Why a puff of marijuana could land you a DUI
An Anchorage defense attorney is calling on legislators to change the law regarding marijuana consumption and driving.
Nearly two years after it was legalized, Alaska still has no set limit for the acceptable amount of marijuana that can be in your system while driving. That means you can be charged with driving under the influence even if you've inhaled only one puff.
“We don't have a standard, it's just not fair,” attorney Rex Butler explained during a recent interview.
Butler has represented several clients in marijuana OUI cases, and he has a problem with the way law enforcement decides drivers are high. He says unless you follow officers’ directions very carefully during sobriety tests, you’ll fail them -- and it's hard for people with physical problems to pass.
“Very few people complete the field sobriety test," Butler said.
In Anchorage, it’s the job of the Impaired Driving Enforcement Unit to determine whether a driver is impaired.
“We rely solely on our field sobriety tests to arrest or not arrest somebody,” said APD Officer Steve Dunn.
Dunn runs a team of six officers who are certified drug recognition experts, trained to know the signs of a person who has smoked before getting behind the wheel.
“Marijuana up here is so potent that it dilates the pupil when it’s psychoactive, so that's one of the things we look for," Dunn said.
If his team determines you've failed the test, you're arrested on scene and sent to jail where a blood test is taken. If the test comes back with even a trace of active marijuana, you're charged with DUI. That's because in Alaska, unlike alcohol, there's no set limit for acceptable marijuana consumption.
"It's just not fair if you don't set a standard," Butler said.
It means that even one hit of marijuana before driving could land you a DUI. Butler says there’s no due process of law.
“How can I know exactly how to protect myself?" Butler asked.
In the eyes of Alaska’s law enforcement, no amount of marijuana is safe before getting behind the wheel.
There are states with established marijuana standards. Washington's limit is five nanograms per milliliter.
However, Officer Dunn is skeptical about setting a limit. He says people who are chronic users of marijuana have a much higher tolerance than someone who is a first-time user.
“It really could be five nanograms or it could be over 40 nanograms, so it really depends," Dunn. "And folks that are five nanograms and below could be just as dangerous as someone that’s 40 nanograms and higher, because it’s just their tolerance level and their usage.”
Any Alaska standard would likely have to come from the state Legislature. Marijuana has been legal for nearly two years in the state, and the conversation has never come up.
However, state Sen. Cathy Giessel (R-Anchorage), who says she's been following this very closely for the last three years, told KTVA that perhaps it's time to do that when session starts in late January.
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