As societal norms have changed in recent years, the use of controlled substances, legal and illegal, has increased exponentially. While there are divergent views on whether we benefit from a more medicated populace, one thing is certain. We all agree that the roadways should be safe from impaired drivers. Just because you hold a prescription from a physician, that does not mean you can, or should, operate a motor vehicle as that prescription is not a license to drive.
We are all familiar with the statistics. At least ten states have completely legalized the use of marijuana. More than 40 states permit some form of medicinal marijuana and most of those states have de-criminalized the possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use. Recent studies have shown that one-half of everyone in the United States has taken a prescription medication within the past thirty days. More than 85% of those over the age of 60 are regularly prescribed medicine. More than 10% of adults use anti-depressants. Millions of children, including driving-age teenagers, take central nervous system depressants for attention deficit disorder and similar conditions. Tens of millions of adults are prescribed analgesics for pain. Add all of the preceding to those who take over-the-counter medications or who use controlled substances illegally, that is without a prescription from a licensed prescriber, whether recreational or due to an addiction, and it is evident that you and nearly everyone with whom you have contact ingests something into their body which is intended to have a physiological effect on the mind or body.
Every State prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle “while under the influence of alcohol.” Even though there is no scientific method to determine whether someone is actually under the influence of alcohol, there is a consensus that having a blood alcohol concentration of .08% or greater has a physiological effect which makes the inherently dangerous task of operating a motor vehicle much more difficult and dangerous. Accordingly, all States make it an offense to drive with that level of alcohol in one’s body.
Given the thousands of controlled substances – narcotics, hallucinogens, stimulants, depressants, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, to name a few – and all of the illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, and the infinite combinations and permutations of controlled substances and illegal drugs, the scientific community has not been able to quantify at what levels of ingestion someone is so impaired to render his operation of a motor vehicle dangerous. Consequently, every State has made it illegal to operate a motor vehicle “while under the influence of a controlled substance, drug or any combination thereof,” without reference to a level of impairment.
So, if your physician prescribes medication for your chronic back pain, or if you are taking an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication in strict accordance with the instructions of your physician or pharmacist, you can still be charged with, and convicted of, operating a motor vehicle “while under the influence of” that medication if your driving is affected.
Without a scientific determination of impairment due to ingestion of controlled substances or drugs, most States, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, permit police and law enforcement officers, with no or minimal medical training, to render an opinion in court that they believe someone has operated a motor vehicle while “under the influence of” a substance. These opinions are often the only evidence used to convict someone of driving under the influence offenses.
So, consider the following scenario. You are driving home from work one evening with the right-of-way, obeying the speed limit and all other traffic laws, when, without prior notice, another driver does not stop at a red light and crashes into your car. Fortunately, you are not injured. The police arrive at the scene to investigate the accident. You are asked if you used any medication, legal or illegal, prior to the collision. You truthfully tell the police officer that you took your physician-prescribed anti-anxiety medication that afternoon which occasionally causes you drowsiness or has some other minor side effect. You are upset that your car has been damaged in the collision which impedes your ability to think clearly and to communicate with the police officer. The officer, both observing you and considering your admission that you took medication, and further taking into consideration the other driver’s insistence that his light was green, decides to arrest you for driving while under the influence of a controlled substance – your prescription medication. It happens. How are you going to demonstrate in court at a later date that you were not drowsy, and therefore not under the influence of your prescribed medication, when you were driving?
Likewise, consider the same scenario above, but instead of you, it is your employee who is on-duty. The other driver who ran the red light is severely injured in the collision with your company vehicle which is driven by your employee. Even though the other driver was at fault, he makes a claim for injuries because your employee was arrested for driving under the influence, or even if not arrested, admitted to taking the medication prior to driving.
The decision of whether or when to operate a motor vehicle while using medications, and the consequences of driving in this hyper-medicated society, requires deliberation and consultation with your physician because a prescription to use medication is not a license to operate a motor vehicle and does not grant immunity from a driving under the influence charge or from civil liability.
SCOTT M. WILHELM, ESQ.
WARNING: THIS IS A GENERAL DISCUSSION OF LAW AND IS NOT INTENDED TO BE LEGAL ADVICE. FOR ANY LEGAL QUESTIONS PLEASE CONTACT OUR OFFICE AND SPEAK TO AN ATTORNEY.