Only in Arizona

Marijuana and Driving: AZ Supreme Court Asked to Review Recent Appellate Decision Upholding Zero-Tolerance Law

The Arizona Supreme Court has been asked to review a precedent-setting state Court of Appeals ruling that upholds the state's law against marijuana in a motorist's bloodstream.

The appellate court ruled last month that the State Legislature intended to criminalize the presence of any metabolite of marijuana in a motorist's blood, whether or not the driver was actually impaired, and reversed a trial court decision to the contrary.

Critics across the country blasted the decision as ludicrous because it allows prosecutors to win drugged-driving cases against motorists who used marijuana days or even weeks before they were cited.

Today, Phoenix attorney Michael Alarid filed a petition for review with the state's High Court on behalf of his client, Hrach Shilgevorkyan.

Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the court, writes that Alarid and the prosecutor (in this case, the office of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery), will write and submit briefs to defend their positions. The case then will be put on a future court agenda, "where the justices will decide whether or not to hear the case."

Two types of marijuana metabolites are key to the case: hydroxy-THC and carboxy-THC. Only the former has been shown to produce a "high" in marijuana users. The carboxy-THC is considered an "inactive secondary metabolite," according to Alarid's petition.

Shilgevorkyan was stopped in December 2010 for speeding and making an unsafe lane change. Suspecting him of being under the influence, the state Department of Public Safety officer arrested the driver and his blood drawn at a DPS station. Lab results showed the presence of eight nanograms per milliliter of carboxy-THC, but no active metabolite.

State law prohibits driving under the influence of a drug and "its" metabolite. Alarid makes several arguments, including one that "its" is singular and should not be interpreted to be plural.

As with his initial appeal of the municipal court's initial guilty finding of Shilgervorkyan, Alarid also points out that with 18 states -- including Arizona -- having passed medical-marijuana laws, and with two states (Colorado and Washington) legalizing pot outright, people from other states who legally toked up days ago would be guilty of drugged driving in Arizona even if they hadn't been under the influence for days.

The way the law currently is written, it's just like prosecuting someone for DUI who drank a six-pack at home last week.

This new petition is the perfect chance for the state Supreme Court to take a stance against statutory nonsense.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.