You can be arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) while taking legal drugs. Legal drugs, including prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, can lead to a DUI arrest and eventual conviction just like an alcohol-related drunk driving charge.
State governments seek to prevent any form of impaired driving to ensure safety on the roads. Suppose you're taking medications legally because a doctor prescribed them, or you purchased them at a pharmacy. A police officer may still arrest you for a DUI from legal drug use if your driving is impaired.
This article discusses elements of a DUI offense. It addresses driving under the influence of drugs and drug-related DUI penalties.
Elements of a DUI Offense
To be arrested and charged with a DUI/DWI offense, you must have:
- Driven a motor vehicle on a public roadway (or be in actual physical control of the car as defined by state laws)
- Been under the influence of alcohol or any legal, illegal, or controlled substances at the time of driving
Being under the influence means your ability to operate a vehicle safely is affected to a noticeable degree by an alcoholic beverage, a drug, or a combination of the two. By definition, a motorist can be under the influence of legal drugs for driving purposes. Drug impairment can have significant effects.
It's common for a law enforcement officer to conduct field sobriety tests to get an idea of whether alcohol or drugs are in a driver's system. If a driver appears intoxicated, but their blood alcohol content (BAC) is below the legal limit, an officer might suspect drug use. In that case, the officer may call a drug recognition expert (DRE) to the scene to make an evaluation.
Impaired Driving Charges: Legal Drugs
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws that can land you in hot water for a drug-related DUI. This includes illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine and heroin, as well as federally scheduled prescription medications like Vicodin that aren't prescribed to the driver. Marijuana and THC products, even where they are legal for medical or recreational use, can lead to impaired driving charges.
Many prescription and over-the-counter medications will affect your coordination, motor skills, and more. This can be true regardless of your dosage. Some common drug side effects that can affect your ability to drive include:
- Blurred vision
- Slowed movement
- Inability to focus or pay attention
Different drugs may affect drivers in various ways. Substances that impair judgment, alertness, concentration, or motor skills are considered just as dangerous as alcohol. Any one of the symptoms listed above can lead to unsafe driving, slow reaction time, or even a car crash.
It isn't just your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test results that count for a DUI conviction. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strongly cautions against driving when taking certain over-the-counter drugs such as antihistamines, opioids, and sleeping pills, since these medications can cause impairment.
Other substances such as kombucha tea (a fermented beverage made with bacteria, sugar, and yeast) and herbal supplements containing small, measurable amounts of alcohol (such as ginseng, which is often taken in an alcohol-based tincture) may also affect your ability to drive. Kombucha, while legal, also contains a small amount of alcohol that can register on a Breathalyzer test.
Drug-Related DUI Penalties
The penalties for DUIs on legal drugs and alcohol are the same, barring any aggravating factors such as being caught with other illegal drugs in your vehicle. Each case is different, though. Your sentence will depend on many factors, including:
- Prior criminal history
- The severity of the incident
- The state where you live
Arrested for a Legal Drug DUI? An Attorney Can Help
It may seem beyond comprehension that your prescription or over-the-counter medication got you arrested on a DUI charge. Taking drugs and driving is illegal if you're impaired, even if you have a valid prescription.
Speak with a qualified DUI/DWI attorney about local DUI laws and your case. A DUI lawyer can help, whether this is your first offense or a repeat issue; a misdemeanor or a felony. If you're dealing with a driver's license suspension or facing jail time, seek legal advice. DUI defense attorneys can challenge blood test results or question potential issues like an arresting officer's chemical testing procedures.