HARRISBURG (TNS) — Medical marijuana patients face a risk of arrest in Pennsylvania if they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Jesse Roedts found that out first hand.
The music instructor and fire inspector from Montoursville was stopped in 2019 at a state police DUI checkpoint where he told the troopers he was a medical marijuana card holder. That led to a search of his vehicle, having his legal medication and paraphernalia seized, being subjected to field sobriety tests and a blood draw. He ended up being arrested for DUI.
Roedts testified the reason he was arrested was because of his medical cannabis card. He said a video of the field sobriety test revealed he showed no signs of impairment. The charges were later dropped.
He shared his story with the state Senate Transportation Committee last week at a hearing on Senate Bill 167. That bill would require a driver who is a medical marijuana patient to show actual impairment from the medication to be arrested for DUI.
Sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County, the legislation enjoys bipartisan support, just as an identical bill in the House of Representatives offered by Rep. Chris Raab, D-Philadelphia, does in that chamber.
Supporters are resting their hopes on the Senate bill since it is sponsored by a Republican senator who is pushing it in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
“Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s zero tolerance DUI law does not contemplate the difference between medicinal and recreational use of marijuana,” Bartolotta said at the committee hearing. “Because of this, unimpaired patients currently face the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and convicted for medicinal marijuana that has no bearing on their ability to drive.”
Raab, who uses a cannabis tincture as a sleeping aid, said in his written testimony to the Senate committee, “as the law is written today, I could go to jail for 6 months for driving 4 weeks after swallowing a few drops of cannabis tincture sold at a dispensary licensed by the very same government that cashes in on tax revenue from the sale of medical cannabis. That’s perverse.”
Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2018. It is one of 12 states with “zero tolerance” in its DUI law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another five states set maximum amounts of active THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, a driver can legally have in their blood.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, called the hearing a first step in the process on a bill where supportive lawmaker face the hurdle of figuring out how to address this evolving area of the law without making sure it doesn’t condone driving impaired.
Bartolotta agreed that the messaging about the bill’s intent is critical to its passage.
“We worked so hard to get medical cannabis legal in Pennsylvania,” Bartolotta told PennLive. “And it’s helping hundreds of thousands of patients but yet they are now having to worry they are being given a DUI because they have traces of a substance that has no bearing or effect on their ability to operate a vehicle.”
Her legislation is drawing support from the statewide county prosecutors organization.
“It is entirely logical that when a driver uses it legally and shows no signs of impairment that the individual not face criminal penalties for its lawful use and the lack of showing any signs of impairment,” said Greg Rowe, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
The Pennsylvania State Police, likewise, don’t see it as having a negative impact on highway safety, especially since the legislation doesn’t allow for medical cannabis patients to use their status as a legal consumer of this medication as an excuse for driving impaired in a DUI case.
Moreover, the Pennsylvania AAA Federation also is generally supportive of the bill. It recommends the state move toward requiring a positive test detecting the presence of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, and evidence of driver impairment.
At the Senate hearing, pharmacist Lauren Vrabel said medical cannabis can affect people differently depending on whether it’s inhaled or ingested, the quantity and frequency of use and an individual’s body mass. What’s more, tolerance increases with continued use.
“The presence of THC and its metabolites in drug screens does not accurately prove intoxication. These patients deserve a better solution,” specifically the ones included in the legislation, Vrabel said.
Criminal defense lawyer Patrick Nightingale from Pittsburgh told the committee the push for this change in the DUI law should not be seen as seeking “a free pass for medical cannabis patients to abuse the privilege of consuming medical cannabis and to operate a motor vehicle when impaired.”
Rather, he said the issue that must be addressed is Pennsylvania has over 350,000 medical cannabis patients who can be arrested for DUI without any proof of impairment.
Meanwhile, those taking what the federal government classifies as a Schedule 2 or 3 narcotic such as OxyContin or Tylenol with Codeine, can’t be.
Nightingale, a marijuana reform activist, said in a subsequent interview that he has seen enough cases of medical marijuana patients facing DUI charges to conclude it is the most pressing issue facing the medical cannabis community.
“We’re only three years into this [medical marijuana] program and these patients presumably are going to be using medical cannabis for the rest of their lives,” Nightingale said. “They’re going to have a number two DUI come up pretty soon and a number three DUI where they are looking at a year incarceration for using medication that the state said is 100% fine to use.”