Michigan’s Legalized Recreational Marijuana May Lead to More Impaired Driving Traffic Deaths

A research letter recently published in the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal examined the correlation between the legalization of recreational marijuana and traffic fatalities. The letter’s authors Kamer & Warshafsky begin with the proposition that marijuana use impairs driving ability. The authors go on to suggests that because there is a correlation between an increase in traffic deaths and the legalization of recreational marijuana, impaired driving must be the cause. The authors of the letter reviewed data collected from four states: Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. The authors did not look at traffic deaths in Michigan because there isn’t enough data from Michigan yet.

The authors found that traffic deaths increased by 75 per year in Colorado. The authors did not find an increase in traffic deaths in Washington. Overall, the letter predicts that if every state fully legalizes marijuana, traffic deaths would increase by 6,800 every year in the United States. Time will tell whether Michigan will be like Colorado, and see a large increase in traffic deaths, or like Washington where there was no such increase.  And time will also tell if any observed increase in Michigan is actually caused by marijuana impaired drivers. The impaired driving lawyers at the Barone Defense Firm note that correlation is not causation, and that the only thing this letter has established is correlation.  The authors admit that much more research is needed on this topic, and that their findings were “mixed.”

What’s the difference between impaired by marijuana and under the influence of marijuana?

The difference is in the level of intoxication. Michigan’s intoxicated driving laws, found beginning at Michigan Compiled Laws Sec. 257.625, set forth all the various kinds of intoxicated and impaired driving that are unlawful. For alcohol there is a “lesser included” offense of impaired driving. This lesser included applies to those drivers who have drank enough alcohol to have their bad driving “noticed by another person” but not enough alcohol to actually be “under the influence.” There is a debate in the legal community as to whether the lesser included of impaired driving applies to marijuana driving cases. It is beyond dispute that Michigan law makes it unlawful to drive under the influence of marijuana.

What does it mean to be “under the influence” of marijuana in Michigan?

The best answer to this question is found in the jury instructions applicable to this offense.  The trouble is that Michigan’s jury instructions have not been updated to specifically refer to the effects of marijuana. What the instructions do say is that under the influence of marijuana (or other controlled substances) means that because of using or consuming marijuana, your ability to operate a motor vehicle in a normal manner was substantially lessened (Michigan Model Criminal Jury Instructions 15.3(2)).  The term “substantially lessened” is not otherwise defined and this means that it is up to the jury to decide if the prosecutor has proved that your use of marijuana caused such a decrease in your ability to operate your car.

What are the penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana in Michigan?

If you drive under the influence of marijuana in Michigan and get into an accident causing the death of another, the penalties include up to 15 years in prison and a revocation of your driver’s license. If driving under the influence of marijuana leads to serious injury, then you could be looking at up to five years in prison and a revocation of your driver’s license. The consequences of just a first offense operating your vehicle under the influence of marijuana are very serious- up to 93 days in jail, a 30-day suspended license, six points on your driving record, up to $500 fine, probation, and prolonged drug testing are all potential consequences.

How would an officer know I have marijuana in my system?

The most obvious and common sign an officer can spot that someone has marijuana in their system is by smell. An officer will also look for bloodshot eyes and slowed speech. Typically, an officer will then ask you to do standardized field sobriety tests. If an officer is one of very few drug recognition expert (DRE) officers in the state, the officer may have a roadside saliva test on hand that can give a quick answer as to whether THC is in your system. However, the officer will still need to get a blood sample from you if the officer wants to submit and operating under the influence of drugs charge because the roadside saliva test is not yet accurate enough to be admissible in court.

Is there a certain amount of marijuana allowed in my body while driving?

Michigan does not have a per se limit for marijuana allowed in your body while driving like it does alcohol. If you are driving with alcohol in your system, it must be below .08 blood alcohol content, or you could be charged with operating while intoxicated unlawful blood alcohol level. This type of limit has not been established for driving in Michigan with marijuana in your system.

Because there has not been guidance from the legislature on this subject, it is crucial you hire an attorney experienced in defending operating under the influence of marijuana cases. In these cases, the prosecutor must establish that you were under the influence.

If you are facing a criminal charge of operating under the influence of marijuana, contact the attorneys at the Barone Defense Firm for a free consultation immediately after the incident. We take a proactive approach to defending these cases, exploring every possible avenue, with the goal of reaching the best possible result in every single case.

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