Prescription Drugs and Driving Under the Influence

Law enforcement authorities increasingly report that illegally obtained prescription drugs are the drug of choice for drug users and abusers. Less well publicized, however, is the rising number of accidents attributable to lawful prescription drugs when taken by drivers who ignore labels warning of the possible effects of the medications on the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently announced that expert testimony is not required in every case in order to prove that a driver was impaired by his or her use of lawfully obtained prescription drugs.

In the case before the court, an eyewitness driver followed another driver while she called 911 to report the woman’s repeated weaving across lanes of traffic. The police officer who responded and pulled the woman over testified that she had failed three separate field sobriety tests, had been unable to stand unsupported, and had struggled to light a cigarette. Blood testing revealed the presence of several mood-altering Schedule IV prescription drugs in her blood, just below the appropriate therapeutic range. The woman had prescriptions from her doctors for all the drugs,

Legal and illegal drugs are classified in drug “schedules’ established and periodically revised by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food & Drug Administration. The Pennsylvania driving-under-the-influence (DUI) statute makes it a crime to drive with “any’ Schedule I substances in the blood, Schedule I drugs include heroin, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, and other similar drugs,

Pennsylvania DUI law also criminalizes all use of any Schedule II and Schedule III drugs that are not prescribed. Schedule II drugs include Ritalin and Concerta, drugs often prescribed for attention deficit disorders but currently commonly abused by individuals without prescriptions. Schedule II drugs also include opiates, methadone, and prescription amphetamines and barbiturates. Schedule III drugs include such drugs as steroids, Suboxone, and codeine. Driving with “any” Schedule II or III drugs in the blood is a crime if the driver does not have a legal prescription for the drug.

Pennsylvania’s DUI statute does not specifically address the use of Schedule IV drugs like the one the reckless woman driver had in her blood-that schedule includes Xanax, Walium, and Librium, among others. But the DUI statute covers the use of all drugs on all schedules by the broad provision that it is unlawful to drive in Pennsylvania under the influence of any drug, or the combination of any drug and alcohol, if the drug or alcohol use causes the driver to be impaired to the point that he or she can’t safely drive or control a vehicle. Over-the-counter drugs, particularly when taken in combination with alcohol or prescription drugs, can cause impairment, too.

In the case involving the woman who drove recklessly, she claimed that the prosecutor had to prove that the Schedule IV drugs she took had actually impaired her driving. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed and decided that prosecutors have to evaluate every case individually, taking into account the particular drugs used by the driver and the “overall strength” of the rest of the evidence. Noting that the woman had had trouble standing during the field sobriety testing and that she had admitted using one of the three prescription drugs detected in her blood, the court found that it was fair for the trial court to have concluded that the woman had been impaired by drug use while driving. If you take prescription drugs, you should know the classification of the drugs by drug schedule. Make sure that you keep a current prescription for any Schedule II or III drugs you use, since the presence of “any” amount of those drugs in your blood while driving is a crime unless you have a prescription for the use of the drug. And assume that positive blood testing that detects alcohol, preScription drugs, or over-the counter drugs, even at or below therapeutic levels, can lead to a DUI conviction.

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