When you google: “legal marijuana in Georgia” the results seem endless. That’s probably because the legalization of marijuana has become one of today’s hottest political and social issues. Everywhere you turn, the “marijuana” debate is front and center. In fact, CNN, Fox News, and other major news sources have been exploring the topic on a daily basis–presenting opinions about and predicting the effects of marijuana legalization.
Georgians have also joined the debate. Supporters of marijuana legalization in Georgia have been vocal about the drug’s medicinal benefits and the industry’s potential profitability. Additionally, supporters have been calling for an end to the criminalization of marijuana possession, comparing it “Prohibition,” which ended in 1920. Those who are against the legalization of marijuana argue that marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead to widespread drug abuse and make our communities less safe.
What makes this debate so fascinating is the fact that there is bipartisan interest in legalization. Just recently, Georgia House Speaker, David Ralston, a conservative Republican, announced that even he would be interested in learning more about the medical benefits to marijuana and how Georgia can incorporate the legalization of marijuana into its own law.
Since we are still a few years away from legalization of marijuana in Georgia, it is important to understand how Georgia handles DUI-marijuana cases in the meantime.
CURRENT GEORGIA LAW AND DUI-MARIJUANA CASES
Georgia has already addressed driving under the influence of marijuana to some extent. Currently, the crime falls under Georgia’s broad DUI-drug statute. This statute allows a police officer to place a driver under arrest for DUI if the police officer believes a driver is under the influence of ANY drug (prescription or not) and that the drug is causing the driver to be a “less safe” driver.
There are a few different ways the officer can try to establish a case for DUI drugs and more specifically driving under the influence of marijuana.
First, the officer is trained to look for all the tell-tale signs that someone is high on marijuana. Think about the people you knew growing up that liked to smoke marijuana. They often would have slower speech, blood shot eyes and a carefree attitude. Sometimes, marijuana smokers cannot control their laughter either. In addition to personal characteristics, police officers often include the smell of burnt marijuana as evidence of DUI-marijuana. Throughout any given investigation, police officers are looking for each and all of these signs.
Often times, police officers do not see all of the above-mentioned characteristics and therefore struggle to find probable cause to arrest a driver for DUI-Drugs.
In these situations, police officers are trained to establish a DUI-drugs case using the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) marijuana field sobriety test. NHTSA, as you may know, is the federal agency tasked with designing field sobriety tests and training police officers to administer those tests in the most objective and scientifically accurate manner possible. Even though NHTSA has that responsibility, NHTSA is known for launching aggressive anti-DUI ad campaigns. In one ad, there is a car filled to the brim with beer and liquor. In another ad, there is an invisible police officer who stalks bar patrons as they head to their cars in an inebriated condition and drive recklessly on public roads. Georgia, like many other states, uses NHTSA’s manual to train its police officers on DUI investigation.
When a Georgia police officer believes a driver is impaired but cannot immediately determine what substance is causing the impairment, the officer is trained to conduct the DUI-Alcohol field sobriety tests. If it appears that alcohol is not the reason why someone seems to be impaired, then the officer is trained to go into additional field sobriety tests to narrow down the potential causes of the impairment. With these results, police officers can then make a determination as to whether there is probable cause (more likely than not) that the driver is under the influence of marijuana.
WHAT ABOUT MY LICENSE?
The post-arrest process for DUI drugs is very similar to a DUI alcohol arrest. If an officer wants the driver to undergo additional chemical testing (which they almost always do), the officer MUST read the Georgia Implied Consent warning to the driver immediately after he is arrested. Basically, the Georgia Implied Consent warning tells the driver that his license is going to be suspended if he refuses to provide a sample of his blood, breath or urine. In DUI-Alcohol cases, a breath test is the most popular form of chemical testing because it provides the officer with a quick, but not always accurate, printout of the drivers blood alcohol concentration. However, in DUI drug cases, a blood test is usually preferred because it can detect a variety of intoxicants–not just alcohol. Urine tests are rarely used in DUI investigations because the results have been found to be less accurate.
In Georgia, if a driver agrees to take a blood test, the driver will be taken to a nurse or phlebotomist who will then administer the blood draw. If the driver agrees to the test then the blood will be packaged and sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) crime lab, where it is tested for the presence of marijuana and other intoxicants. When looking for marijuana in a blood sample, GBI looks for the mere presence of THC, the active chemical in marijuana that causes a person to feel high. GBI does not, however, examine or ascertain the level of THC in a person’s blood. So, if a driver smoked marijuana a week prior to getting behind the wheel and still had THC in their system, then that drivers GBI report would read the same as the driver who smoked while driving.