Riding High: Arizona's Zero-Tolerance Stance on Pot and Driving

A couple of large mason jars full of green buds sit on the coffee table inside Tad Zaccard's west Mesa mobile home as he talks about his marijuana-DUI ticket.

"I'm a grower," admits Zaccard, a 46-year-old nutrition adviser who works for a local hospital.

As one of the state's 38,000 qualified patients, he's growing cannabis legally under Arizona's 2010 medical-marijuana law. He gets high on his own supply.

But Zaccard insists that he wasn't impaired by pot in any way when he was pulled over on the night of December 29 by a Gilbert cop working a DUI task-force patrol.

The living room of Zaccard's home is tiny, but neat. A connecting room contains thousands of vinyl records, which Zaccard spins for the classic-rock Internet radio station he operates just for fun, www.waxtraxradio.com.

On this Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Zaccard — a young grandpa who's half-Italian, half-Native American — is dressed in shorts and a black T-shirt accented with a heavy gold chain.

There's no smell of burned marijuana in the place. Zaccard seems as sober as a preacher. In his soft-spoken way, he's as full of righteousness as one, too. He's well-versed on the subject of Arizona's zero-tolerance law on driving with marijuana in the bloodstream, and he's aware that the state Supreme Court has been asked to review the law.

"I think the whole thing's criminal," he says of his arrest. "How many people does this have to happen to? I believe in this cause, and I think this needs to be addressed. It's really not right."

He relates how he was stopped just after 11 p.m. on a holiday-season Saturday night, having just finished dinner with his two adult children. Before going to bed, the unseasonably cold weather had spurred him to head out to a nearby Walgreens to buy a space heater.

Seconds after pulling out of the mobile-home park onto Main Street in his black Pontiac Sunfire, he saw the blue and red flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

Officer Eric Riley, traveling east on his motorcycle, stopped Zaccard for making a slow lane change. Zaccard disputes details of Riley's police report. He insists that he wasn't "straddling" the line between Main Street's eastbound lanes for 500 feet as he moved from the right to the left lane.

After making the stop, the cop thought the driver's speech and body movements seemed slow, his report shows. Zaccard had "extremely dilated pupils and red and watery eyes," plus a "white/green coating on his tongue," leading Riley to believe Zaccard was stoned, the report states.

A breath test showed a blood-alcohol content of zero.

Riley asked him when he'd last smoked marijuana. Zaccard told him he'd smoked one joint the day before.

Admissions like that are golden to certified drug-recognition experts, like Riley, who know that traces of marijuana can stay in the bloodstream for days or weeks.

Zaccard made a few key errors on a field-sobriety test. He couldn't walk heel-to-toe in a straight line and had trouble following instructions, Riley's report states. On the "one-leg stand" test, Zaccard "hopped" and seemed to have balance problems.

Soon enough, the Sunfire was towed, Zaccard's blood was drawn, and he was sent home with a citation.

Zaccard hadn't received a court summons, meaning the Gilbert prosecutor's office hadn't yet decided to move forward with a DUI case. His blood-test results weren't available as of press time.

Yet the prosecution, in theory, probably has an airtight case. Zaccard is a regular user of marijuana. So it's all but certain he'll fail the blood test. His medical-marijuana card won't help him if Gilbert presses the case, because of the technicality that doctors recommend, but not prescribe, marijuana.

Even if a person admits to smoking a little pot before driving, it's still reasonable to ask whether his or her level of impairment is comparable to a .08 BAC, the point at which a driver is considered legally drunk.

It doesn't matter under Arizona's zero-tolerance law. Technically speaking, Zaccard and everyone else with the slightest hint of pot residue in their blood — even card-holding patients — commit a legal foul every time they get behind the wheel.

Arizona is one of 15 states that has a zero-tolerance law against driving with any amount of pot in the system.

But, in keeping with the state's oddball reputation, Arizona is one of only three states that have both a zero-tolerance driving law for pot and a law legalizing the sale, possession, and use of medical marijuana.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery — a Republican who's allied with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and is fighting to keep the drug-DUI law as is — stated during a radio show earlier this year that pot users are never legally able to drive in Arizona.

Montgomery believes that since there's no good way to determine impairment from marijuana, it's best to go the easy route — require a simple blood test that leads to lots of convictions. This gives the prosecutor's office a political boost with those who share his prohibitionist view. The right-wing county attorney has taken up the fight against the voter-approved 2010 Medical Marijuana Act where Governor Jan Brewer and state Attorney General Tom Horne, both fellow Republicans, have left off.

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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.