California cannabis

Proposition 64 (Prop 64 or the Adult Use of Marijuana Act), which passed last November and legalized recreational cannabis use throughout California, included stricter laws regarding driving while “high.” But California senators have proposed a new bill, Senate Bill 65 (SB 65), to close what they say is a loophole in the law that does not explicitly make it illegal to drive while consuming marijuana as long as you aren’t impaired.

One of the stated intents of Prop 64 was to maintain existing laws that make it illegal to operate a car (or other vehicle) while impaired by marijuana. Like driving under the influence of alcohol, it is illegal in California to drive or operate a vehicle under the influence of any drug. You are under the influence of a drug when your physical or mental abilities are impaired to the point where you can no longer drive with the caution of an ordinary, sober person under similar circumstances. However, there are no current state laws that address the legality of driving when not impaired but while still consuming marijuana or marijuana products.

Prop 64 provides that it does not permit any person to, among other things:

  • possess an open container or package of marijuana while driving, operating, or riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle
  • smoke or ingest marijuana or marijuana products while driving or operating a vehicle
  • smoke or ingest marijuana or marijuana products while riding in the passenger seat or compartment of a vehicle, except as permitted by a local jurisdiction

Note that even though Prop 64 does not permit these activities, it also does not prohibit them. However, it provides that any person with an open container of marijuana in a vehicle may be cited for an infraction and have to pay a fine of up to $250. For persons under the age of 18, drug education and community services will instead by required. In contrast, no penalties are included for smoking or ingesting marijuana while driving or riding in a vehicle, an oversight that the authors of Prop 64 simply forgot to include.

SB 65 would “remedy” this by making it illegal for a person to smoke or consume marijuana in any form while operating a vehicle, vessel, or an aircraft; and any violations could result in either an infraction or a misdemeanor. However, SB 65 would also prohibit consumption of CBD-only marijuana products while driving a vehicle, which could be a problem for many medical marijuana patients.

Though SB 65 would clearly allow police to ticket anyone caught smoking or ingesting marijuana red-handed, a challenge for the bill is how to test whether a driver who is pulled over for driving erratically recently consumed marijuana. There is currently no THC threshold for impairment established in California as well as no standard test for impairment (e.g. blood, saliva, breath). A separate bill, Assembly Bill 6, was recently proposed to allow law enforcement to perform saliva tests on drivers they suspect are impaired by marijuana use. But a similar proposal was rejected in 2016 because legislators were concerned about the dependability of field testing marijuana-induced drivers.

To address this problem, Prop 64 allocates some of the tax revenues that will be raised from recreational marijuana sales to the Department of California Highway Patrol to create protocols for determining whether a driver is impaired by use of marijuana. The state is currently exploring ways to test driver impairment, including the use of marijuana breathalyzers that have already been road-tested on California highways.

Finally, for those that are still unclear on California’s stance on using cannabis while driving, the state recently launched a $1 million anti-drugged driving campaign that uses television and digital ads to show the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana. For California cannabis consumers, the state wants you to know “DUI doesn’t just mean booze” anymore. (You can watch the video here.)