Everyone knows that it’s dangerous to drink and drive and there’s even a growing recognition that driving while tired can put others at risk. More recently, though, law enforcement is facing a new challenge: driving while high. With marijuana decriminalization spreading, as well as the development of extensive medical marijuana program, drivers, insurance companies, and law enforcement must decide what the legal ramifications of driving while under the influence of marijuana are. The result is potentially a new front in negligence law.
Marijuana Behind The Wheel
Just as alcohol makes driving more dangerous, the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can impact memory, judgment, and coordination, among other systems, all of which can make drivers a hazard behind the wheel. These physiological changes are relatively short-term, but traces of marijuana can remain in a heavy user’s system for weeks after use.
Further complicating the issue, drivers aren’t routinely tested for marijuana immediately after a car accident, and unless the other driver is in a visibly altered state based on witness statements and interactions, it can be hard to prove substance use. In the aftermath of a car accident, then, it’s important not just to document the circumstances and exchange insurance information, but to insist upon comprehensive substance use testing.
Claiming Criminal Negligence
If someone is found to be under the influence of marijuana at the scene of an accident, are they automatically viewed to be negligent? Legally, the situation is complicated since testing can be faulting, and many states haven’t formally updated their laws to clearly address marijuana use. That being said, negligent driving is a broad concept. In essence, it covers any behavior that negatively impacts your ability to operate a motor vehicle or the failure to act responsibly behind the wheel – whether that takes the form of drinking, texting, speeding, or driving in the wrong lane.
As for those trying to prove negligence and collect damages at the scene of an accident, the good news is that field sobriety tests can often indicate impairment, even if the individual doesn’t have alcohol in their system. In Massachusetts, for example, new legislation affirms the use of the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, along with traditional toxicology testing in cases when marijuana use is suspected. According to testimony, HGN testing is 88% reliable at detecting impairment, though alone it cannot detect the source.
Regarding Medical Marijuana
It makes sense that marijuana might be legal, yet it would be considered negligent to operate a car while under the influence; after all, alcohol is legal, but you still can’t drink and drive. The situation can become more complicated, however, when considering medical marijuana.
Typically speaking, unless it’s meant to put them to sleep, people take their medications no matter what their intended activities since medication treats various biological dysfunctions. However, for those who use marijuana to treat a disease or manage side effects, like those associated with chemo, driving while taking this supposed medication remains illegal.
Know The Consequences
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter why someone uses marijuana or how much – at least not when it comes to getting behind the wheel. In states with legal recreational use, car accidents are up, and the only obvious cause is marijuana use. And not only can driving while high lead to a negligence claim, if you drive while high and have a child in the car, you could also face child abuse claims in addition to a negligence suit.
States with legal recreational marijuana use are increasing the number of trained drug recognition experts and boosting impaired driving enforcement, so impaired drivers are more likely to be apprehended and charged. The simple solution: indulge if marijuana is legal where you live, but don’t get behind the wheel. Driving while high is a surefire way to endanger yourself and everyone around you.