COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – State Sen. Nathan Manning wants to equip Ohioans with extra armor to fend off a marijuana OVI charge.
The North Ridgeville Republican on Thursday introduced legislation that would overhaul the way law enforcement screens marijuana impairment among motorists, citing the drug’s long-lasting presence in the body and the lack of clear-cut science about how long its users remain impaired.
Unlike alcohol, marijuana can be detected in one’s system weeks or months after its use. That could leave clear-headed drivers who pose no threat to Ohio’s roadways – even if they test positive – with a criminal record and court costs, Manning, a former prosecutor, said.
“If you had a glass of wine or a beer a few days ago, do you think it’s okay that you’re driving today? It’s obvious you’re not feeling those effects of it anymore,” Manning said. “I think it should be the same way for marijuana.”
How would marijuana OVIs change?
Under current law, Ohio motorists can be arrested if law enforcement believes there’s probable cause for impairment, which is typically determined via roadside sobriety test.
The arrested motorist then undergoes a blood or urine test, and if the sample positively shows a certain concentration of marijuana, the driver is automatically charged with an OVI, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
“You’re not exactly testing to see whether someone is under the influence or not, you’re testing to see if they’ve used THC within the last week or months,” Columbus criminal defense attorney Dan Sabol said of the state’s existing law.
Manning’s Senate Bill 26 would eliminate the requirement that motorists be automatically charged based on a drug test’s results. Drivers could instead argue that despite the positive test, they weren’t under the influence. A judge or jury would ultimately determine whether to convict someone on the OVI charge.
The bill would also require labs to solely screen for delta-9 THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, as opposed to existing law that looks for any trace of the drug, even its inactive ingredients, Manning said.
“I think it’s time that we updated the code and look at the science behind it and make sure that we’re holding people accountable who are driving under the influence or intoxicated or high,” Manning said, “but not holding those people that maybe have taken marijuana days or weeks earlier accountable when they’re not under the influence whatsoever.”
‘Times are changing’
Sabol, who regularly defends people facing an OVI charge, said Manning’s proposal reflects the reality that more Ohioans are consuming pot.
More than 330,000 patients were registered with the state’s medical marijuana program as of late January, and voters could see a ballot initiative to legalize the drug recreationally as early as November. “Times are changing,” Sabol said.
“You can get a recommendation to use marijuana to treat a medical condition – and that’s good by the state of Ohio – but if you were to drive days or weeks after, we’re gonna treat you just like the drunk driver hobbling away from the bar at 2 a.m.,” he said. “And that’s inherently unfair.”
Manning said he is working with stakeholders to get more people on board with SB 26.
That includes the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, whose executive director Lou Tobin said the proposal could burden individual prosecutors, lead to more jury trials and require more expert witnesses in the courtroom. The bigger problem, he said, is the message it sends to the public.
“I think this legislation will result in more people testing the limits of driving while they’re high; I think it will result in more people getting away with driving while high, and that leads to more accidents,” Tobin said.
SB 26, which lawmakers did not consider in last year’s legislative session, awaits hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee.