Smoking and Stranded

Despite MMJ Act, in Arizona any amount of THC can get you busted with a DUI

Shabreta Peterson got a medical marijuana card in December to legally treat her severe social anxiety, extreme nausea and excruciating back pain.

All it takes is a puff or two, or some edibles in the morning, for her to get through the full-time work day comfortably. In the mornings, she has to decide, "Should I smoke before work and not hurt all day? Or be in pain until I get home?"

"It took me a long time to decide to get my card, and once I got it, I realized that I did it so that I could have freedom, I wouldn't have to worry about getting pulled over and having marijuana on me, and get in trouble for it," Peterson says. "What happened is that now I actually feel like I have a target on my back."

She, like many others, is afraid to get behind the wheel, because as the current law stands, drivers with active metabolites in their system can be charged with a DUI. THC can stay in your bloodstream for days, sometimes weeks, after the last hit.

Peterson is among the approximately 55,000 medical marijuana users in the state who, for the most part, have social and economic responsibilities—jobs, college and university courses and so on—and who require reliable transportation, preferably their own automobile, to move from point A to point B.

Well, Arizona's rules on pot and driving might get worse.

If a bill introduced in the state House last month moves through the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey signs it into law, inactive metabolites found in your bloodstream could also result in DUI convictions.

HB 2273, authored by Republican state Rep. Sonny Borrelli of Kingman, seeks to revise the state's driving under the influence statute, clarifying that both active and inactive metabolites are a go for DUIs, despite an April 2014 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court saying the presence of non-impairing metabolites shouldn't be grounds for conviction.

"If they are trying to pass laws to protect citizens from actions of others, let's do it right, let's do it based on science," says Robert Clark, co-chairman of Safer Arizona, a pot advocacy group. "When it comes to alcohol, you can set a number, anybody, when they reach those numbers, you are intoxicated, proven fact. Those numbers mean nothing with cannabis, whether they are for inactive or active metabolites."

You can have X nanograms of THC without actually being high, he says.

When the state Supreme Court issued its ruling, it argued it made no sense to criminalize what has been legal conduct since 2010, referring to the Medical Marijuana Act, which gave people with chronic pain, glaucoma, most-recently post-traumatic stress disorder, among other debilitating conditions, the OK to smoke, eat, and do what they please with pot. Not to say that everyone who uses marijuana is good to drive, but asking to have absolutely no traces of pot in the bloodstream for a medical marijuana patient who drives is unrealistic, Clark says.

After the state Supreme Court ruling, the Arizona Court of Appeals in October clarified that the state's Medical Marijuana Act doesn't protect cardholders from DUI convictions.

The MMJ Act does prohibit driving under the influence of marijuana, but it says that patients shouldn't be prosecuted solely on the presence of metabolites or marijuana components that don't seem to have enough concentration to actually cause impairment. Now, it would be a pain in the ass to go back and add a protection, since any changes would require 75 percent of the state Legislature to approve.

To Clark and Peterson, this type of legislation is not about protecting citizens, it is about conservative politicians trying to establish rules that make medical marijuana users' lives harder.

"It is wrong to criminalize responsible people, go after sick people, we run that risk every day," Clark says. "We have been asking people in the community to contact their representatives, saying we don't want any laws that criminalize sick people. We don't want people popping a bunch of opiates and driving ... cannabis does not have the same effects. Lawmakers are afraid of something that they have no experience with."

Colorado, Washington state, where adults 21 and over can buy and possess marijuana, and a few other places have legal limits for concentration of THC in the blood that merits a DUI. In Washington, for instance, drivers are considered to be impaired if they have more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter. In Arizona, any amount of THC can get you busted.

Clark suggests there should be other methods, aside from blood tests, to determine if a person is impaired.

In the meantime, Peterson is left with no choice but to ignore this one state rule.

"When I smoke, I feel better, I am not agitated, I am not short with anyone, I am happier, pain-free," Peterson says. "And I drive on it because I don't have a choice. I have to go to work, I have to drive, and it is sad, I am one of those people who have that battle every day. People are scared to medicate."

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