DUI Convictions for Medical Marijuana Users in Arizona

In December 2016, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that the courts cannot convict medical marijuana users of driving under the influence (DUI) without proof of actual impairment. This was a major step forward for marijuana patients in the state, who had previously faced the burden of having to prove they were not impaired to defend against a DUI conviction. Learn what the ruling has meant for patients in Arizona in the year since.

Medical Marijuana Possession Limits in Arizona

It is legal for citizens in Arizona to possess and consume marijuana for approved purposes under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act. The citizen must be a patient with a qualifying medical condition to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. Qualifying conditions include cancer, chronic pain, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures, muscle spasms, nausea, glaucoma, wasting syndrome, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

If a patient qualifies, he or she can lawfully possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana per 14 days. If the patient is more than 25 miles from a state-licensed dispensary, he or she can have up to 12 marijuana plants for home cultivation in an enclosed and locked facility. As of 2020, Arizona has almost 227,000 active qualifying medical marijuana patients. Possession of any amount of marijuana without a valid medical marijuana ID card, however, can result in a minimum fine of $750 and/or jail time.

Old and New Marijuana DUI Laws in Arizona

Since the passing of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act in 2010, there have been confusing gray areas in marijuana-related DUI laws. A driver with any amount of marijuana in his or her system is guilty of DUI if the driver does not have a valid medical marijuana card with the Registry. If, however, the driver has a card and can legally possess and use marijuana, the legality of a DUI is questionable.

Before the court ruling, an officer could arrest an individual for marijuana-related DUI, regardless of the question of impairment. This meant that a patient legally using marijuana could face jail time, fines, and other penalties for driving, even if he or she used days ago and was not at all impaired at the time of arrest. If blood tests showed levels of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, the driver could receive a DUI conviction in Glendale if the driver could not prove that he/she wasn’t impaired.

After the 2016 ruling, it is no longer legal to convict someone of marijuana-related DUI without the prosecution showing proof of impairment. Judge Diane Johnsen wrote that, since there is no scientific consensus about the level of THC that causes impairment, there is no way for law enforcement to base DUI charges on THC levels alone. It is also not up to the driver to prove his or her innocence. Instead, police bear the burden to prove the driver’s impairment beyond just blood test results.

Proving Marijuana Impairment

Judge Johnsen’s 2016 letter in the ruling said that nothing in Arizona’s statutes requires a medical marijuana cardholder to present expert testimony to prove he or she was not impaired due to THC. The ruling meant the burden of proof for marijuana-related DUI charges is now on Arizona police, not patients. Since then, police have had a difficult time proving impairment, due to the unique nature of THC.

No two patients are the same. Some people feel impaired after using a small amount of marijuana. Others can use a significant amount without impairment. This fact, and the ruling that THC is not enough to prove impairment has made it difficult for police to prove cannabis DUIs. Patients who receive DUI charges can now fight them, presenting evidence that the THC did not impair them at the time of the arrest. A Glendale DUI lawyer can help you fight unfair charges related to a marijuana DUI.

Can You Be Convicted If They Find Inactive THC Metabolites in Your Body?

Arizona’s current DUI law (Arizona Revised Statute 28-1381) makes it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug that impairs the driver to the slightest degree. It is also against the law to drive with any drug or its metabolite in the driver’s body. A drug metabolite is the byproduct of a drug that occurs from the body breaking down (metabolizing) the substance. Some drug metabolites stay in the body much longer than the actual drug. THC metabolites, for example, can remain in a driver’s system for up to a month depending on the amount of use.

It is possible to receive a DUI conviction if the police find THC metabolites in your body. Even if you consumed the marijuana days or weeks prior to driving, the police could use the presence of the lingering metabolites as evidence that you were under the influence of marijuana while driving. However, the police will need more evidence than inactive THC metabolites alone to convict you of DUI. Metabolites by themselves will not be enough for an arrest or conviction. Under the new law, the prosecution will also need proof of actual impairment.

Inactive THC metabolites in your body will no longer lead to a DUI conviction if the prosecution cannot also prove your intoxication in the slightest degree under the new law. THC metabolites will not create criminal liability unless the marijuana had an impairing effect on you at the time of the traffic stop. If you do not have a valid medical marijuana ID, however, you could face unrelated penalties for the illegal possession of marijuana. Arizona has not yet passed any regulations legalizing recreational marijuana.

Consequences for a DUI Marijuana Charge

If a police officer has enough evidence of your intoxication to charge you with driving under the influence in Arizona, stay calm and do not give the officer any incriminating information. Do not admit to using marijuana, even if you have a medical ID card and consumed marijuana days prior. Be polite and cooperate with the DUI arrest. Then, as soon as possible, contact an attorney for help protecting your rights. You could face serious consequences if the courts convict you of a DUI marijuana crime.

Driving under the influence of marijuana can lead to a misdemeanor or felony conviction depending on the situation. The penalties for a first DUI conviction is a minimum of 10 days in jail and a fine of $1,250. Another conviction within 84 months of the first comes with a minimum of 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $3,000. A third or subsequent DUI conviction within 7 years brings a sentence of at least 4 months in prison and up to $150,000 in fines. Additional penalties for all levels of DUI marijuana convictions include driver’s license suspension, ignition interlock device requirements, community service, probation and drug treatment programs.

The ruling was great news for Arizona’s patients, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to receive a DUI conviction for having marijuana in your system as a legal patient. If you’re facing a DUI charge for marijuana in Arizona, contact an attorney right away to begin your defense. A Glendale criminal defense attorney can help you prove your case and defend your rights.