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Fatal Wreck Trace of Pot May Mean Long Prison Stay

Discussion in 'Marijuana News from The USA' started by Superjoint, Mar 17, 2001.

  1. By Tim Evans, Indianapolis Star
    Source: Indianapolis Star

    No one believes Harlan Turner was under the influence of marijuana or impaired when he was involved in a collision that killed three people on Ind. 67 in Morgan County.
    Not the investigating officer from the Indiana State Police.

    Not witnesses who interacted with Turner as he assisted victims at the scene.

    Not the medical expert who examined his blood sample.

    But Turner, 34, of Carlisle faces up to 24 years in prison because a small trace of marijuana he smoked the night before the Dec. 2, 1999, crash was still in his bloodstream.

    Indiana law does not set a threshold for marijuana intoxication as it does for alcohol. The law requires that only a trace of marijuana or its metabolites -- the residue left as the drug breaks down -- be present in the blood of a person convicted of causing a wreck.

    A Morgan County jury on March 2 found Turner guilty of causing the wreck on Ind. 67, where the road narrows from four lanes to two lanes. His truck ran into the rear of a slow-moving car driven by an elderly woman, and that collision pushed her car into the path of an oncoming car, killing three people in the two cars.

    Turner, who will be sentenced on March 30, is believed to be the first person in Indiana convicted of the charge -- operating a vehicle with a controlled substance (marijuana) in blood resulting in death -- said his attorney, Patrick V. Baker of the Indianapolis law firm Baker, Pittman & Page.

    While such charges are not formally tracked, there is no published appeal, and Baker said he has found no other record of convictions in fatalities.

    The Class C felony charges fall under the state's driving-while-intoxicated statute.

    "There was not one piece of evidence that he was intoxicated," said Baker, who said Turner may appeal.

    If marijuana had not been found in Turner's blood, Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega said, Turner probably would have been charged with reckless driving -- resulting in a fine but no jail time -- because Indiana has no vehicular manslaughter or similar charges.

    Advocates for the reform of marijuana laws claim Indiana law does not take into account that traces of marijuana remain in a person's blood long after the intoxicating high dissipates.

    One of those advocates, Allen St. Pierre, calls the Indiana law "psycho-pharmacological McCarthyism" with no basis in science.

    "This type of poorly worded legislation is the result of the war on drugs zeal," said St. Pierre, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based NORML Foundation (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

    "The intent of the law is clear, and even advocates like us do not want anybody to drive while impaired. That's why we believe there should be a requirement to determine impairment."

    Similar laws are in effect in most other states despite "tons of evidence that prove the existence of an inert metabolite in the body is in no way, shape or form a measure of impairment," said St. Pierre.

    Indiana University law professor Henry C. Karlson disagrees.

    "I see no reason to feel sorry for someone who commits one crime and then causes another, particularly if that conduct poses a risk to society," he said. "What the law is doing is erring on the side of safety."

    Karlson believes the law is constitutional and will withstand appeal, but Baker isn't so sure.

    Baker said the law fails to take into account positive tests from marijuana consumed legally in other countries or encountered through secondhand smoke or hemp-based products.

    "The fact is that a person can legally smoke marijuana in many other places, then come back to Indiana, and, if that person is involved in an accident, he can be held liable and sent to prison for a long time even though he was not impaired or under the influence at the time of the accident," Baker said.

    But, Karlson said it is not a crime for a person to have the drug in his system when he returns to the country.

    "The crime is driving with it in your system," he said.

    Karlson agrees the situation with marijuana may be more contentious because it is fat-soluble, and traces remain in the body longer than alcohol and other drugs.

    Edward J. Barbieri, a toxicologist with the independent National Medical Services in Willow Grove, Pa., said marijuana or its metabolites can be found in blood up to 48 hours after use.

    While the high typically lasts about three hours, Barbieri, who testified for the prosecution in the Turner case, said marijuana's effects can persist eight to 12 hours.

    "The big question is: Does marijuana influence driving ability?" he said. "And the answer is no one really knows."

    Barbieri said the interpretation of the existing data depends on who is analyzing the information.

    He said it is possible for traces to show up in the blood of a person who inhaled marijuana through secondhand smoke or used some legal hemp products. But those levels would be very low and dissipate quickly.

    Barbieri said he does not expect a reliable, affordable test for marijuana intoxication to be available soon.

    "It's not like alcohol, where there are proven tools like a Breathalyzer and standards for intoxication," he said. "It is very hard to correlate between levels (in the blood) and intoxication. There are so many variables. You need to look at all the data -- you can't do everything by numbers."

    Baker agrees with St. Pierre that proof of illegal consumption and impairment should be the standard in all cases.

    "We don't want to minimize the losses suffered by the families involved in this case," he said. "It's absolutely tragic. Three people lost their lives and nothing will bring them back.

    "But the intent of the law is to keep intoxicated or impaired drivers off the road, and Mr. Turner was not intoxicated," he said. "This is really scary."

    Jerry McCory, director of the Governor's Council on Impaired and Dangerous Driving, agrees that people should be scared, but for a different reason.

    "I don't want anyone driving who has consumed illegal drugs, and I don't believe that is the wish of the citizens of Indiana. If drugs are found in the bloodstream of someone involved in an accident, then there is a reasonable assumption the two are connected," he said.

    "The bottom line is that it is illegal to use marijuana."

    Note: Authorities and experts say convicted man wasn't impaired, but Indiana law could bring up to 24 years.

    Contact Tim Evans at: tim.evans@starnews.com

    Source: Indianapolis Star (IN)
    Author: Tim Evans, Indianapolis Star
    Published: March 16, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Indianapolis Newspapers Inc.
    Contact: stareditor@starnews.com
    Website: http://www.starnews.com/

    NORML: http://www.norml.org/
  2. Professor Henry C. Karlson ,Is a law expert. He is not a doctor ,and obviously has little knowledge of existing cannabis research. It is also entirely possible that he too is paid off by the anti-marijuana corporations ,just as many politicians are.(If not then probably by the politicians themselves)
    Our task must be to re-educate not only the voters ,but also the lawmakers ,and the "thinktanks" the lawmakers rely on for their
    research data.(which is all too often the pharmaceutical companies themselves). Talk about a closed loop !

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    -Abraham Lincoln

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