Marijuana DUI crashes are on the rise, but experts say they’re harder to prosecute
Law enforcement says driving while high on marijuana is just as dangerous as driving while drunk, but KCRA 3 investigates found that very few people are actually arrested for driving high.
Sara Porter is a criminalist at the Sacramento County Crime Lab. It’s her job to analyze blood and urine samples.
"It's like dirty laundry," Porter said. "There is always something to do. We are never fully caught up."
Porter extracts the THC from the marijuana by drying it down to a residue.
She said that in many cases, when people have high levels of alcohol, they often also test positive for drugs.
"People think it's not as bad as alcohol, so it's fine, but just because it's not as bad doesn't mean that it is fine," Porter said.
Sacramento County prosecutor Gregory Hayes agrees with Porter, and said that he even hears people claim they drive better when they smoke marijuana.
Hayes is the head of Sacramento County’s DUI unit. He says that though charges of marijuana DUI routinely come across his desk, they are difficult to try in court. The legal limit for driving drunk on alcohol is .08, but Hayes says there is no "magic amount" for marijuana DUI.
"We have to prove that the marijuana either mentally or physically impaired them so much they can't drive," Hayes said.
He says it's hard to convince jurors when there is no legal limit.
"Some of them are skeptical because there's not a lot of science behind it," Hayes said. "Others are skeptical because they either smoke marijuana themselves or they have family or friends who typically smoke marijuana and drive."
Marijuana DUI doesn't even have its own charge, as "driving under the influence of drugs" could mean any drug. KCRA 3 Investigates reached out to California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Justice to see how many marijuana DUI arrests and convictions there were last year.
"Marijuana does not have a specific vehicle code," said CHP Officer Ricardo Ortiz.
Neither CHP, the DOJ, Sacramento County District Attorney nor the Sacramento Police Department track cases specific to drugs.
"We know for a fact that when someone is under the influence of any kind of drug, including marijuana, that their driving is different," said Lori Bergenstock from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I think definitely people underestimate how dangerous it is."
Drug-involved crashes in California are on the rise. The California Department of Motor Vehicles says while the number of alcohol-involved deaths went down over the past 25 years, drug-involved crash deaths nearly quadrupled.
"We deal with victims all the time who lost someone to an impaired driver, and it is crushing," Bergenstock said.
Despite that danger, the DMV’s annual report doesn’t break down any numbers by specific drug.
"There should be a study in the same way there was a study related to alcohol," Hayes said. "I'm hoping that the federal government or state government will do some research or more research now related to the impact of marijuana on driving given the legalization of marijuana in California."