Drivers get their privileges revoked for marijuana use

The police do not differentiate between alcohol and marijuana.

One third of Slovaks aged 15-34 have experience with marijuana, and 9.3 percent of respondents took marijuana in 2016, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found in 2017. One third of Slovaks aged 15-34 have experience with marijuana, and 9.3 percent of respondents took marijuana in 2016, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found in 2017. (Source: TASR)

Psychiatrist Michal Patarák from the F.D. Roosevelt Hospital in Banská Bystrica, central Slovakia who works with people who have had their driving licenses taken away for marijuana use has noticed that the police seem to be increasingly detecting drugs other than alcohol remaining in the bodies of drivers.

“These cases may have occurred in the last two months, and my colleagues from the Banská Bystrica region have had a similar experience,” Patarák said.

If a police officer suspects a driver is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, they take away their driving license. The officer also decides whether the driver needs to be examined for addiction. This is assessed by a psychiatrist. If they find the person is addicted, the police do not return the driving license to the owner.

Cannabinoids

Over the past few weeks, Patarák has examined, in his own words, four patients who have had their driving license revoked because cannabinoids were found in their urine. These compounds are found in hemp and marijuana.

Related articleMarijuana is the most popular drug in Slovakia Read more 

The Banská Bystrica Police Department (BB PR) said there is no special operation ongoing to uncover marijuana users. The cases in question were part of regular police checks.

“Under no circumstances is it a one-off action but rather a regular check in terms of the planned assignments carried out by police officers while on duty,” the BB PR spokesperson Mária Faltániová said.

Patarák pointed out that in the case of three of his patients the amounts of cannabinoids found in their bodies were residual and probably came from previous marijuana consumption. It may not have had any effect on their driving, he added. Nobody checked them for acute cannabinoid intoxication, only for the presence of cannabinoids in their urine.

Nonetheless, the law considers that they got into a car under the influence.

Drug testing

The Interior Ministry announced in September of last year that it plans to make drug control of drivers more effective. Slovakia is one of the last countries, the ministry said, that has not begun drug testing drivers at the roadside.

It could easily happen that we are punishing people for something that does not affect their ability to drive.

psychiatrist Michal Patarák

Interior Minister Denisa Saková (Smer) therefore wants to purchase mobile drug testing kits and one-time screening tests for more than €4.5 million.

In the end it is up to a police officer to decide if a driver is to be tested, taking into consideration the driver’s physical appearance and reactions at that particular moment. The driver may refuse the drug test. In such cases, however, they are legally treated as if they had taken drugs.

“We will go on carrying out checks of this kind this year, just as we have in the past, as part of our usual assignments,” The Slovak Police spokesperson Denisa Bárdyová claimed.

Marijuana remains, its effect vanishes

Driving after the use of marijuana can be dangerous as it slows down a driver’s reaction time and reduces attention.

The length of such an effect depends, however, on whether the person smoked or ate the marijuana and also whether they use it regularly. The World Health Organisation says marijuana can affect overall human performance within 24 hours after ingestion.

Although its influence will pass away in the meantime, marijuana can still remain in the body.

How fast cannabinoids will vanish from the body depends on an individual. The period can last from several days to weeks. They stay in the body for so long because they bind with fat. In general, obese people and regular marijuana users get rid of these compounds more slowly.

One-leg stand and punishments

In Slovakia, it is forbidden to drive a car if alcohol or any other addictive substance is present in a driver’s body, regardless of whether or not it still affects them. The presence of prohibited substances is ascertained by medical examination, including the collection of blood or other biological material.

Such strict rules are not fair to drivers, Patarák claims. For instance, a driver who smoked marijuana two weeks ago is not dangerous to other drivers while a drunk driver actually is. Yet, the law makes no distinction between them and they will both have their driving license taken away if caught.

“It is quite simple to find out whether a driver is under the influence of any substance,” Patarák said. This may involve easy sobriety tests such as walk and turn, a one-leg stand and the Rhomberg Balance test.

Marijuana intoxication has, however, specific features and may not be as visible as is the case with alcohol, Patarák added.

Canada as an example

Similar tests are done in Canada, where marijuana is already legal. If a test finds less than two nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a main ingredient of cannabis, in the blood, a driver is safe. If it exceeds the limit of two nanograms, the driver may be fined up to CAN$1,000. If the THC amount in the blood goes beyond five nanograms, the driver faces a higher fine and even a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

“Some experts say these strict rules regarding the detection of psychoactive substances are good because they discourage people from taking marijuana,” Patarák claims.

“However, it could easily happen that we are punishing people for something that does not affect their ability to drive.”

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