“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” is the new word from Arizona Supreme Court (State v. Harris (Shilgevorkyan, Real Party in Interest,) No. CV-13-0056-PR). Arizona was one of but a handful of “metabolite states” where it is illegal to drive with the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana “Tetrahydrocannabinol” (THC) in your system, or any of its metabolites. While it is still illegal to drive with THC in your system, it is no longer illegal to drive with any of pot’s inactive metabolites.
When someone smokes marijuana, the psychoactive ingredient (THC) is rapidly absorbed into the blood and can certainly have an impairing effect, dependent upon the dose. THC also rapidly breaks down, or “metabolizes” into another psychoactive compound known as “Hydroxy-THC” which also can have impairing effects dependent upon the dose. Hydroxy-THC rapidly metabolizes into Carboxy-THC which is inactive–in other words–it doesn’t get you high.
Until the Arizona Supreme Court ruled on April 22nd, 2014, it was illegal to drive with the psychoactive compound or any of the 80-plus inactive metabolites of weed in your system. That’s right–it was just as illegal to drive with a non-impairing compound of pot in your system as it was illegal to drive with active THC, Heroin, PCP, Methamphetamine or a blood alcohol content three or four times the legal limit.
This made no sense since drugged-driving laws were added to Arizona’s statutes in 1991. Unlike other ridiculous and nonsensical laws, this one only took thirteen years to overturn.
Hrach Shilgevorkyan was stopped for speeding and ultimately cited for DUI because he had admitted that he smoked “weed” the night before. Blood was drawn from him and it contained only the inactive carboxy-THC metabolite. He argued that the legislature could never have intended to include carboxy-THC because that would not impair a driver.
The trial court saw it his way and dismissed the charge. The prosecutors appealed and lost again in the Superior Court. Undaunted, they took a “special action” (because they had no right of appeal to a higher court at that point) which resulted in a reversal and a win for the prosecution by Arizona’s Division I Court of Appeals.
The defense then asked for a Petition for Review by the Arizona Supreme Court, which took jurisdiction. The question for the Court was whether the statute’s language, which makes it illegal to drive with marijuana “or its metabolite” in the body includes inactive, non-impairing compounds.
Both sides agreed on the essential fact of the case–carboxy THC does not impair. The question then became one of statutory interpretation. The Court found that “statutes should be construed to sensibly avoid reaching an absurd conclusion.”
Things didn’t play out well for the prosecutor’s arguments at the Supreme Court when they argued that if a metabolite could be detected for five years after ingesting a proscribed drug, a driver who tested positive for trace elements of a non-impairing substance could be prosecuted.
Despite the loss for the government, the top prosecutor for Maricopa County, Bill Montgomery, said that Arizona’s roads will be less-safe due to this ruling because if courts will not accept carboxy-THC results as evidence of impairment, then there is no way of knowing who is really high and who is not.
It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?