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In California, it is illegal to drive while under the influence or alcohol or drugs, or a combination of the two. When thinking about drugs in this context, most people focus on illegal street drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or ecstasy. However, the law does not discriminate between illegal narcotics and prescription medications that have an intoxicating effect. It is important to remember that a person can be charged with driving under the influence even if he or she has taken a medication that was lawfully prescribed by a doctor.
Not all prescription medications will expose a driver to potential DUI charges. When taking medication, a person should pay attention to the instructions and warnings provided by the pharmacist. If the instructions warn against driving while taking the medicine, this is a good sign that driving while taking this drug could result in DUI charges. Under the law, a drug is any substance that affects or impairs the user’s nervous system, brain or muscle control.
A number of legally prescribed medications can result in DUI charges when consumed. This includes painkillers such as Vicodin, anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, sleep aids such as Ambien and even prescription marijuana which has been approved for medicinal use in California.
When an officer suspects that a driver may be under the influence of drugs, a Drug Recognition Officer (“DRE”) may be called to the scene to assist in the arrest. DREs receive specialized training in recognizing the effects of drug intoxication. If the driver is arrested for driving under the influence of drugs and no alcohol use is suspected, he or she will not be given the option of taking either a breath or blood test. When drug intoxication is suspected, officers are allowed to require that the defendant take a blood test. This is because the Breathalyzer machine is only designed to measure alcohol content and cannot be used to show whether or not a person has drugs in his or her system.
It is important to remember that if the driver is only found to have drugs in his or her system, the Department of Motor Vehicles will not issue an administrative driver’s license suspension, or will set aside any license suspension that had previously been imposed. However, if the driver is convicted of a DUI offense in court, even a DUI offense not involving alcohol, a mandatory driver’s license suspension would be triggered. In Los Angeles County, the driver would be required to install an Ignition Interlock Device (“IID”) that prevents a car from starting if the driver has been consuming alcohol.
Having a prescription for a medication is not a defense to a DUI drug charge, however it is something that a prosecutor may be willing to consider in mitigation. Some drugs are detectable in the body for an extensive amount of time and it may be necessary for the driver to use an expert witness to show how the amount of drug discovered was not at a level that would cause impairment.