Legal Weed Week: Impaired driving

Missouri’s amendment makes clear, it’s not intended to allow pot users to drive under the influence.
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 10:00 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 10, 2023 at 11:01 AM CST
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MISSOURI (KFVS) - Missouri’s amendment makes clear, it’s not intended to allow pot users to drive under the influence.

However, determining that impairment does not come with a clear set of standards.

“It’s like alcohol, right? It’s not illegal to drink one beer and drive your vehicle. It’s illegal to be intoxicated while you drive.”

Dexter defense attorney Russ Oliver said Missouri’s Amendment 3 offers no protections if using pot impairs your ability to drive.

“It’s always been the standard that police have to prove that you are intoxicated when you are operating a motor vehicle,” Oliver said. “Not that THC was present or that you had smoked marijuana.”

But, don’t look for the equivalent of a legal limit for pot in here, because you won’t find one.

“So, THC and the amount in the bloodstream doesn’t operate the same way that alcohol does with regard to being a reliable predictor of whether somebody is intoxicated or not,” Oliver explained.

Lieutenant Jason Wilhelm serves with the Jackson Police Department. He’s also a specially trained drug recognition expert or DRE, one of just three in southeast Missouri.

Is a field sobriety test any different if you’re looking for alcohol or, say, some other substance including the use of marijuana, we asked Wilhelm.

“No ma’am. We would still perform the same standard field sobriety test,” he said. “The only thing we would note is if there are any differences in some of the clues or cues that will show up for alcohol as opposed to a different drug category.”

To explain those differences, Wilhelm walked us through the first part of the test.

“I want you to look at the tip of my finger. And I want you to follow it with your eyes. And your eyes only,” he instructed.

Lieutenant Wilhelm moved his finger from left to right. Here, an officer is looking at how smoothly a driver’s eyes follow that moving finger, along with any involuntary eye movement that can indicate alcohol use.

Wilhelm said officers trained in the signs and symptoms of drug impairment will also look for something else.

If someone consumed marijuana, would their eyes be involuntarily moving, we asked.

“Not for this test. They would not. But, with officers like myself, we can do lack of convergence,” he said. “Convergence is - your eyes follow the stimulus. They should cross when I bring it in toward the bridge of your nose. So, if they don’t cross, that shows me that you have a substance other than alcohol possibly in your system. That’s an indicator that you possibly have marijuana or cannabis in your system.”

When a DRE like Wilhelm is called in to assist with a suspected impaired driver, they go through a 12-step process to determine what kind of drug or drugs is causing the impairment, and to rule out any medical issues.

“With presence of cannabis, or if somebody is on cannabis, their pulse would actually be elevated,” he explained. “Their blood pressure would also be elevated. So that would be a couple of things I would be looking for and noting.”

Drive along rural, winding roads in Wayne County and Sheriff Dean Finch said don’t be impaired, regardless of the legal product you consume.

“The impairedness part of it. Where it’s marijuana or it’s alcohol. I still have my grandkids on the road. And I fear for them. Because if you’re impaired, you’re impaired,” he said.

Finch said the voters in his county did not support Amendment 3; and don’t tell him you think it’s safer to drive high than it is to drive drunk.

“If you’re over a hill and somebody comes up over that hill behind you, and you’re driving 25 miles an hour, and they don’t see you. Could be bad,” he said.

Cape Girardeau is currently home to several medical dispensaries.

Police Chief Wes Blair said he expects recreational sales to bring in even more traffic.

“Which might lead to more impaired drivers, but that’s something we’re prepared for and cognizant to manage. But, just like with alcohol, I don’t see that it’s going to be a major, major impact to us. Anymore than alcohol apparently is to us now,” he continued.

Before Amendment 3, just the smell of weed coming from someone’s car could lead to a search, often by an officer of the four-legged variety.

But that won’t happen anymore, and more and more drivers are being very open with the pot they’ve got in their vehicles now.

So, where does that leave K-9 programs; and what about the search for other illegal drugs in a car, truck or van? See what we found out here.