The Impacting of Marijuana Legalization on Driving Laws

Driving while high is still a crime, even in states where marijuana use has been legalized.

With the recent legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington and Colorado, lawmakers in these states are grappling with how to handle people who choose to drive after smoking it. While there is no debate that marijuana hinders the ability to drive safely, there is considerable disagreement about what constitutes legal impairment and appropriate punishment. Since each state handles the offense differently, it’s important for residents and visitors alike to understand and abide by the laws.

How Marijuana Affects Driving Ability

Even though Washington and Colorado lawmakers agree that consenting adults have the right to smoke marijuana in their own homes, they also agree that it has too great of an effect on driving to be safe. Specifically, marijuana affects a driver’s ability to gauge stopping distance and react to emergencies as well as increases sleepiness. In Washington, people are prohibited from operating a motor vehicle within three hours of smoking marijuana. However, many doctors feel that 10 hours is a more reasonable restriction.

Washington State Marijuana DUI Laws

Washington police officers can administer a marijuana sobriety test on any driver they suspect of operating a vehicle under its influence. For adults over age 21, a test result showing a concentration of five nanograms per milliliter of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the bloodstream could result in a charge of driving under the influence. Drivers aged 16 to 20 are not legally permitted to drive a car with any amount of THC in their system.

First-time offenders of the marijuana intoxication law face the same consequences as those who are accused of driving under the influence of alcohol. According to the Washington Department of Licensing, people violating this law for the first time may have their driver’s license suspended for up to 90 days. This applies whether or not the accused person is actually convicted of impaired driving. A conviction could mean license suspension for up to four years. To earn back his or her driver’s license, the person convicted of marijuana impairment may also have to undergo chemical dependency treatment as well as pay court fines and a fee for license reissuing.


Colorado State Marijuana DUI Laws

Colorado, which legalized private recreational use of marijuana by adults in late 2012, has yet to enforce consistent legislation for those who drive under its influence. Like Washington, drivers face legal consequences for having a THC concentration higher than five nanograms per milliliter in their bloodstream. However, police officers are empowered to arrest a driver based on observed behavior rather than a specific THC level. It doesn’t matter whether the arrested person smoked the marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes. The driver faces additional charges if he or she tests positive for marijuana while driving a vehicle with underage passengers.

Information published by the Colorado Department of Public Safety indicates that drivers convicted of a marijuana offense could face fines, jail time, probation, public service requirements, and treatment or educational requirements. However, it does not state the specific length of these legal consequences.


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