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It’s to no one’s surprise that police and other law enforcement will be on high alert this St. Patrick’s Day, with the 17th landing on a Friday this year. With approximately 13 million pints of Guinness consumed worldwide on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s only natural to assume that some will take the risk to try and drive home while intoxicated. However, while this Irish holiday is one of the leading holidays when it comes to DWIs and accidents, with the legalization of cannabis in New York and the opening of many dispensaries around the state, many will consider “going green” this St. Patrick’s Day.
New York State authorized the recreational use of cannabis for adults in March 2021. Briefly, what this means for New Yorkers is that they can now smoke publicly anywhere that tobacco is permitted. Great, right? But what about behind the wheel? Can you use or have THC in your system when driving in New York? Regardless of your plans for using, it is important to know New York State’s stance on cannabis when it comes to driving, not only to protect yourself but those you travel with as well.
Under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), adults over the age of 21 can use cannabis in public but not in motor vehicles. Additionally, it remains illegal to operate a motor vehicle in New York while under the influence of cannabis.
Under Section 1192(4) of the Motor and Traffic Law, Driving While Ability Impaired By Drugs (DWAI) is a chargeable offense. This provision states, “No person shall operate a motor vehicle when the person’s ability to operate such a motor vehicle is impaired by the use of a drug as described in this chapter.” The term “drug” encompasses cannabis. Law 1192(4-a) forbids driving while under the influence of both alcohol and narcotics.
The primary component of marijuana that actually causes impairment is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is no minimum amount of THC for a charge like there is a particular percentage of Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level in reference to drunk driving. Hence, marijuana usage of any amount could result in a charge. THC can be found in the blood for up to 7 days after regular marijuana use. 90% of THC decreases in first-time users after the first hour. Nonetheless, it is still crucial to remember that cannabis use might leave you considerably impaired.
If there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you are deemed to have given consent to a chemical test of your breath, blood, urine, or saliva for the purpose of determining your drug (and/or alcohol) content if you are operating a motor vehicle in New York.
However, due to the legalization of recreational marijuana, an officer no longer has a valid reason to search your car for marijuana if they pull you over for a traffic violation (such as an expired registration) and smell cannabis inside. It is important to stress the distinction that there must be reasonable grounds to suspect that the driver is under the influence. Law enforcement will not randomly pull you over for field drug tests. That being said, oftentimes when a driver is high, they might give off simple signs to a police officer such as speeding or swerving between lanes, which would give them the go-ahead to pull you over and catch you driving under the influence.
While there may not be a test utilized to determine the amount of THC in a driver’s system at the time of an arrest, the officer’s observations will be admissible in court. A police officer can testify as to the actions of a driver who is “acting high,” showing general signs of incoherence, poor coordination, etc., in much the same way that officers can testify that someone is showing signs of alcohol intoxication. Officers may also wear body-worn cameras (BWCs), and the court or jury may be able to see for themselves and make a determination as to whether the motorist was impaired by drugs. Additionally, police agencies have been known to call in Drug Recognition Experts, individuals who are trained to make specific observations to determine impairment by drugs.
DWAI violations can have serious consequences. Points are usually assessed against your license for New York traffic ticket stops. No points are added to your license for DWAI or drugged driving charges, but you could face a substantial fine and even jail time.
A first offense of DWAI is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 to $1,000 and/or up to one year in jail, as well as a 6-month license revocation. A second offense is classified as a Class E felony. These penalties could range from $1,000 to $5,000, as well as jail time and a one-year license suspension.
However, a drug-related DWAI can result in a felony charge, even for a first offense, under Vehicle And Traffic Law Section 1192.2-a(b), popularly known as Leandra’s Law, if a passenger under the age of 16 is in the automobile. Your felony charge may become a Class B or Class C felony if the passenger under the age of 16 sustains injuries or passes away. The criminal faces a 4-to-25-year prison sentence as well.
Every time a driver is charged with DWAI under VTL Section 1192(10)(ii), that person typically has to enroll in and complete an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, including any assessment and treatment.
These punishments are indiscriminate, whether you are using cannabis recreationally or for medical purposes. If you test positive, you could face these serious consequences, and knowing how to defend yourself if charged with a DWAI is paramount.
The legislation in New York is still based on the concept that cannabis use can make you impaired and interfere with your judgment to some degree, even if some statistics may suggest otherwise. Regardless of how much of a “high-functioning high” you profess to be, driving under the influence of marijuana can make you more prone to making dangerous and risky decisions behind the wheel. For that reason, it is important that you have plans in place to coordinate rides and stay out of the driver’s seat this St. Patrick’s Day if you are choosing to go green this year.
However, if you or someone you know is charged with DWAI or a related offense, don’t leave it up to luck. Knowing how to plead and defend yourself is the only way to possibly receive a more favorable outcome than the punishments listed above.
Peter is the Managing Partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC, where he practices criminal defense. With over 30 years of criminal defense experience, Peter has handled thousands of criminal cases, including violations, misdemeanors, felonies, and appeals. He has primarily represented defendants in felony cases in both state and federal courts. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (888)-264-0142.