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New Affirmative Defense for DUI Marijuana or Impairing Metabolite in Arizona

Medical Marijuana and PrescriptionsOn November 20, 2015, the Supreme Court of Arizona decided Dobson v. McClennen (P.3d, 2015 WL 7353847, Arizona Supreme Court 2015). The decision has important implications for individuals that use medical marijuana and might have THC or its metabolite in their system but drive at a time when they are not impaired. Jokingly called the “Driving While a Habitual User of Marijuana,” these prosecutions are no joke.

Although the responsible use of cannabis for medical purposes has largely been decriminalized in Arizona, prior to this decision the DUI laws effectively made it a crime to drive as a medical marijuana patient (even after the impairing effects faded and disappeared). In other words, using medical marijuana should not automatically be a DUI when there was no actual impairment at the time of driving.

The decision in Dobson v. McClennen didn’t make either side happy. The defense wanted a ruling that Medical Marijuana Patients were immune from the “per se” version of DUI under § 28–1381(A)(3). On the other hand, the prosecution wanted a ruling that a positive blood test meant an automatic “per se” DUI conviction under § 28–1381(A)(3). The Court rejected both positions and came up with a middle ground that leaves many of the complicated issues surrounding driving after consuming medical marijuana unresolved.

In these cases, the main evidence is usually a blood test revealing THC and/or its impairing metabolite, hydroxy-THC. But this evidence alone doesn’t necessary mean that the driver was actually impaired by marijuana at the time of driving. THC and its metabolite stay in a driver’s system long after the impairing effects have disappeared.

In these cases, the presence of THC or its metabolite hydroxy-THC is largely irrelevant to impairment. In other words, the presence of THC or the metabolite hydroxy-THC often has little correlation with actual impairment. Now if the defense raises this new affirmative defense at trial, the issue is left up to the fact-finder to decide.

Under this recent decision, the driver must present some evidence to raise the affirmative Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA) Marijuana DUI defense. Raising the affirmative defense would require a showing by the defendant, by a preponderance of the evidence, of the following:

  • That the driver was covered by the AMMA as a registered qualifying patient (or held an equivalent out-of-state-issued medical marijuana registry identification cards which could be shown by admitting the card into evidence or presenting other evidence of its existence); and
  • Showing that the concentration of marijuana or its impairing metabolite in their bodies was insufficient to cause actual impairment at the time of driving.

How would the second showing be made? In many of these trials, expert witness testimony could establish that the concentration was insufficient to cause impairment at the time the driving occurred.

The expert witness could be the same witness called by the prosecutor when the blood test and its result are admitted into evidence. Additionally, the defense could call its own expert to testify about this point. In many of these cases, the expert will be able to testify that although the blood test might reveal THC and/or its impairing metabolite hydroxy-THC, based on the driver’s testimony about the timeline of consumption, the amount would not cause actual impairment at the time of driving. Even the experts will have a hard time explaining it to the jury because, unlike for alcohol, there is no accepted threshold for marijuana impairment. Even according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects.”

Other admissible evidence might come from the driver testifying that he or she did not feel impaired. The defense would also be able to argue that other evidence showed a lack of impairment including a safe driving pattern and good performance on field sobriety exercises.

Ultimately, the driver’s DUI convictions in these cases were upheld. But the decision provides an important road map for other people in a similar situations. At the very least, this decision makes a prosecution for driving while impaired by marijuana much more difficult under § 28–1381(A)(3) alone.

Procedural History

The Defendants were convicted in the Maricopa County Municipal Court of driving with an impermissible drug or its metabolite in a person’s body. After the conviction, the Defendants appealed the conviction to the Maricopa County Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed the conviction.

The Defendants then sought special action review in the court of appeals, which accepted jurisdiction but denied relief finding that “neither A.R.S. § 36–2811(B) nor § 36–2802(D) provides immunity for defendants facing charges for driving with an impermissible drug or impairing metabolite in their bodies under A.R.S. § 28–1381(A)(3).”

Then the Defendants sought relief from the Arizona Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted review because whether the AMMA immunizes a medical marijuana cardholder from DUI prosecution under § 28–1381(A)(3) presents a recurring issue of statewide importance.

The Supreme Court of the State of Arizona held, as a matter of first impression, that an affirmative defense to the charge could have been made by showing that a qualifying patient’s use of marijuana was authorized by the AMMA and was in a concentration insufficient to cause impairment. The Court also found that under the facts of the case any error in excluding evidence of defendants’ registry cards under the AMMA was harmless.

The Chief Assistant City Prosecutor for the Mesa City Prosecutor’s Office represented the State in the appeal. An amicus brief was filed by Thomas W. Dean, Phoenix, Attorney for Amicus Curiae National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Arizona’s laws generally make it a crime for a person to drive with any amount of certain drugs, including marijuana or its impairing metabolite, in the person’s body. (A.R.S. § 28–1381(A)(3)). In the case, the Arizona Supreme Court held for the first time that “the AMMA does not immunize a medical marijuana cardholder from prosecution under § 28–1381(A)(3), but instead affords an affirmative defense if the cardholder shows that the marijuana or its metabolite was in a concentration insufficient to cause impairment.”

Facts of the Case

The facts of the case showed that two drivers were each charged with two counts of driving under the influence (“DUI”). Count one alleged a violation of A.R.S. § 28–1381(A)(1), which prohibits a person from driving a vehicle in Arizona “[w]hile under the influence of … any drug … if the person is impaired to the slightest degree.” Count two alleged a violation of § 28–1381(A)(3), which prohibits driving a vehicle “[w]hile there is any drug defined in § 13–3401 or its metabolite in the person’s body.” Cannabis (marijuana) is a drug defined in A.R.S. § 13–3401(4).

In each case the driver submitted to a blood test that showed the driver had marijuana and its impairing metabolite in his or her body. The drivers also stipulated to the fact that they “had marijuana in their bodies while driving (blood tests revealed both THC and its impairing metabolite hydroxy-THC) and their failure to offer any evidence that the concentrations were insufficient to cause impairment.” Instead, the only evidence they offered was their respective registry identification cards into evidence.

Before trial, the municipal court in Maricopa County denied the driver’s motion to present evidence at trial that the driver held an out-of-state-issued medical marijuana card. The Court also granted the State’s motion in limine to preclude evidence that the driver held an out-of-state-issued medical marijuana card.

Neither driver tried to introduce at trial any evidence other than their respective medical marijuana cards.

Each was convicted of the § 28–1381(A)(3) charge, which prohibits driving a vehicle “[w]hile there is any drug defined in § 13–3401 or its metabolite in the person’s body.”

History of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA)

The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act (AMMA) was passed by voters in Arizona in 2010. The provisions of the AMMA were codified as A.R.S. §§ 36–2801–2819 which allows a person who has been diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating medical condition to apply for a card identifying the holder as a registered qualifying patient. After becoming a registered qualifying patient, the person may possess and use limited amounts of marijuana for medical reasons.

The AMMA broadly immunizes the patient from prosecution for using medical marijuana consistent with the Act. The AMMA broadly immunizes registered qualifying patients for their medical use of marijuana, providing:

A registered qualifying patient … is not subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner, or denial of any right or privilege, including any civil penalty or disciplinary action by a court or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau: (1) For the registered qualifying patient’s medical use of marijuana pursuant to this chapter, if the registered qualifying patient does not possess more than the allowable amount of marijuana. (A.R.S. § 36–2811(B)(1)).

The Court noted that the grant of immunity is not absolute. The Court noted that the AMMA does not prohibit prosecutions for operating a motor vehicle or water vessel while under the influence of marijuana under A.R.S. § 36–2802(D). However, in those cases, “a registered qualifying patient shall not be considered to be under the influence of marijuana solely because of the presence of metabolites or components of marijuana that appear in insufficient concentration to cause impairment.”

On the other hand, Arizona’s DUI laws identify “separate offenses for driving while a person is under the influence of marijuana and ‘impaired to the slightest degree,’ A.R.S. § 28–1381(A)(1), and driving while there is marijuana or its metabolite ‘in the person’s body.’ § 28–1381(A)(3).”

Therefore, an § 28–1381(A)(3) violation, unlike an (A)(1) violation, does not require the state to prove that the defendant was in fact impaired while driving or in control of a vehicle.

The Court also noted that (A)(1) and (A)(3) offenses for DUI also differ with respect to possible defenses. The Court noted that this was the first case in which the Supreme Court was called upon to resolve how the AMMA affects (A)(3) prosecutions.

The court noted that “Section 36–2802(D) does not say that registered qualifying patients cannot be prosecuted for (A)(3) violations. Instead, it provides that such patients, who use marijuana ‘as authorized’ by the AMMA, id. § 36–2802(E), cannot “be considered to be under the influence of marijuana solely because of the presence of metabolites or components of marijuana that appear in insufficient concentration to cause impairment.” Id. § 36–2802(D) (emphasis added).”

The Affirmative Marijuana AMMA Defense in a DUI Case

In setting forth the parameters of the Affirmative Marijuana AMMA Defense in a DUI Case the court noted that:

Section 36–2802(D), rather than § 28–1381(D), defines the affirmative defense available to a registered qualifying patient to an (A)(3) charge. If their use of marijuana is authorized by § 36–2802(D), such patients cannot be deemed to be under the influence—and thus cannot be convicted under (A)(3)—based solely on concentrations of marijuana or its metabolite insufficient to cause impairment.

Possession of a registry card creates a presumption that a qualifying patient is engaged in the use of marijuana pursuant to the AMMA, so long as the patient does not possess more than the permitted quantity of marijuana. A.R.S. § 36–2811(A)(1). That presumption is subject to rebuttal as provided under § 36–2811(2).

A qualifying patient may be convicted of an (A)(3) violation if the state proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the patient, while driving or in control of a vehicle, had marijuana or its impairing metabolite in the patient’s body. The patient may establish an affirmative defense to such a charge by showing that his or her use was authorized by the AMMA—which is subject to the rebuttable presumption under § 36–2811(2)—and that the marijuana or its metabolite was in a concentration insufficient to cause impairment.

The patient bears the burden of proof on the latter point by a preponderance of the evidence, as with other affirmative defenses. See A.R.S. § 13–205 (“[A] defendant shall prove any affirmative defense raised by a preponderance of the evidence.”).

Problems with Assigning the Patient the Burden of Showing Lack of Impairment

By limiting the defense to an affirmative defense, the Court essentially assigned to qualifying patients “the burden of showing that they did not have marijuana concentrations sufficient to cause impairment….” As a practical matter, this is a difficult task because there is no commonly accepted threshold for identifying marijuana concentrations sufficient to cause impairment. In fact, the courts in Arizona have previously explained that there are “no generally applicable concentration that can be identified as an indicator of impairment for illegal drugs.” Cf. State ex rel. Montgomery v. Harris (Shilgevorkyan), 234 Ariz. 343, 347 ¶ 24, 322 P.3d 160, 164 (2014).

The Court, nevertheless, decided that the “risk of uncertainty in this regard should fall on the patients, who generally know or should know if they are impaired and can control when they drive, rather than on the members of the public whom they encounter on our streets.”

The Court ultimately noted that the drivers in the case before them had made no effort to show that the marijuana in their bodies was in an insufficient concentration to cause impairment. Instead, they argued that the AMMA categorically barred the (A)(3) charge. As such, the only evidence they offered was their respective registry identification cards into evidence. The court noted that evidence of possession of a registry card would generally be admissible in an (A)(3) prosecution to invoke the presumption that the patient was using marijuana pursuant to the AMMA, but it does not suffice to establish the § 36–2802(D) affirmative defense. Therefore, any error by the trial court in excluding evidence of the registry cards was harmless under the particular facts of that case.

The Court found that instead of “shielding registered qualifying patients from any prosecution under A.R.S. § 28–1381(A)(3), the AMMA affords an affirmative defense for those patients who can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the concentration of marijuana or its impairing metabolite in their bodies was insufficient to cause impairment.”

Ultimately, the drivers’ convictions were upheld. But the decision at least provides a road map to other people in a similar position to have their Arizona or out-of-state-issued medical marijuana registry identification cards into evidence or prove other evidence of its existence. The decision would also allow the driver to present the affirmative defense of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the concentration of marijuana or its impairing metabolite in their bodies was insufficient to cause impairment.


Additional Resources

Arizona Supreme Court Rules on Medical Marijuana in DUI Cases — Visit The Arizona Republic to find an article by Michael Kiefer and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez which was published on November 20, 2015. The article discusses the new affirmative defense announced by the Arizona Supreme Court on Friday.

Legally Speaking: Change in Arizona DUI law gives medical marijuana holders fair shake — Article published by Monica Lindstrom on November 20, 2015 about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to add an affirmative defense to Arizona’s DUI laws on Friday for qualified card holder under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.

Arizona Drugged Driving DUI — Visit the website for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to learn more about the so-called drugged driving laws in Arizona including affirmative defenses, implied consent, penalties, sobriety checkpoints, per se drugged driving laws and case law.

Conclusion

If you were charged with DUI involving a blood test showing the presence of THC and/or its impairing metabolite hydroxy-THC, then contact an experienced criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of James Novak. Call us today to discuss your case and the best ways to present the Affirmative Marijuana AMMA Defense in your case.