Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog

Operating Under the Influence of Marijuana in Massachusetts

Like all other states, driving while impaired is illegal in Massachusetts. However, when it comes to marijuana, the issue of how to tell when someone is “too impaired” to drive is tricky for several reasons. First, there is no standardized measurement like there is with alcohol. A “breathalyzer” for marijuana with a standardized cutoff, such as Massachusetts OUI law, which sets a legal cutoff at a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.08%, would be helpful, but the science is still out on it. In many states, the presence of any amount of THC in a person’s bloodstream is sufficient to charge the driver with operating a vehicle while impaired.

The problem with that approach is that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana responsible for the “high,” stays in a person’s system for days and weeks after use has been discontinued. Further, as argued by the criminal defense attorneys in Massachusetts, the sobriety field tests used to determine if someone is impaired by alcohol have not been scientifically proven to show if a person is or is not too impaired by marijuana to safely operate a vehicle.

In light of all this, Massachusetts’ highest court has taken a different approach to judging whether someone is too impaired by marijuana to be operating a vehicle in the Commonwealth. Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Gerhardt, a case involving a 2013 incident where a driver was charged with impaired driving. According to The Denver Post, the driver admitted to smoking marijuana hours before getting behind the wheel. The driver submitted to a field sobriety test where he was able to recite a portion of the alphabet and count backward, according to the newspaper. The driver was not, however, able do a “walk-and-turn” test or “properly follow instructions,” according to the cops who then determined he was under the influence of marijuana and charged him with the crime.

On the appropriate standard for when someone is operating under the influence, the Massachusetts’ high court left the ultimate burden on the jury. Police officers, the court ruled, will be able to testify about their observations while conducting a field sobriety test on the driver. However, unlike with alcohol cases, the police officers will not be able to testify about the results of the field sobriety tests. Therefore, the officer can testify about what they perceived – for example, if they smelled marijuana, saw that the driver’s eyes were bloodshot, or observed that the driver had difficulty reciting the alphabet. The officer cannot conclude that this means the driver was too impaired to drive.

A conviction for operating under the influence in Massachusetts can result in jail time, a fine, and a person losing his or her driver’s license. Because of the grave consequences, if you have been charged with operating under the influence in Massachusetts then you should speak to a Massachusetts criminal law attorney who has experience litigating OUI cases and is familiar with the forensic evidence common in these specific types of cases.