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What happens when someone using legal medical marijuana causes a car accident?

October 29, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

How does  legalized medical marijuana use in Michigan work with our impaired driving laws if a motor vehicle accident occurs?

medical marijuana Michigan

Many people are smoking pot.  But what happens when these people who are using medical marijuana then get in the car, drive and cause a car accident?

Michigan has a Medical Marijuana Act that was approved by voters on November 4, 2008. But under federal law, cannabis is still an illegal controlled substance — even for medical and pain treatment purposes.

So the lawyers who help people injured in car accidents have an interesting new legal issue to grapple with.

Michigan law for driving a car on marijuana

Unlike alcohol, marijuana (or more specifically, it’s active chemical, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as “THC”) can be detected in the user’s system long after its use and impairing effects have faded.

The impairing effects and “high” from smoking pot generally last 45-90 minutes, and can be longer if you ingest the cannabis in food form.

However, THC can remain in a user’s system anywhere from three days for one-time users, to more than 30 days for long-term, heavy pot smokers. For more information, here’s a blog post on the length of time drugs can be detected in your system.

Because the levels of THC in a user’s system are more difficult to use to determine when or how much someone used marijuana, Michigan law and courts have created a strict liability, zero-tolerance approach to driving with THC in someone’s system.

This means someone could smoke a joint on Friday night, and be pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence on Monday morning.

With regards to drinking, a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 in a driver’s system is enough to consider him impaired and be arrested for driving under the influence, according to Michigan law. This BAC level is based on how quickly alcohol leaves the body and the level of  alcohol in your blood that would impair a person’s ability to drive safely.

Consequences of driving on marijuana and new legal issues for attorneys in Michigan

Michigan’s  zero-tolerance law for driving with marijuana could  lead to unexpected legal consequences for drivers who cause an auto accident  –  both criminally and in civil court.

Here are a few of the new legal issues that currently surround driving while impaired from marijuana:

  • If police can’t determine when a driver smoked pot but test her after a car crash, should that driver be prosecuted even if she didn’t use marijuana in the days before the crash?
  • How does marijuana use by a defendant driver who causes a car accident  affect a personal injury lawsuit?
  • If you are hit by a driver who tests positive for THC, is it admissible in a civil tort lawsuit if it cannot be proven that the person was impaired at the time of the motor vehicle crash?

How common is marijuana use?

Very common.  So all of these questions are bound to come up sooner or later, although as of this writing, there are very few legal opinions that provide guidance right now for attorneys.

There are more than 18 million people in the U.S. who use marijuana, according to a frequently asked questions page about marijuana on whitehouse.gov.

And with the use of marijuana so common, driving a car after its use is bound to become a thorny issue in personal injury litigation.

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