Louisiana Decriminalization Article

PA Senate leaves medical cannabis patients at risk for DUI prosecution

By Christen Smith | (The Center Square) | Sep 22, 2021

Three years ago, medical cannabis patient Jesse Roedts told state troopers at a sobriety checkpoint that some of the drug was in his car.

That admission, he said, prompted a search of his vehicle, a field sobriety test – which he passed – and a blood draw to confirm his impairment. The latter revealed carboxy THC in his system, triggering a DUI charge and costing him thousands in court and attorneys fees to fight.

During a preliminary hearing, Roedts said the arresting officer admitted targeting him for the DUI charge upon learning of his medical status. Pennsylvania’s zero tolerance impaired driving law makes no distinction between medical and recreational cannabis use, leaving up to 368,000 registered patients at risk of prosecution for the mere presence of THC in their blood.

“The state legalized medical cannabis then turned hundreds of thousands of patients into potential criminals,” Roedts told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday in support of a legislative fix to the loophole. “Reforming this law will allow the proper protections that patients deserve. … I know I am one of many patients who have suffered due to the way the current law is written.”

That’s why Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, sponsored Senate Bill 167 amending Title 75, the Vehicle Code, to remove medical cannabis from the law’s definition of controlled substance and insert language that says “if the individual is a medical marijuana patient in compliance with the provisions of the Medical Marijuana Act, proof of actual impairment shall be required.”

This is similar to the way drivers found in possession of prescribed drugs are treated, Bartolotta said in a December cosponsorship memo. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association is among the supporters of the measure.

“DUI reform is the most pressing issue facing our medical cannabis patients,” said Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney based in Pittsburgh. “The intent [of the medical cannabis program] could not have been to render hundreds of thousands of patients unable to operate a vehicle.”

Nightingale told the committee that prosecution of cannabis DUIs is inconsistent across the state. Some district attorneys withdraw charges against registered patients, while others pursue convictions based on the drug’s Schedule 1 classification.

“There is no consistency unfortunately, and that makes life interesting not only for defense attorneys, but our clients,” he said Tuesday.

In Roedts’s case, the state dropped the charges after the arresting officer testified under oath that he lied about seeing signs of impairment. The court also viewed a recording of Roedts’s field sobriety test, which confirmed he passed with no signs of intoxication.

Pennsylvania State Police Major Robert Krol said officers don’t pursue DUI charges unless a driver shows signs of impairment. The agency said it supports the bill.

“Normally, we’re not going to get to the point that we are obtaining blood unless we’ve got indicators [of impairment],” he said. “We don’t go on fishing expeditions, per se, to identify whether people have something in their system or not unless we have other evidence.”

Lauren Vrabel, a licensed pharmacist, told the committee that existing drug screenings present “misleading representations of intoxication” because the tests detect the presence of inactive THC metabolites that “will not interact with receptors to produce a high.”

“What this actually represents is simply consumption,” she said. “It is not an indicator of the time frame of consumption. Therefore, measuring [carboxy THC] to prove intoxication at the time of operating a motor vehicle is arbitrary.”

Roedts said, despite the withdrawn charges, the event triggered a ripple effect of negative consequences throughout his life and abused his “rights and privacy.” Local newspapers published his DUI charge, which jeopardized his jobs as both a music teacher and fire inspector.

“I felt embarrassed that I had to reveal personal medical information just to clear my name so I would not be terminated from both my jobs,” he told the committee. “I had to make them aware that I was a legal patient and was not impaired.”

Roughly 368,000 active registered patients in Pennsylvania use medical cannabis to treat 23 conditions, from cancer to autism to chronic pain to anxiety to opioid use disorder. Bartolotta said her bill “will provide critical protections for medicinal cannabis patients by ensuring responsible use of their legal medicine does not give rise to a criminal conviction.”