Sunday, July 5, 2015

Philly420: How smoking pot in Denver could lead to your arrest in Pa.

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THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, lingers in the blood.
THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, lingers in the blood. Getty Images

When Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was pulled over in Western Pennsylvania for smelling like marijuana, he didn't know about Pennsylvania's strict DUID law.

Bell was driving a Camaro with passenger and teammate LeGarrette Blount. The car had a 22-gram bag of cannabis in the glove box.

According to the police report, Bell told the motorcycle cop:

"I didn't know that you could get a DUI for being high. I smoked two hours ago. I am not high anymore. I am perfectly fine."

Surprise. In the Keystone State any amount of marijuana metabolites in your system is enough to charge you with "Driving Under the Influence of Drugs." That means a joint you smoked smoked last month could turn into a criminal proceeding. 

After his Ross Township traffic stop, Bell was sent to hospital to have his blood drawn. The threshold set for impairment under Pa. state law is 1 nanogram per milliliter of THC in the blood.

Inactive metabolites called THC-COOH can show up in urine tests 30-45 days after consuming cannabis. But it is a blood test that will determine a DUID. THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, has detectable levels in blood tests that reduce sharply just several hours after smoking or vaporizing marijuana. THC-COOH can also show up in the blood for longer periods especially after consuming edible products.

Depending on his physiology, how much he smoked, and how soon he smoked before being pulled over, Bell could avoid more serious charges but could still, technically, get a DUID. It is important to note however that among regular (say daily) cannabis consumers, low levels of THC can show up for several days after their last use.

Patrick Nightingale, a former assistant district attorney in Pittsburgh, now works as a criminal defense lawyer and director of the PittsburghNORML chapter.

"Mr. Bell, presuming he has no prior DUI convictions, will be afforded the opportunity to accept a diversionary program for first-time offenders," said Nightingale, "If, however, he is found to have even a minimal amount of cannabinoids in his system within the next 10 years, the penalties get significantly more serious."

A DUID conviction in Pennsylvania can net some heavy sentences:

  • First offense (misdemeanor) - imprisonment for a minimum of 72 consecutive hours, maximum imprisonment of 6 months; fine of not less than $1,000, not more than $5,000; offender required attend alcohol highway safety school; license suspension of at least 18 months; offender may be required to complete 150 hours of community service; offender may be required to attend a victim-impact panel. 
  • Second offense (misdemeanor) - imprisonment for a minimum of 90 days, maximum imprisonment of 6 months; fine of not less than $1,500; offender required to attend alcohol highway safety school; license suspension of at least 18 months; offender may be required to complete 150 hours of community service; offender may be required to attend a victim-impact panel. 
  • Third and subsequent offense (2nd degree misdemeanor) - minimum imprisonment for 1 year; fine of not less than $2,500; license suspension of at least 18 months; offender may be required to complete 150 hours of community service; offender may be required to attend a victim-impact panel.  

Marijuana and driving has been the subject of a hot debate and intense study since Colorado and Washington fully legalized cannabis for adults. 

Data shows that smoking some weed is far less debilitating than drinking even small amounts of alcohol. Cannabis-intoxicated drivers tend to go slightly lower than the speed limit and even have a better response time for red-to-green lights. That does not mean getting baked behind the wheel is a good idea.

Paul Armentao, deputy director of National NORML, is an expert on the issue. He wrote in the following in an article Cannabis and Driving: A Scientific and Rational Review.


While its adverse impact on psychomotor skills is less severe than the effects of alcohol, driving under the acute influence of cannabis still may pose an elevated risk of accident in certain situations, especially among inexperienced cannabis consumers. However, because marijuana's psychomotor impairment is subtle and short-lived, consumers can greatly reduce this risk by refraining from driving for a period of several hours immediately following their cannabis use.

By contrast, motorists should never be encouraged to operate a vehicle while smoking cannabis. Drivers should also be advised that engaging in the simultaneous use of both cannabis and alcohol can in some instances significantly increase their risk of accident compared to the consumption of either substance alone. Past use of cannabis, as defined by the detection solely of inactive cannabis metabolites in the urine of drivers, is not associated with an increased accident risk.

Having a zero-tolerance DUID policy could be a tough break for Pennsylvania residents looking to vacation in Denver. It is perfectly legal for adults over the age of 21 to purchase and consume cannabis while traveling in Colorado. 

State Sen. Daylin Leach took up the opportunity on a trip this summer, hitting a vape pen sampler. But Leach could have ended up in court if he had been pulled over upon his return. Any other casual cannabis tourist could run the same risk of breaking Pennsylvania law for activities far afield of the actual state borders. 

There are no reliable saliva or Breathalyzer tests for roadside use by law enforcement regarding marijuana. Such technology is in development. But what constitutes real-world driving impairment from cannabis remains a big question. However, right now, Pennsylvania is employing an extreme policy that should be reconsidered. 

Contact Chris Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com

Philly420
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