Originally created 07/05/99

Court: Marijuana law unconstitutional

Treating people equally under the law has led the state's Supreme Court to condemn Georgia's DUI law as it pertained to marijuana.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the marijuana-driving under the influence law is unconstitutional because it treats drivers differently, violating equal protection under the law.

"If the state creates two classes of people, it must show a direct relationship to public interest," Augusta attorney Leon Larke said. "In this case, there was no rational purpose."

That's what the Supreme Court decided in its June 1 opinion, which was mailed out in late June. The state cannot justify its position that a driver with any level of marijuana in his system is guilty under the DUI law if a driver with a medical prescription for marijuana is not judged the same.

The law carved out an exception for the medical marijuana user, that such a person could be convicted of DUI only if it could be proven that he was impaired.

"In light of ... the fact that the effects of medically prescribed marijuana are indistinguishable from the effects of recreational use of marijuana, we are unable to hold that the legislative distinction between sanctioned and unsanctioned users of marijuana is directly related to the public safety purpose of the legislation ... Accordingly, we conclude that the distinction is arbitrarily drawn, and the state is an unconstitutional denial of equal protection," the opinion reads.

Richmond County State Court Solicitor Sheryl Jolly expects to drop less than 25 pending DUI cases involving marijuana alone without evidence of impaired driving, she said.

"It did impact some, but it's a relatively small number," she said.

Ms. Jolly estimated that of around 50 DUI cases processed through court each week, maybe five cases involve marijuana without evidence of alcohol.

They have been hard cases to prosecute if the accused sought a jury trial because there is often little evidence of impaired driving, as compared to alcohol-related driving, she said.

But, she warned, "Marijuana cases are still alive and well."

A driver who uses marijuana can still be prosecuted under the driving less safe provision, she said. The punishment is equal to DUI, she added.

Ms. Jolly doesn't see the Supreme Court justices condoning marijuana use by the decision. "I believe they were concerned with the primary issue of someone who previously used marijuana but was no longer under the influence was still presumed guilty of driving under the influence.

"I believe the Supreme Court is requiring the Legislature to come up with a level (of marijuana metabolites in a person's system) similar to what level constitutes an impaired driver under the influence of alcohol," Ms. Jolly said.

"The law wasn't fair," said Augusta attorney Sam Sibley.

The law didn't take into account that the driver may have gotten the marijuana metabolites in his system through second-hand smoke or by ingesting the drug two minutes or two weeks before driving, Mr. Sibley said.

Sandy Hodson covers courts for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com


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