Will marijuana legalization change Vermont DUI laws?

By most accounts, marijuana legalization is now considered a foregone conclusion in the State of Vermont. According to a recent Castleton State College Poll, 56 percent of Vermont adults now support legalization. Further confidence in legalization has been voiced by the Governor Peter Schumlin, Speaker of the House, Shap Smith, and Attorney General, William Sorrell.

With momentum growing, the State elected to commission the Rand Corporation, to conduct a financial analysis of the cost benefits of marijuana legalization to the State of Vermont.

In its recently released report, it was disclosed by Rand that Vermont could generate up to $75 million in tax revenue per year. This figure certainly rings bells in the minds of legislators, as they faced a $113 million budget shortfall by the end of 2014.

With the potential benefits in mind, it should come as no surprise that Jeannette White, D-Windham County and Joe Benning R-Caledonia County, introduced a 41-page bill in December proposing legalization of the possession of up to one ounce for recreational use and cultivation of that totaled 100 square foot or less.   White has long supported legalization, as she led the effort to approve Act 76, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2013.

Despite the optimism of passing a legalization bill in 2016, there remain some headwinds for legalization the strongest of all being the interpretation and enforcement of DUI laws when it comes to Driving while under the influence of marijuana or Driving While High (DWH). If this delay lasts too long, the bill’s approval may outlast Schumlin’s 3rd and final term, causing the bill to be placed on the desk of an unknown governor.

Currently, Vermont law does not give much clarity on the subject of DWH, merely stating that someone is under the influence of marijuana or other drugs if the impairment, is “noticeably and appreciably” affecting a person’s ability to drive a vehicle safely.

“Noticeably and appreciably” certain appear to lend themselves subjective observations that allow for significant discretion by individual law enforcement officers.  However, convictions for DWH have posed significant challenges for prosecutors to scientifically prove that the motorist was influenced by marijuana at the time of the stop due to the lack of a numeric standard for impairment that could be relied upon similar to the current .08 law for alcohol.

Now, with legalization on the negotiating table, reports have surfaced that lawmakers are considering amending Vermont DUI laws to allow for the admission of saliva tests, which could be conducted roadside. These tests are alleged to be able to detect recently ingested marijuana and provide a reading that could give prosecutors further tools to prove DWH charges.

In a 2013 report from the Drugged Driving Coalition, Greg Nagurney, the appointed representative of the State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, stated that a majority of county prosecutors and sheriffs supported an amendment to DUI laws to allow prosecutors to charge motorists with DWH if impairment could be detected “to the slightest degree” (23 VSA 1201(a)(2). If this low standard of proof is approved as part of the legalization bill, it may be difficult for any motorist who has consumed marijuana in the last 30 days to immediately refute law enforcement suspicions of DWH. If these suspicions are supported by other evidence such as smell, bloodshot eyes or confusion, a probable cause arrest could very well ensue even in cases when the high from smoking marijuana has long subsided.

 

 

 

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