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Prescription Drug DUI on the Rise: Report

by | Sep 9, 2013

A recent report in the Chicago Tribune indicates that millions of Americans get behind the wheel every single day after consuming type of powerful medication.

Not all of those may be legally under the influence, but our D.C. prescription DUI defense lawyers know they will face a heightened level of scrutiny from authorities if they are involved in a crash or are simply pulled over. This is true even for those who are legitimately consuming those prescriptions in the correct dosage and under the close supervision of their doctor.

The penalties for prescription DUI are on par with those handed down for someone under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. However, in general prosecutors will have a tougher time proving their case. That’s because while there is a very specific legal threshold for intoxication of alcohol (0.08 percent blood-alcohol content), no such guidelines exist for prescription drugs.

Authorities may well draw blood to see how much of the drug is in your system. However, someone who consumes a drug regularly, as prescribed, may have high levels of that drug in his or her system. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate intoxication, as different drugs may remain in the body much longer than alcohol, which tends to dissipate very quickly.

What that means is that prosecutors end up relying heavily on more subjective measures of intoxication, such as officer observations. But police aren’t doctors. For example, what an officer views as a sign of “intoxication” could simply be a side effect of your medical condition. The measures for determining intoxication in these cases often lack scientific backing.

Still, there is no question that the use of prescription drugs is on the rise, and there will inevitably be those who abuse them. Authorities say narcotic painkillers, such as oxycodone and codeine, can cause fatigue and mental disorientation. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveals that a number of other drugs, from antidepressants to over-the-counter allergy pills, could potentially cause a driver to be impaired.

This becomes a tough call, legally. There is no law against driving with these drugs in one’s system. But there is also no easy way for a person to tell whether a certain dosage or interaction technically makes that driver unsafe. If you are pulled over, the fact that you have a doctor’s order may not be an automatic “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

A lot of the research on drugged driving has focused on illegal drugs. There is the general belief among doctors that those who are on stable, long-term regimens of painkillers can drive safely because they have built up a tolerance. Plus, some say the drugs actually make them better drivers because they allow the driver to focus on the road, rather than the incessant pain.

But of course, it’s not always that simple. One recent study found that drivers taking medications are more likely than those who don’t to perform “unsafe driving actions.”

Problems are especially inherent when drivers combine painkillers with other kinds of drugs, particularly sedatives. Some researchers believe the effect of this might akin to “one-plus-one-equals-three,” in that the combination has the effect of essentially tripling your original dose.

However, that’s not an exact measurement, and prosecutors might have a tough time making that case in court.

Remember that if you are pulled over for any reason, you are under no obligation to reveal to the officer that you take a prescription for anything. Rather than help your case, it could hurt it. You need not lie. Simply don’t offer up the information unless you’ve first consulted with an attorney.

If you are facing DUI charges in D.C., contact the Scrofano Law, PC at 202-765-3175.