Drugs and Driving: How Prescriptions May be Dangerous

While charges for operating while intoxicated or driving under the influence usually bring to mind alcohol or illegal narcotics, prescription medications can also lead to the same difficulties. Dubbed "drugged driving", cases of individuals driving while under the influence of prescription medications are on the rise. Although licensed physicians prescribe these medications and they are obtained legally through pharmacies, driving while using them could lead to consequences as serious as drinking and driving or consuming illegal drugs and driving. Lesser charges could also include impaired driving. Despite the fact that the triggers for drunk driving stops and impaired driving stops are similar, Michigan law creates different thresholds of conviction for impaired driving and driving under the influence. It is important to note for the purposes of this article that driving while having controlled substances in the system is NOT the same as being intoxicated. Any amount of the drug at all is enough to violate the law; arguably, an individual does not have to appear "drugged" in order to warrant chemical testing.

MCL 257.625(1)(a) provides that "a person, whether licensed or not, shall not operate a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles, within this state if the person is operating while intoxicated. As used in this section, "operating while intoxicated" means...the person is under the influence of alcoholic liquor, a controlled substance, or a combination of alcoholic liquor and a controlled substance." Essentially, certain prescription medications, as well as prescription marijuana, are not intended for individuals to consume while they are driving, regardless of legal or illegal status. Note that MCL 257.625(8) states that an individual is in violation of the law if any amount of a Schedule 1 controlled substance is in his or her body, for which the punishment is the same as those listed below.

Punishment varies depending on the offense and whether or not it is an individual's first offense or a repeat offense.

If it is a first offense, the person is guilty of a misdemeanor which is punishable by one or more of the following:

  • Community service for 360 hours or less;
  • Imprisonment for not more than 93 days;
  • A fine of not less than $100.00 or more than $500.00.

However, if this is not the first conviction for driving under the influence, the person shall be sentenced to pay a fine between $200.00 and $1,000.00 and one or more of the following:

  • Imprisonment for a term between five days and one year. At least 48 hours of this term must be served consecutively;
  • Community service for a period between 30 days and 90 days.

If this is an individual's third offense, regardless of the number of years that have elapsed since any prior conviction, he or she is guilty of a felony and shall be sentenced to pay a fine between $500.00 and $5,000.00 and to either of the following:

  • Imprisonment under the jurisdiction of the department of corrections for a term between one year and five years;
  • Probation with imprisonment in the county jail for not less than 30 days or up to one year and community service for not less than 60 days or up to 180 days. At least 48 hours of the sentence will be served consecutively.

Although the statute refers primarily to drinking and driving, all controlled substances, as determined by the law, are considered illegal for the purposes of consumption while driving. In order to determine whether or not a certain prescription is a controlled substance, it is important to discuss this matter with a licensed physician or pharmacist.

A second Michigan statute discusses the terms and consequences of impaired driving, a similar charge to driving while intoxicated. MCL 257.625(3) states that "a person, whether licensed or not, shall not operate a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including an area designated for the parking of vehicles, within this state when, due to the consumption of alcoholic liquor, a controlled substance, or a combination of alcoholic liquor and a controlled substance, the person's ability to operate the vehicle is visibly impaired."

While the laws are under different statutory sections, the punishments for the two offenses are extremely similar, with small discrepancies in fines being the only dissimilar item worth noting. Essentially, although a drug is obtained legally through a physician and a pharmacy it is not inherently safe to drive while using that drug. Many drugs have side effects that can alter senses used when driving. And although some individuals may be able to drive safely with a certain drug in his or her system, it does not mean that all individuals can do so. Finally, it is important to check with the prescribing physician and the pharmacy for any side effects commonly found, as well as less frequently found side effects, associated with a particular medicine.

For a complete list of substances included on this list please consult with an attorney or visit: http://legislature.mi.gov/%28S%28vjzjub45hudeupibiw5wds45%29%29/mileg.aspx?page=getObject&objectName=mcl-333-7212

By George Zulakis, Attorney at Law
& Karen Clark, Attorney at Law; Law Clerk