Can legal drug use lead to a DUI or DWI in California?

Driving under the influence (DUI), or driving while intoxicated (DWI), is the offense or crime in which the individual is guilty of operating a vehicle while being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs to a degree which impairs the capacity of the driver to operate the vehicle. Although the majority of the people charged with a DUI are subject to alcohol dependence or alcoholism, other drugs, e.g. illegal and recreational drugs or legal drugs i.e. those prescribed by doctors, can also render an individual incapable of driving.

In California, the definition of the word “drug” is very broad. Whatever affects the nervous system, brain, or muscles and thus causes impairment is labeled as a drug. Certain drugs that are legally purchased that may be prescribed by a doctor or bought over-the-counter (OTC), can be just as hazardous for drivers as alcohol and can lead to a DUI offense. Users of such drugs are advised to look for warning labels or ask their pharmacist about a drug’s capacity for impairment.

Marijuana weakens judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time which impairs the capacity of an individual to drive to a significant degree. California was the first state to legalize marijuana in the US. Since marijuana has been legalized, many Californians have a prescription for this drug. Medical marijuana is no different from other prescription drugs that have the capacity to cause impairment. If there is evidence of marijuana impairment, a physician’s medical recommendation cannot be used as an excuse. The medical use of this drug can still lead to being charged with a DUI offense.

Some other prescription drugs that cause driving impairment are antidepressants, valium, antihistamines, decongestants, sleeping pills, and hydrocodone.

Some sedating antidepressants can cause impairment that is similar to drunk driving. Valium can be habit-forming. Abuse of drugs that are habit-forming, like valium, can lead to addiction, overdose or death. 10 mg of valium can cause impairment quite similar to having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent. Antihistamines are pharmaceutical drugs that oppose the activity of histamine receptors. They have a slow reaction time and they impair coordination. Decongestants that are used to relieve nasal congestions in the upper respiratory tracts can cause drowsiness, anxiety, and dizziness. The residual effects of sleeping pills can also impair drivers. The common pain reliever Hydrocodone causes impairment similar to that of morphine and codeine.

According to California law, it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle. This is mentioned in Vehicle Code Section 23152. Unfortunately, the standard amount of drug present in someone’s blood that does not lead to impairment has not been set yet. When it comes to sentencing first-time offenders, the following are some of the penalties and fines:

  • A minimum fine of $390 and a maximum fine of $1,000
  • Three to five years of informal probation
  • Suspension of the driver’s license for at least six months
  • A maximum of one year in county jail
  • Drug education classes for at least six months