Driving while impaired. Also known as
DWI, or (in some states) DUI. It's against the law, and most folks would
tend to agree that that's a good thing. After all, nobody approves
of impaired driving. But when we consider our DWI laws, it's important
that we look at them from a rational point of view. A DWI implies a couple
of things. It implies that someone was driving, sure, but it also implies
that the someone in question was also impaired. That seems intuitive enough, right?
Well, maybe not for everyone in every case.
Last week, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the State's "per
se" marijuana law. The ruling arose from the case of an Arizona man
named Hrach Shilgevorkyan who was stopped by police for speeding and later
admitted to having smoked marijuana the night before. A blood test was
performed, and it revealed that he did, in fact, have marijuana in his
bloodstream. Specifically, he had an inactive (non-impairing) metabolite
of marijuana in his system. Hrach was prosecuted for DWI driving while
impaired, despite the fact that he didn’t have any active THC (or
metabolite hydroxy THC) in his system. This past Tuesday, Arizona's
High Court said,
"We are not persuaded and reject the State's argument that [the
law] creates a flat ban on the presence of any drug or its metabolite
in a person's body while driving or in actual physical control of
a vehicle, even when the only metabolite found is not impairing..."
The Court pointed out that the language of Arizona’s statute doesn’t
make a distinction between a metabolite that causes impairment and one
that doesn’t. Such a statute makes it difficult to determine whether
or not criminal charges are warranted. The State prosecutors argued that
the statute’s reference to “its metabolite” (when referring
to drug compounds detected in a driver’s system) covered all compounds
related to drugs, not just those that actually cause impairment.
The high court panel wrote,
“Most notably, this interpretation would create criminal liability
regardless of how long the metabolite remains in the driver’s system
or whether it has any impairing effect.”
This interpretation “leads to absurd results.”
The opinion affects not only motorists who use marijuana illegally, but
also the estimated 40,000 people who participate in the state’s
medical-marijuana program. Of course, it shouldn’t matter if the
person is legally allowed to ingest pot to treat ailments like chronic
pain or glaucoma; traces of metabolites simply do not prove impairment.
The public can sometimes react with a knee jerk to laws that are labeled
DWI or Driving While Impaired or DUI, but it's important that we don't
lose track of the common sense meaning of the word impairment.