How legitimate are the legal limits for marijuana when it comes to determining driving impairment?  Not very – according to a recent study.

The Seattle Times published an article this week discussing a study conducted by AAA. The study reports that marijuana DUI convictions are based on arbitrary state standards that are not actually connected to driving impairment.

Since recreational marijuana was legalized in Washington State in 2012, there has been a lot of attention on it, as well as many misconceptions and mistruths. Just because pot is legal, doesn’t mean it is unrestricted. In fact, it remains regulated and controlled. Washington is among many states that have legalized medicinal or recreational marijuana use, or both, and it is among 6 states which have set legal limits for THC. The Seattle Times article describes that these legal limits laws assume that a driver whose THC level exceeds the threshold is impaired. However, the study by AAA suggests that there is no scientific basis to this assumption.

The article quotes AAA’s President and CEO, Marshall Doney, as saying “There is an understandably strong desire by both lawmakers and the public to create legal limits for marijuana impairment in the same manner we do alcohol. In the case of marijuana this approach is flawed and not supported by scientific research.”  The claim is that there do not exist the same validated and reliable tests that have been established for alcohol impairment to conclude whether someone is impaired by marijuana versus having just used it. The correlation between THC level and level of impairment may vary widely among individuals based on a variety of factors, including how frequently a person uses the substance. There is also variability among individuals in terms of how long it takes for THC levels to dissipate.

The study suggests the legal limits were chosen arbitrarily and likely lead to convictions of innocent people who were not truly impaired even though their THC level surpassed the threshold. The article provides an example of a woman who uses daily marijuana for pain control and due to her frequent use will always test positive for higher levels of THC. She was charged with a marijuana DUI and had to use significant time and resources, and a skilled attorney, to fight for an acquittal of her case.

Understanding the law:

Whether or not we agree with the measures in place to determine “legal limits”, it is essential to understand the law as it stands. Washingtonians should be aware of the regulations and controls in place around “legalization of recreational marijuana”.

*Marijuana DUI:  There are specific laws around driving under the influence of marijuana.

  • There is a legal impairment limit. The legal “per se” limit is 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of whole blood (5 ng/mL)
  • It is illegal to drive with more THC than this in your system RCW 46.61.502 
  • Prior to marijuana legalization, there was no per se limit of THC and in order to prove a Marijuana DUI, actual impairment had to be proven. Now that there is a legal limit, the burden of proving impairment no longer exists, in many cases making it easier to be convicted of a Marijuana DUI than it was previously

*Other facts about Marijuana Laws:

In Washington State, people 21 and over can possess up to an ounce of marijuana (usable/dried). People 21 and over may also possess 16 ounces of marijuana-infused solid products or 72 ounces of marijuana-infused liquid products.

It is not legal:

  • For anyone under 21 years old to possess marijuana
  • To grow marijuana
  • To smoke or display marijuana in public
  • To sell marijuana
  • For people 21 and over to possess greater than one ounce

The charges for marijuana possession depend on the amount you are caught with. See our prior blog posting for details (RCW 69.50.4014)

Possession with intent to distribute marijuana carries more serious penalties, and you can be charged with intent to distribute or sell even with a small quantity. See our prior blog posting for details.

Legal Representation:

These are significant charges and you should not try to tackle them without experienced counsel to advise you appropriately and advocate on your behalf.