Colorado began legal retail sales of marijuana for recreational use on Jan. 1, the first state in the U.S. to do so. Washington soon follows.
Driving under the influence is often assumed to involve alcohol, but actually can involve any substance that impairs judgment. And to an insurance company looking at your driving record, it's all the same thing.
In both Washington and Colorado, the legal standard for intoxication is 5 nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter of blood. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says most smokers would fall below that line by waiting at least three hours after ingesting the drug to drive.
Yet there is no national consensus on how to measure marijuana impairment for DUI:
- California has tested cheek swabs to test for the presence of drugs during roadside stops, but other states require a blood draw to confirm an officer's observations.
- Some states have a zero-tolerance policy, some set the bar at 2 nanograms of THC, and others at 5.
- Some test for the active metabolite in THC -- the one whose influence wanes after a few hours -- and others for an inactive metabolite that can remain detectable in body fat for weeks.
The lawmaking is certainly far from over. Already Colorado is considering changes to its open container law.
Drugged driving is nothing new
In addition to the two states that have decriminalized recreational marijuana use, 17 states allow use of marijuana for medical purposes. And consumption of plain old illegal pot has been going on for decades.
Even as the law and public attitudes shift, one thing has stayed the same: A conviction for driving under the influence is kryptonite for your car insurance rates. Your car insurance company doesn't care if you smoked or drank whatever got you high. A DUI conviction is a DUI conviction.
"When it comes to drug use, there's no middle ground, there's no safety zone," says Eustace Greaves, an independent insurance agent in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In New York, for example, people who drive under the influence lose their license for at least a year, must turn in their license plates and carry the infraction on their driving record for 10 years, Greaves says. "As soon as you lose your license, that's going to be reported to your insurance company," he says. (CarInsurance.com's "What's Your Limit?" tool, though geared toward those planning to drink, spells out the state by state penalties for a DUI conviction.)
When allowed on the road again, you will be treated like a first-time driver. That means higher insurance rates and none of the car insurance discounts that longtime drivers usually enjoy, Greaves says.
If you legally carry medicinal marijuana in your car, you may be able to get out of a traffic citation if stopped by police--and thus avoid increased car insurance rates or cancellation. But your car insurance company will drop you if you're convicted of driving under the influence of drugs, whether used legally as a medicine or not, says Raphael Baker, an agent in Atlanta.
Your policy will be rewritten by a nonstandard company at rates that are usually double what the standard rates are, Baker says.