrested and will have your blood drawn.
Michael Munoz, a Valley criminal defense attorney, suggests exercising your right to remain silent and using your right to request to speak to a lawyer before agreeing to or refusing a blood test.
* During a roadside marijuana-DUI investigation, an officer might ask if the motorist has a medical-marijuana card even if no marijuana is visible. Answering "yes" will likely be counted as a strike against you, since the cop will then know you have metabolites in your bloodstream and that a blood draw would be fruitful. As our article explains, the card won't protect you from being prosecuted because of a technicality in the law that exempts metabolites from prescribed drugs, but not from medical marijuana, which is recommended by doctors instead of prescribed.
When we asked one cop about this, he said that a motorist could "plead the Fifth" when asked about a card. That dovetails with Munoz's advice to clam up.
True, state law prohibits police from using the database to determine if someone has a card -- cops can only use the database to verify the validity of a card that someone presents to them. However, we would not recommend lying to the officer about the card or anything else. Not only is lying unethical, but it might result in a criminal charge of giving false info to a cop if you're caught.
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* Don't admit to using marijuana "yesterday," or at any time, because it doesn't matter when you last toked under Arizona's zero-tolerance law. Any admission is used to build a criminal case against you. Tell the officer you don't want to answer any questions, Munoz advises.
* Should you take that field sobriety test or not? The officer who suspects impairment may ask a driver to stand on one leg for 30 seconds or perform other sobriety tests. If you're sober, you should pass the test. Cops tell New Times that they will often send a driver who passes these tests on his or her way. But an experienced Phoenix DUI cop told us that 90 percent of sober drivers pass the tests -- meaning that 10 percent don't. However, if you're going to be arrested anyway -- a strong possibility if the car smells of weed and your eyes are bloodshot -- any mistake on the field-sobriety tests will count against you in court. Munoz advises drivers to refuse those field tests.
Good luck out there.