Drivers Under 21 Who Test Positive For THC Could Face Major Penalty Under New Bill

By Paul Gaita 02/28/18

The bill faces a significant obstacle, as California does not currently have an accurate THC field test.

Young male driver is caught driving under alcohol influence.

California State Senator Jerry Hill has introduced a bill that would penalize drivers under 21 if they test positive for marijuana.

SB 1273, which Hill introduced on February 16, would grant police officers the right to suspend the license of any driver under the age of 21 suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana if they test positive for THC in an oral swab or other chemical field test.

However, the bill may face a significant obstacle, as California does not currently have an accurate field test to measure the amount of THC in a driver.

Hill, who earlier this month also proposed SB 1127, which would allow parents of K-12 students with special needs to administer medicinal marijuana to their children on school campuses, said that the bill would "save lives by making it illegal for drivers under age 21 to drive under the influence of marijuana, just like current law for alcohol."

California law currently prohibits individuals under the age of 21 from possessing or using cannabis products, but as KTVU noted, SB 1273 would close any loopholes regarding legalization for adult use.

Under the bill's provisions, California law enforcement would be allowed to suspend, for up to one year, the driver's license of any individual under the age of 21 who tests positive for THC and is found to be driving under the influence. 

Drivers who test positive would be allowed to either call their family to pick them up, go home using a cab or service or a sober passenger with a valid license would be allowed to drive the individual home, and their vehicles could be retrieved later.

SB 1273 also provides an exemption for drivers under 21 who use medical marijuana and have the proper documentation to prove it; if the motorist tests positive and the officer believes that his or her driving ability is not impaired, the driver will be able to return to the road.

Additionally, the bill would allow law enforcement to designate the type of substance that has impaired the driver, if such information is available, and provides officers and prosecutors with seven categories of substances with which to attribute the DUI, including cannabis, hallucinogens, and narcotic analgesics.

Current California codes only allow the officer to determine that the DUI was caused by either alcohol or drugs. The purpose of these new designations would be to gather more specific data on DUI arrests and convictions.

However, as High Times noted, there is no accurate and incontestable means of testing for THC in the field.

Some prototypes have been used in certain California jurisdictions, but given the fact that THC can remain in a person's system for up to 30 days or more, these tests cannot be attributed as accurate or reliable, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined in 2017.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.