Marijuana and Driving

As California cities and counties grapple with the implications of the passage of Proposition 64 last year, which legalizes the use of marijuana by adults, California and the Federal government continue to be at odds regarding the legality of marijuana use both recreationally and for medical purposes.  Both the City of Bakersfield and the County of Kern are currently pursuing a ban on the sale and distribution of marijuana.  In the meantime, law enforcement agencies are wrestling with the enforcement of impaired driving as a result of marijuana use.

The Kern County District Attorney’s office stated recently in a Bakersfield Californian article that they will continue to aggressively pursue cases of driving while impaired, including cases involving marijuana.  The fact is that while California may have approved the recreational use of marijuana through Prop. 64, the possession and use of marijuana remain illegal under federal law.  In addition, it is illegal, even in California, to use marijuana in a motorized vehicle.

Unlike alcohol, there’s not currently an accepted test that can measure the level of marijuana in an impaired driver’s system.  As a result, law enforcement relies on drug awareness training and field sobriety tests to assess impairment.

The chances of marijuana being a factor in motor vehicle accidents is staggering.  The District Attorney’s office stated recently that the majority (70%) of samples screened for drugs by the Kern County Regional Crime Lab tested positive for the active ingredient (THC) in marijuana.

While under the influence of marijuana, individuals are liable for accidents. Consider this scenario:

Peter uses marijuana at home and decides to head to the local market to pick up some items for dinner.  He becomes distracted due to his impairment, and slams into a car waiting for a red light. This causes serious injuries to the man and woman on their way home from a show. Peter would likely face criminal charges related to his impairment.  He would likely face a possible lawsuit by the couple for the injuries that Peter caused through his negligence.  Despite marijuana being legal, Peter failed to act with the same level of care and caution as a reasonable person. Hence, Peter could be liable for his actions.

Federal and state data in Colorado shows the number of drivers in fatal crashes in Colorado has risen sharply since marijuanas legalization in 2012. This number increased; more than doubling over the past three years. Marijuana use can contribute to negligence in several ways. This includes carelessness in operating equipment, operating non-motorized vehicles as well as improper supervision of children. The use of marijuana can cause negligent behavior, whether “legally high” or not.

Individuals who have been victims of negligence may be able to recover both economic and non-economic damages.  Economic damages are awarded to compensate individuals for direct monetary loss. These could include lost wages and medical bills, etc.  Non-economic damages may be awarded to compensate for pain and suffering, resulting in reduction in quality of life and other factors.  In some rare cases, punitive damages could be awarded to prevent similar behavior in the future, such as if a defendant has multiple convictions for driving while impaired.

Please contact my office if you have suffered due to negligence from an impaired driver or if you have experienced a personal injury through no fault of your own.


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