POST CATEGORY: Access, Northwest, Profiles

Patient Green DUI's

November 05, 2012 | Raymond Flores

They're already happening, and not to who you might expect

Many patients across the state oppose Initiative 502 because of its limits on the amount of THC people can have in their blood while driving. What many don't know is that blood testing for THC levels has already begun, and medical marijuana patients are being targeted. Drivers are allowed to refuse blood and breath tests when they are pulled over, but they face having their driving privileges revoked, even if it's proven later that they weren't impaired. Unlike alcohol, it is unclear what blood concentrations of Cannabis compounds indicate impairment. 

     But THC concentrations are still being used to prove patients guilty of DUI. Right now, there is no official limit for blood concentrations of THC, but a high concentration can still be used in court as evidence of impairment.  If I-502 passes, a 5 nanogram limit would automatically make most patients on a normal medicating routine run the risk of getting a green DUI whenever they get behind the wheel.

    Carole Antun has been a hemp activist for more than 20 years. She moved to Washington four months ago from New York and obtained her medical Cannabis authorization. On Sept. 22, Antun was pulled over less than two minutes after leaving her local Ocean Shores access point, the Rainbow Gardens Collective, which closed the next day for unknown reasons. Antun and other activists believe she was targeted. Officer Aaron Glanz, the Ocean Shores police officer who stopped Antun, stated in the police report that Antun had trouble exiting the vehicle and performing roadside sobriety tests, including standing on one leg and a walk-and-turn test. According to police reports, Antun was driving with two wheels over the fog line. 

   Antun moves slowly.  She is 78 years old and suffers from a host of health problems, for which she uses Cannabis. Whether she was impaired the day she was pulled over is uncertain, but one thing is clear: If she had agreed to a blood test the results would have put her way above the 5ng limit, even if she wasn't smoking that day. Antun uses Cannabis regularly.
     Antun's privilege to drive is now suspended in Washington because she refused to let the officers take her blood after she was taken to the hospital. Police officers take suspected drunken drivers to the hospital so that a medical professional can administer blood draws.

    Kari Boiter is a patient and legislative assistant to Mary Lou Dickerson in Seattle. Boiter is opposed to the 5ng limit, but said her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of her employer or co-workers. 

    Still, Boiter underwent a voluntary blood test to see what her THC concentration was 10 hours after smoking. Boiter, who says she medicates daily, had an active THC concentration of 10.3ng more than 10 hours after smoking. Boiter said she performed and passed sobriety and impairment tests immediately after her blood was taken.

    Boiter said she believes that current DUI law has been sufficient in combating impaired drivers.

"Plenty of people are getting green DUI's under the current law," Boiter said in a telephone interview.

Boiter said the 5ng limit and DUI provision were included in the legalization initiative to appeal to non-users, who make up the majority of voters. But she said that the DUI provision has alienated the medical community and it will cause the initiative to fail.

     Boiter said the medical Cannabis law, which has been a part of the Revised Code of Washington since 1998, has not led to an increase in Cannabis-related accidents.

Boiter said she believes a THC concentration limit could be effective for reducing the amount of impaired driving committed by naive Cannabis users, but it would wrongly convict responsible patients.

    Brandon Rain is a law clerk in the office of Seattle attorney Jeff Steinborn, who specializes in marijuana cases. Rain said he is most worried about the consequences of refusing a blood test, but that a 5ng limit not supported by science doesn't make sense either. 

    "The crime is not whether they smoke marijuana, it's whether they are impaired," Rain said. Like Boiter, Rain says he believes current law is sufficient for determining impairment and convicting reckless drivers.

     Because medical marijuana patients are considered "chronic users" -that's how the law refers to them, in a kind of terrible pun- they are almost always going to have relatively high blood THC concentrations, even if they haven't smoked for hours.

      Antun isn't the only patient who has felt the consequences of the new blood testing law that went into effect Aug. 1. Victor Rittenhouse of Bellingham has had his blood taken twice in the past four months. The second time, he was taken to jail after police took blood samples at the hospital. 

     Rittenhouse is 47 years old and uses Cannabis for carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetes. His story is similar to many other patients who claim they use Cannabis as an alternative to debilitating and mind-numbing, but legal, opiates.

     The first time Rittenhouse was pulled over, he said he had not smoked for 12 hours. The second time, it had been about nine hours since he had smoked, Rittenhouse said. Rittenhouse said he was pulled over because his truck was overloaded while he was moving from Ferndale, a  city north of Bellingham. By the time the traffic stop was over, he had a DUI.

      On Whidbey Island, patient Scott Davis had his blood taken after a traffic stop in August, making him one of the first medical Cannabis patients to be subjected to a blood draw. He worries that if I-502 passes, he will be convicted of his first DUI because he is a patient. Officers took Davis to the hospital to draw his blood, then to jail, where he spent about six hours before posting bail. He was cited for a traffic violation and charged with DUI.

     "I don't drive around intoxicated and I don't have any DUI [convictions] at this point," Davis said, "I am very worried."

    It had been hours since he smoked when officers took Davis to the hospital to have his blood taken. Davis said he wasn't slurring words, his eyes weren't bloodshot, and he passed field sobriety tests, but that a nug of dry medicine found on the floor of his car gave officers reason to suspect he was under the influence.

 "The parameters they have set are going to be completely out of range for any patient to ever drive again," Davis said of the 5ng limit.

  Davis' DUI case has been suspended because of paperwork problems, but isn't totally dismissed. Every prosecutor has three years to bring the case back to court and pursue a conviction.   
  Davis' test results were not available at the time this article was written, but he said he thinks he would be over 5ng since he is a patient and medicates daily.

 I-502 worries many in the medical community because they think it might affect their driving privileges, but for some patients, that privilege is already in jeopardy.

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