Author: Attorney Courtney Van Winkle
Colorado and Washington made the news in 2012 when both states legalized the recreational use of marijuana. "As soon as the laws are certified, it will be legal under Colorado and Washington law for adults 21 years and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. In Colorado, people will be able to grow as many as six plants. In Washington, users will have to buy their marijuana from state-licensed providers."[i] However, new laws on the other side of the country should not fool Virginia residents into thinking their local laws will be any less strictly enforced. Furthermore, federal law continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, equivalent to heroin and LSD.[ii]
Despite legalizing marijuana for medical use, Virginia still treats the possession of any amount of marijuana without a prescription as a misdemeanor.[iii] In addition, possession of more than half an ounce of marijuana with intent to sell is a felony.[iv] These are serious criminal acts with potentially devastating consequences.
Another pitfall for teenagers is the use of synthetic marijuana (known as Spice, K2, Mr. Smiley, Red X Dawn and Blaze), which is also illegal.[v] Teenagers found in possession of synthetic marijuana are subject to expulsion from school, just as for real pot.[vi] The use of synthetic marijuana is becoming a serious health problem for young people, sending increasing numbers of them to emergency rooms.[vii]
Some consequences of marijuana use can be even more serious than the legal penalties. "Statistics gathered for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that in 2009, a third of fatally injured drivers with known drug test results were positive for drugs other than alcohol."[viii] Furthermore, in a survey commissioned by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions, another disturbing trend was revealed: "A growing percentage of teens do not see marijuana use as a distraction while driving, and nearly one in five (19%) say they have gotten behind the wheel after smoking pot."[ix] Despite evidence to the contrary, there is a misperception among young people that driving while high is not comparable to driving drunk.
Driving under the influence of marijuana, even if obtained under a valid prescription, is unlawful.[x] But enforcement is made difficult by the nature of the drug. There is no agreement in the scientific community about the correlation of THC levels and impairment, as there is, for example, for alcohol.[xi] In addition, testing for THC is problematic because the THC metabolite can be stored in body fat and remain detectable for weeks after use.[xii] With no effective way to quantify drug levels, the test is whether the person is under the influence of a drug "to a degree which impairs his ability to drive or operate any motor vehicle, engine or train, safely.” Laboring under this subjective standard, states struggle to set limits and establish effective tests to determine whether a person is impaired.
Nonetheless, the dangers of driving while under the influence of marijuana are readily apparent. "Marijuana can cause dizziness and slowed reaction time, and drivers are more likely to drift and swerve while they're high."[xiii] A study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that "Acute cannabis consumption is associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash, especially for fatal collisions."[xiv] Thus young people are confronted with a drug whose effects they do not fully understand, that nevertheless both seriously impairs their driving and resists detection and enforcement efforts. If nothing is done to improve knowledge and understanding about the dangers of marijuana use and driving, there will be more automobile accidents involving personal injury or death.
Although the laws concerning marijuana are in flux, the use of marijuana or fake marijuana by Virginia teens on the road exposes them to death and serious injury. Even those who refrain from driving while under the influence risk criminal prosecution and the loss of their rights to drive or attend school. Accordingly, teens should not be misled by changes in the law in other states into believing that it is now "safe" to smoke pot.
About the Author: Courtney, a partner with the personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen, concentrates her practice on personal injury, brain injury and wrongful death claims. She has successfully resolved through trial and settlement many cases involving children. As the mother of four children herself, Courtney is able to draw upon her own experiences to compassionately work with children.
[i] "Voters Ease Marijuana Laws in 2 States, But Legal Questions Remain," Jack Healy, The New York Times (November 7, 2012).
[ii] "Colorado Preps for Recreational Marijuana," Maggie Clark, Stateline: The Daily News Service of The Pew Center on the States (January 16, 2013).
[iii] Va. Code Sec. 18.2-250.1 and 18.2-251-1.
[iv] Va. Code Sec. 18.2-248.1
[v] Va. Code Sec. 18.2-248.
[vi] Va. Code Sec. 16.1-278.8:01
[vii] "Synthetic Marijuana Sent More Than 11,400 People To ER in 2010," Michelle Castillo, CBS News (December 4, 2012).
[ix] "Teen Drivers and Marijuana: A 'Dangerous Trend'," Michelle Healy, USA Today (February 22, 2012).
[x] Va. Code Sec. 18.2-266
[xi] "With Pot Legal, Police Worry About Road Safety," Kristen Wyatt, USA Today (November 15, 2012).
[xii] Id.; "Driving While Stoned? Marijuana DUI Bill Gets Closer To Approval In Colorado," Huffington Post (May 2, 2012).
[xiii] "With Pot Legal, Police Worry About Road Safety," Kristen Wyatt, USAToday (November 15, 2012).
[xiv] "Acute Cannabis Consumption and Motor Vehicle Collision Risk: Systematic review of Observational Studies and Meta-analysis," Mark Asbridge, Jill A. Hayden, and Jennifer L. Cartwright, BMJ (February 9, 2012).