Legalization could lead to law enforcement abuse in Missouri

Is it safe to take a Sunday drive if you were enjoying some herb on Saturday night?

As a longtime resident of Missouri, it is fascinating to see the reaction toward legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes in my home state. What makes this topic doubly interesting comes from my experiences as a former police officer and how the current laws are weighed against recreational consumption.

Missouri Amendment 3 passed last November, and while this legalized the recreational use of cannabis, it did nothing to enact or clarify the conditions in which THC could legally be found in a user’s system. One of the primary issues in the proper enforcement of cannabis-related Driving Under the Influence (DUI) charges is that a legal limit was not set by any legislation when the recreational law went into effect this year, an issue that has been prevalent since medicinal use was legalized.

This is going to prove problematic for cannabis enthusiasts as the concern with how existing laws are enforced and why defendants may be in for a hard time if they have to appear in court for a DUI because, as of now, any amount of THC in the blood while operating a vehicle is a punishable offense.

The majority of cannabis users understand that the drug is still detectable in their system long after they have had their last dose. However, newer users who have not performed their due diligence may be surprised to learn that the exact length of time the chemical is detectable is based on several factors including frequency of use, individual metabolism, and level of THC consumed among others.

Looking at the time it takes our bodies to process THC out of our systems, we can understand the potential for the abuse of law enforcement agencies to use this to their advantage. If an officer has reasonable suspicion that the driver is under the influence of marijuana, he can ask them to submit to a chemical test, and drivers can lose their license for up to a year if they refuse to comply. It’s easy for a law enforcement officer to use a phrase in his report that will almost always guarantee he had reasonable suspicion. That magical phrase is “With my experience and training…” and unless the defendant has a good attorney, the court will roll with it.

In a hypothetical situation such as a driver being involved in an accident three days after having used marijuana; if an officer has reasonable suspicion the driver is under the influence and requests a saliva swab or urine sample, what legal defense is there against a DUI charge if it comes back positive for THC? Sadly, under the current law, there seems to be no justifiable defense as to why the substance was in the defendant’s blood.

This needs to be carefully examined and rectified for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that in the above example the driver’s previous use of cannabis should be a non-issue as it occurred days before the incident and has no bearing on the current circumstances. Under current law though, he can still be found guilty of DUI.

Another hypothetical situation that has users of legal cannabis worried is the simple fact that if a law enforcement officer knows a subject regularly consumes marijuana, they can use this information to their advantage anytime they have contact with the individual – so long as the person has been operating a motor vehicle. All they need to do to make it happen is invoke everyone’s favorite magical phrase in their report.

Along with regularly appointed police officers, Missouri has multiple drug task forces operating in the state and each of these organizations is reliant on funding to function. With across the board legalization of marijuana, one of their biggest bargaining chips for grants has been taken away, and concerns have been voiced in regard to these agencies using DUI convictions as a means to still use marijuana to add to their numbers as a way to increase revenue streams. Again, all it takes is that magical phrase in a report – a report that may not be written until well after the test results are back.

Until there is cohesive action by lawmakers to address these issues, every cannabis user in the state of Missouri needs to be aware of the potential DUI charges anytime they are pulled over by law enforcement.

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