Every time a medical marijuana patient gets behind the wheel of a car in Pennsylvania, they face risk of arrest and imprisonment, even if they’re completely sober and fine to drive. Under current state law, any trace of THC or its metabolites in their blood can be charged as driving under the influence (DUI).
But a new bill introduced this week would change that by exempting legal medical cannabis use from the state’s law against DUI. Under the proposal, police would have to demonstrate that a state-licensed patient was actually impaired on the road rather than simply provide evidence of past use.
“We need to ensure that the legal use of this medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction,” state Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), who introduced the legislation Friday, said in a statement about her bill. “Patients fought tooth and nail for years to see the use of medical cannabis legalized to treat a variety of terrible health conditions. They should have the peace of mind to know that they will not be punished later for using their prescriptions responsibly.”
Unveiling a measure that would remove driving under the influence penalties related to the legal use of medical cannabis. Details here ⤵https://t.co/z0XQ8FzYT6
— Senator Bartolotta (@senbartolotta) June 19, 2020
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016, with the first dispensaries in the state opening in 2018. But the state’s zero-tolerance DUI law still doesn’t reflect those changes. Because it criminalizes the presence of any THC or its metabolites in a driver’s blood—which can be detected for weeks after a person’s last use—the law puts virtually all medical marijuana patients at risk, even if it’s been days since their last use and they show no signs of impairment.
Bartolotta’s bill would require officers to prove a registered patient was actually impaired on the road. The measure was “created in cooperation with patients, attorneys, and the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association,” her office said, and “would prevent patients from being arrested and prosecuted for legally using medical cannabis that does not affect a driver’s ability to safely operate a vehicle.”
“Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s ‘zero tolerance’ driving under the influence (DUI) law does not contemplate the difference between medicinal and recreational use of marijuana,” the senator wrote in a cosponsorship memo to colleagues last month. “Because of this, unimpaired patients currently face the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for using medicinal marijuana that has no bearing on their ability to drive a vehicle.”
“Given the very serious consequences of a DUI conviction, my legislation will provide critical protections for medicinal cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction,” she said.
I spoke with @SenBartolotta about legislation she plans to propose. It would change PA's laws and she says, would protect legal and responsible medical marijuana users from being convicted of a DUI. The full story will be on @FOX43 at 4&5 pic.twitter.com/zgdDwMBcrm
— Chelsea Koerbler (@ChelseaKoerbler) May 19, 2020
In an interview with a local Fox affiliate previewing the legislation last month, Bartolotta said patients could still be charged with a DUI if they were driving erratically or demonstrating other signs of impairment—“just like any other prescription,” she noted. But for people who use medical marijuana responsibly and are pulled over for an unrelated reason, such as a broken tail light, her proposal would mean “they don’t have to risk the possibility of getting a DUI simply because they’re under that recommended care.”
“It just takes away the fear of that for people who are using medicinal cannabis,” she said.
Driving under the influence of marijuana has become a key point of contention as more states relax cannabis laws. While opponents have warned that legalization could put a rash of impaired drivers on the road, evidence is mixed about the real dangers of driving under the influence of THC.
Many legal-marijuana states, including those that have legalized cannabis for all adults, have established per se limits on THC in blood, along the lines of the 0.08 percent blood alcohol limit that applies in the U.S. A study published last year, however, found that drivers who tested at the legal limit in many states (2-5 nanograms THC per milliliter of blood) were statistically no more likely to cause a crash than people who had not consumed cannabis. “The impact of cannabis on road safety is relatively small at present time,” the report concluded.
A separate congressional report in 2019 similarly concluded that much of the alarmism about cannabis-impaired driving was unfounded. “Although laboratory studies have shown that marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance,” the Congressional Research Service wrote, “studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
While some jurisdictions in Pennsylvania have decriminalized marijuana possession, the DUI bill would extend protections only to state-licensed medical marijuana patients. All other drivers would still be subject to the zero-tolerance law.
Expect the issue to come up again as the state considers expanding legalization to all adults. A number of bills to legalize adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania are currently before the state Legislature, and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has expressed his support. The most recent bill, however, appears to include no significant update to the state’s DUI law.
Voters in Pennsylvania say they overwhelmingly favor legalization. A poll released in May showed 62 percent of likely voters in support of legal, regulated cannabis sales to adults 21 and older.
One reason for the broad support, the poll suggested, is financial: “Voters across all key demographics,” the survey found, “would rather see the state regulate and tax adult-use cannabis as opposed to raising income, sales and business taxes.” Pennsylvania is projected to face a budget gap of up to $5 billion this year.
Read the new Pennsylvania medical cannabis DUI bill below: