Marijuana Use and Massachusetts OUI Charges

Most everyone in Massachusetts knows that voters here voted to decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana effective January 2009, and also voted just last November 2012 to legalize the use of medical marijuana. As a Boston, Massachusetts drug offenses lawyer, I think these are rational, sound decisions. But how do they impact OUI/DUI arrests and prosecutions in Massachusetts?

The legal answer to that question can sometimes be murky. Incorporating existing OUI/DUI laws in Massachusetts into the new regulatory structure that is being created by state public health officials to accompany the arrival of medical marijuana facilities, is proving to be somewhat of a challenge. One particular legal question will be this: How will or how should existing Massachusetts drugged driving and OUI laws be applied, if at all, to a motor vehicle operator who is a legitimate medical marijuana patient?

Currently, Massachusetts law provides for substantial criminal penalties for someone operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of not only alcohol – but a variety of different drugs, including narcotics, stimulants, or depressants. The main difference between alcohol and other drugs, is that while alcohol is metabolized by the body fairly quickly, many different types of other drugs remain chemically detectable for much longer than alcohol. Thus, a person could hypothetically use medical marijuana one evening, and the next afternoon or evening, if he or she were stopped by police under suspicion of operating a motor vehicle while drugged and their blood was tested, it would likely test positive for the drug. This could be so even though the person was not actually under the influence at the time they were stopped by police.

Charges for operating under the influence of alcohol in Massachusetts hinge largely on the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC.) Anyone operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of .08 or greater, is statutorily presumed to be legally impaired. These Massachusetts blood alcohol content (BAC) standards are well-known. However, for drugged driving charges, there is no “red line” threshold for determining whether or not a driver is, in a legal sense, “operating under the influence.” Because of this, prosecution of drugged driving cases often turn on the testimony of the police officers involved in the arrest. The legal, personal, and professional stakes can be high: Just a first-time Massachusetts DUI offense can bring severe penalties, including license suspension for up to a year, incarceration for as much as 30 months if convicted, alcohol education classes, probation fees and more. With a second offense or more, the penalties grow increasingly severe, leading up to a mandatory prison sentence of as much as five years.

As a Boston, Massachusetts drug charges lawyer, I hope that the state public health and public safety officials who are now constructing these new regulations, take great care not to expose legitimate medical marijuana patients, to needless and unjust criminal prosecutions.