Marijuana DUIs in California

Marijuana DUIs in California: Laws, Prosecution, Consequences, and Defense

Table of Content

Although recreational marijuana is legal in California, operating a vehicle while under the influence remains illegal and is considered a criminal offense known as a marijuana DUI. For people living in California, having a basic understanding of marijuana DUIs can be useful. In this article, our team at Forward Law Group provides essential information related to marijuana DUIs, covering areas such as relevant laws, how a marijuana DUI is proven, consequences and penalties of a marijuana DUI conviction, and ways to defend against this type of criminal charge. We begin by providing a quick background about broader marijuana laws in California. 

Marijuana DUI Laws in California

When most people hear DUI, they may automatically assume that it is driving under the influence of alcohol. While recreational marijuana is legal today, operating a vehicle under the influence of marijuana is not and can lead to a marijuana DUI. Although marijuana DUIs have been less common (or perhaps, not as talked about) historically when compared to DUIs for alcohol, they have been getting more attention across California in recent years. 

Marijuana DUIs are covered in subdivision (f) of section 23152 of the California Vehicle Code which states: “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.” They are also covered in subdivision (f) of Section 23153, which states: “It is unlawful for a person, while under the influence of any drug, to drive a vehicle and concurrently do any act forbidden by law, or neglect any duty imposed by law in driving the vehicle, which act or neglect proximately causes bodily injury to any person other than the driver.” As you may have noticed, marijuana does not necessarily have its own DUI classification, but instead, it is grouped with other drugs. 

In some cases when someone is arrested for a marijuana DUI, the police officer who made the traffic stop saw the person driving, pulled them over afterward, and made the arrest as a result of probable cause. Direct evidence, however, is not only limited to a police officer’s testimony that they saw the defendant driving. Photos or images from traffic cameras can also be considered direct evidence, as can admission or statements by the defendant during the traffic stop. In other situations, however, there is no direct evidence. For example, a person can also get arrested for a marijuana DUI for merely being in the driver’s seat, being in a parked vehicle with the keys in the ignition. In the latter situation, because there is no direct evidence of the person actually driving the vehicle, a person can argue a “no-driving” defense (more on this later). 

It is important to note that the law against operating a vehicle while under the influence of marijuana is just one of many marijuana-related laws that California has in place. Next, we provide a quick background on other marijuana-related laws in the state. 

Marijuana Laws in California From a Broader Perspective

In 1996, California became the first state in the US to legalize medical cannabis after voters passed the Compassionate Use Act. However, it was not until 2016 that legal marijuana truly became mainstream. In 2016, Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, would legalize recreational cannabis. With the passage of Proposition 64 and the legalization of recreational cannabis, people in California ages 21 and older could legally:

  • possess, process, transport, purchase, obtain, or give away (to other people 21 years old or older) without compensation up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis;
  • possess, plant, cultivate, harvest, dry, or process up to six living marijuana plants and products produced by the plants; and
  • smoke, ingest, and use marijuana and marijuana products.

While the list above highlights some of the key aspects of Proposition 64, it is not comprehensive. Proposition 64 also had implications related to the review of and resentencing procedures for people convicted of marijuana charges, as well as the sealing and destruction of court records related to arrest or conviction records for specified cannabis-related offenses.

While the main focus has largely been on what is legal, there are still many aspects related to marijuana that are illegal. For example, people in California cannot smoke marijuana in public places such as bars or restaurants. Additionally, people cannot smoke marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare center, or youth center while kids are present. Finally, because marijuana is still illegal federally, people cannot use or possess marijuana on federal lands such as national parks—even those located within California. 

What are the Consequences of a Marijuana DUI?

The penalties in California for a marijuana DUI are very similar to those for an alcohol-related DUI. People charged with a marijuana DUI will be arrested, in addition to a hefty array of other penalties they could face if convicted. For a first-time marijuana DUI conviction, possible penalties include:

  • Up to 6 months in jail
  • Up to a $1,000 fine
  • 3 or 9 months of DUI school
  • 6 to 10 months suspended license (or restricted license)

Other potential penalties include community service, house arrest, and probation. However, penalties can be more severe in situations where there was a minor present in the vehicle, the driver had a suspended license or no license at all, or the driver caused an accident that resulted in harm, death, or property damage. 

In most cases, a marijuana DUI is considered a misdemeanor offense in California, but when the charge involves elevated circumstances such as those outlined above, the charge can be raised to a felony—particularly in situations when someone is hurt as a result of the driver who was under the influence. Charges can also be raised to a felony if the defendant already has multiple DUI convictions or has been convicted of a felony within the last ten years. Furthermore, if a death occurs due to the defendant’s impaired driving, the charges can be lifted to the extent of second-degree murder. 

What Are Factors Police and State Prosecutors Use to Try and Prove a Marijuana DUI?

Proving a marijuana DUI can be more complex than proving an alcohol DUI. A blood or urine sample can show only that someone has marijuana in their system, but is unable to show if someone was under the influence at the time they were pulled over. For example, in many instances, a person who regularly uses cannabis can test positive for marijuana despite being completely sober. Due to this, state prosecutors also often rely on other evidence, such as: 

  • A defendant’s driving pattern (e.g. erratic driving, speeding, swerving, driving significantly below the limit)
  • Statements made by the defendant to a police offer when they were pulled over
  • Presence of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, marijuana odor, or visible smoke 
  • Physical symptoms of marijuana (e.g. bloodshot or red eyes, dry mouth)
  • Behavior symptoms (e.g. slow or slurred speech, difficulty concentrating or responding, lagged responses)

Although the list above provides only some of the ways that prosecutors in Los Angeles or California can try to prove a marijuana DUI, there are many other methods they can try to prove their case. 

Defending Against a Marijuana DUI

There are quite a few different ways that a defendant can defend a marijuana DUI charge. Some of the most common defense methods include:

  • Eliminating the use of the evidence by proving that the traffic stop or arrest was unlawful
  • Arguing that the chemical tests (urine or blood) were faulty or defective
  • Proving that although the defendant had marijuana in their system, they were not under the influence during the traffic stop
  • A “no driving” defense—that the vehicle was not being operated

While this list is not exhaustive, it provides a solid understanding of some of the typical methods that are used to fight marijuana DUIs. 

Final Thoughts

Dealing with a marijuana DUI can be extremely stressful, especially given the significant penalties that come with a conviction. The impacts of a marijuana DUI conviction are felt for many years—they can stay on someone’s driving record for up to 10 years and can also remain on their criminal record permanently. Additionally, prosecutors in California are often regarded as some of the most adept prosecutors in the nation, and standing up to them alone is no easy task. One option people who have been charged with a weed DUI in California might consider is obtaining the help of a lawyer. Skilled lawyers, like those at Forward Law Group, know how to analyze the evidence for a marijuana-related DUI case and decide the best strategy to defend against it so that a defendant achieves the best possible outcome. Moreover, they have a tremendous amount of experience with going toe-to-toe with state prosecutors. The assistance of a qualified attorney can help ease the stress after a DUI charge, and more importantly, it can create a better chance of winning the case.

If you need the guidance and assistance of experienced attorneys who will fight for you, we welcome you to contact Forward Law Group. Our respected criminal defense lawyers in Los Angeles are ready to fight your marijuana DUI charge and help you move forward with your life. Our lawyers have helped people across California with their marijuana DUI cases and are ready to go the extra mile for you. For more information, contact the Forward Law Group team at (818) 471-8389.