Nevada's New Drug Driving Law (Marijuana Intoxication)

Reno Gazette-Journal

8/30/2003 09:45 pm
By Martha Bellisle
RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL

Too many drivers high on drugs are causing fatal crashes while
avoiding prosecution, say federal officials who are calling for new laws
nationwide that would send a driver to prison without proving drugs
caused the accident.

The new legislation, to be modeled after statutes recently passed in
Nevada and eight other states, would make it illegal for drivers to have
drugs, including marijuana, in their systems.

Under these laws, prosecutors don’t have to prove
that the drugs impacted the driver’s ability to stay
on the road. They simply must show the drugs were in the
driver’s body.

A positive test could mean a 20-year sentence for each count.

Two Reno drivers and one woman from Las Vegas who face decades in
prison after being involved in fatal accidents and testing positive for
marijuana are challenging the law in court. Their success or failure
could affect legislation across the country.

“The intent (of the law) was to make sure that if
someone was driving under the influence of a controlled substance, they
would be held responsible for loss of life,” said U.S. Rep.
Jon Porter, R-Nev., who sponsored Nevada’s prohibited
substance drug bill in 1999 while a state senator.

But critics of Nevada’s law, including
toxicologists, lawyers, civil libertarians and some lawmakers, say the
statue is unfair and unconstitutional because it does not require proof
that the driver was actually impaired by the drugs.

And, they say, the cut-off levels for the drugs listed in the statute
are so small that impairment would be unlikely in many circumstances.

This means that a person who uses marijuana at a party on Saturday
night could test positive when in an accident on Monday, days after the
drugs were taken, critics say. That’s because unlike
alcohol, some drugs can stay in a person’s system for
a long time.

“People are going to prison for smoking a joint a
day or two or three ago,” said John Watkins, a Las Vegas
lawyer for one of three Nevadans currently charged under the law.

“The whole idea of driving under the influence is
driving under the influence,” he said.
“But we’re putting people in prison
who are not impaired.”

Last year, Watkins challenged the law in the Nevada Supreme Court. But
the justices upheld the statute, saying: “the
governmental interest in maintaining safe highways is sufficient for our
prohibited substance statute to survive a constitutional
attack&acirc”

Despite the high court’s ruling, Assemblywoman
Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, is determined to overhaul the law.

She and two other lawmakers, Bernie Anderson, D-Sparks and Marcus
Conklin, D-Las Vegas, introduced a bill during the last session that
would increase the statute’s allowable amounts of
marijuana in an attempt to measure impairment, not just the presence of
drug.

They plan to bring it back in 2005.

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