How Much Marijuana is Too Much for Drivers?

South Carolina senators voted 7-4 to reject medical marijuana legislation that would have made the drug available for those with debilitating or chronic illnesses. Calling it a “pathway to recreational use,” senators say the negatives outweigh the positives. marijuana1

However, this is unlikely to be the last we will hear of this issue in the Carolinas. And while the drug is still technically illegal, it’s still one of the most widely-used substances in the U.S. Further, even proponents of legalization for medical/ recreational purposes concede the drug is an intoxicating substance that can serve to impair drivers.

So what does this mean for those who share the road with marijuana users? In many ways, marijuana use is treated the same as alcohol use. That is, it is illegal to operate a vehicle while impaired. Specifically, S.C. Code Ann. 56-5-2930(A) prohibits driving under the influence of alcohol or any drugs that would impair a person’s normal faculties to the point it is unsafe to drive a vehicle. 

Still, unlike with alcohol, determining impairment of marijuana is more subjective. With alcohol, a person whose blood-alcohol level is at 0.08 or higher is deemed intoxicated. There is no similar test for marijuana that is widely accepted by the scientific community. Some states – including those that have passed measures approving recreational use – have passed laws that set a limit of the level of THC that can be in one’s blood (usually 5 nanograms) before he or she is considered impaired. However, a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a road safety advocacy group, said those arbitrary limits were not scientifically supported.

That’s because THC – the active ingredient in cannabis – remains in one’s system far longer than alcohol does. So a person who is a regular user might test positive for heightened levels of marijuana even though he or she hasn’t recently consumed the drug and isn’t impaired.

That means determining impairment is often based on the observations of the officer (i.e., red eyes, reduced reaction time, odd speech patterns, etc.), and circumstantial evidence (presence of marijuana in vehicle, smell of marijuana, evidence that marijuana was recently smoked or consumed).

As it now stands, there are 23 states plus the District of Columbia that allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes. Only a handful allow it for recreational use.

In Washington state, which allows both medicinal and recreational use, the AAA Foundation reported in a recent study that the prevalence of marijuana found in drivers involved in fatal crashes there more than doubled from 2010 to 2014.

That’s where our injury lawyers inject a serious concern. Whether someone is lawfully or unlawfully using drugs – be it opioids or marijuana or cold medicine – if he or she is impaired, they should not be behind the wheel, as it is a danger to others.

Increasing marijuana use affects civil litigation in that not only may it give rise to more impaired driving lawsuits, but that it may serve as grounds for punitive damages. All drivers owe a duty of care to their passengers and others on the road to operate their vehicles with proper case. Use of an intoxicating substance prior to getting behind the wheel could be evidence of gross negligence, which is the basis for punitive damages in South Carolina car accident lawsuits.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Prevalence of Marijuana Involvement in Fatal Crashes: Washington, 2010-2014, May 2016, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

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Easterling v. Burger King – Court of Appeals Affirms Restaurant Off-the-Hook for Violent Assault, May 26, 2016, Rock Hill Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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