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A recent study that has gathered a great deal of media attention has found that driving while under the influence of marijuana may be less dangerous than driving while under the influence of alcohol. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted an extensive study and found that while drinking substantially increases the risks of getting into an accident, the same is not true of marijuana use.
Certainly marijuana use does have an effect on a driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle in a safe fashion. THC – the active component of marijuana that causes the user to get “high” – is the second most common substance found in a driver’s system after a vehicle collision. The most common is alcohol. Marijuana use will increase the risk of an accident by 25%, however the study concluded that this was a negligible risk when taking into account other factors such as age, race and gender. In contrast, having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or higher will increase the risk of getting into an accident by seven-fold.
The NHTSA has further stated that the results of the study do not indicate that drug use by drivers is without risk and further noted that the study had limitations. With marijuana use, it may be difficult to correlate the presence of the drug in a person’s system with that person’s level of impairment. With alcohol, this is much easier as multiple studies have been conducted to correlate blood alcohol level with degree of impairment. In addition, unlike alcohol which is quickly metabolized and excreted after consumption, THC can remain detectable in a person’s system for days or even weeks. Thus a person can test positive for THC long after the psychoactive effects of the drug have worn off.
While this study may suggest that stoned driving is not as dangerous as drunk driving, in California both offenses are considered Driving Under the Influence offenses in violation of California Vehicle Code Section 23152. California Vehicle Code Section 23152(a) and (b) cover DUI involving alcohol while driving while under the influence of drugs is covered by California Vehicle Code Section 23152(e). A person who is found to have both drugs and alcohol in their system can be charged with DUI under California Vehicle Code Section 23152(f).
One key difference between stoned driving and drunk driving is that the DMV will only assess an administrative driver’s license suspension to drivers who are found to have had a BAC of 0.08 or higher at the time of driving. If the driver is found to have marijuana (or another drug) and no alcohol, then the potential suspension will be set aside. However, if the defendant is convicted of any section of California Vehicle Code Section 23152, a driver’s license suspension will be triggered regardless of whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or marijuana at the time of driving. In Los Angeles County, even defendants who had no alcohol in their system would be required to install an Ignition Interlock Device (“IID”) as part of the DMV’s Pilot Program.