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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Traditional DUI testing of little use for marijuana

Law enforcement agencies in Washington may have been hoping for a different outcome when voters in the state chose to legalize recreational marijuana in November 2012. Some feared that legalizing the drug would lead to a surge in marijuana-impaired driving, and law enforcement has few tools at its disposal to deal with this kind of problem. Police can use field sobriety tests to determine whether or not a driver has been drinking and breath and blood tests to measure their blood alcohol levels, but this kind of testing is of little value in marijuana cases.

Alcohol is processed efficiently by the liver and levels tend to drop sharply once drinking ceases, but THC can be detected by blood or urine tests several weeks after marijuana has been consumed. Prosecutors must prove impaired driving charges beyond any reasonable doubt, and toxicology test results alone are unlikely to be able to accomplish this in marijuana impairment cases.

Police departments looking for an alternative to chemical tests turned to field sobriety testing when marijuana use was suspected, but this has also proved to be unreliable. Field sobriety tests were specifically designed to identify alcohol impairment, but marijuana affects motorists in different ways. Drivers under the influence of alcohol are uncoordinated and unsteady on their feet, but marijuana slows response times and makes dealing with distractions more difficult.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to have drunk driving charges dismissed when the scientific evidence supporting them is questionable. Blood, urine and field sobriety tests may be unreliable in marijuana impairment cases, and there are also questions surrounding the portable drug-testing kits used by many police departments. These kits are easy to use and cost only a few dollars each, but they have been known to confuse common household substances like sugar with Schedule I drugs.

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