Alcohol-related DWIs in Minnesota have been on a steady decline for the past decade; however, controlled substance or other drug-related DWIs have actually increased drastically over the past 30 years. According to Minnesota Highway Trooper Sergeant Troy Christianson, in 1990, Minnesota recorded only five controlled substance-related DWI incidents. By 1997, this figure had increased to 228. Then, in 2007, there were 659 such incidents, and in 2017, this number had increased to 1,982 drug-related DWI convictions.
One reason for this increase is that whereas the majority of drivers have the wherewithal to find a sober ride if they feel that they are too intoxicated to drive safely; however, illegal—as well as certain prescriptions—can also impact negatively one’s ability to drive safely. Another reason is that law enforcement officers now receive better training in DWI detection, particularly with respect to drugs.
In surveys by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly ten million Americans drove while under the influence of illegal drugs during 2009, and nearly 20 percent of drivers who were fatally injured in vehicular accidents tested positive for at least one prescription and/or illegal drug.
Drugs can affect drivers in varying ways; however, many of them impair alertness, motor skills, concentration, and judgement can be more dangerous than alcohol.
How drugs affect the human body
While many drugs have similar effects, each class of drug also has unique impairing effects on the human body. Marijuana, for example results in euphoria, disorientation, altered time/space perception, paranoia, drowsiness, and increased heart rate. Methamphetamines can cause euphoria, hallucinations, delusions, poor impulse control, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Cocaine oftentimes causes euphoria, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, irritability, aggressiveness, increased heart rate, and paranoia. Opiates such as morphine and heroin create euphoria, relaxation, drowsiness and sedation, lowered heart rate, mental fog, nausea, vomiting, and diminished reflexes. Finally, LSD causes impaired time/space/depth perception, tremors, hypertension, hallucinations. Delusions, and an altered mental state.
Prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be just as dangerous. Antidepressants, valium, decongestants, antihistamines, sleeping pills, and pain relievers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone can cause impairments similar to other drugs and alcohol. From slowed reaction time, poor coordination, drowsiness, anxiety, and dizziness, these substances can earn a driver a DWI.
If you are currently taking prescription drugs, you may not know how it will affect your coordination, reaction time, or judgment. Therefore, check the warning label for concerns about operating heavy machinery, get a ride from someone else, or wait to take it until you are home. Further, some medications can intoxicate when combined with other medicines or alcohol, so it is important to be cognizant of this.
How to measure drug impairment
While the state of Minnesota—as well as most states—have set a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) intoxication threshold at .08 percent, it is more difficult to ascertain a comparable measure for drugs.
Whereas THC in marijuana can be detected in one’s blood or urine for as many as five weeks after usage, it is impossible to detect actual impairment at the time of an incident. Other drugs are eliminated sooner, such as cocaine.
To address these shortcomings, some jurisdictions, including Minnesota, employ Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) who are trained to determine drug impairment in motorists. By examining behavior, eye movements, and other clues that suggest drug influence and ascertain degree of intoxication or impairment.
Because prosecution of drug-impaired drivers is more difficult, several states—including Minnesota—have enacted “per se” drugged driving laws.
The bottom line
Driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while impaired (DWI) typically involves alcohol intoxication; however, alcohol is but one item that can impair your ability to operate a motor vehicle. Therefore, driving under the influence of drugs—including prescriptions—can result in a DWI charge.