Can You Get a DWI While Taking Opioids?

MastHead Outline
February 15, 2019

Due to the overwhelming opioid epidemic that has gripped the US for more than a decade, law enforcement has seen an alarming uptick in instances of DWIs caused by opioids. In some of the more shocking cases that have made headlines, people have even been found driving or stopped in their vehicles while overdosing. The most common threat of inebriation behind the wheel is usually alcohol, but opioids are quickly reaching dangerous levels, posing more hazards on the road than ever before.

The Dangers of Drugged Driving

Every drug has a different effect on each person, and it can cause someone to act in a particularly dangerous way while operating a vehicle. Drunk drivers are known to swerve, see double, and miscalculate their turns and position on the road potentially leading to a deadly crash. Those who are high on cocaine or methamphetamines may be more reckless or aggravated while driving, posing a threat to themselves and others. Those who drive while under the influence of opioids are in danger of dozing off or becoming drowsy while driving, which can disorient them and lead to an accident or DWI. The risks while driving when compromised by any kind of substance can quickly turn a car into a dangerous weapon to both other drivers and pedestrians in the area.

It’s possible for people to receive DWIs from prescription medication, along with hefty fines, community service, license suspension, or even prison time. Even if the person is prescribed the medication they have taken, if they are driving while impaired by side-effects, a DWI charge is possible. It is the driver’s sole responsibility to not get behind the wheel if they feel they may not be entirely coherent enough to operate a vehicle safely.

The Statistics of Driving Under the Influence

In 2014 the National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported that 10 million people ages 12 or older have admitted to driving under the influence of illicit or misused prescription drugs. These substances include marijuana, heroin, cocaine, tranquilizers, and hallucinogens. Along with those numbers, the National Highway Safety Administration also reported that 20% of drivers tested positive for drugs in a 2014 survey. The Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reported that 44% of drivers that were killed in crashes in 2016 tested positive for drugs, spiking that statistic 28% from 2006. Among those drug-positive fatally-injured drivers in 2016, 38% tested positive for some form of marijuana, 16% tested positive for opioids, and 4% tested positive for both marijuana and opioids, according to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. Although drunk driving is still the most common charge for DWI, the rates have dropped from 41% in 2006 to about 38% in 2016 according to the GHSA. While the reduced rates of drunk driving may seem hopeful to some, when the data is presented without the coinciding increase of DWIs due to drug use, it can be quite misleading.

Drugged Driving Protocol

A concerning number of people believe they can misuse drugs and still safely operate a 2-ton vehicle driving at high speeds and law enforcement is becoming increasingly concerned for public safety. Those who greatly underestimate just how much substances like opioids can impair their driving are most likely to find themselves in a dangerous accident or pulled over for reckless driving. Although law enforcement has stepped up their awareness campaigns, alerting people to the dangers of mixing drugs and driving, there is still a lot of work to be done because there are challenges to overcome. Surprisingly, there is no nationally accepted method for testing drivers for drugs, mainly because of the way that different drugs affect people. This makes it difficult to standardize any form of testing beyond an initial field sobriety test and a traditional breathalyzer, especially when drugs and alcohol are used simultaneously. It’s also shocking to find that many people who are arrested in drugged driving incidents and even those who were killed, are often not tested for drugs either, according to Jim Hedlund, a former senior official of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Jim has taken these concerns further and declared a Drug-Impaired Call to Action in March of 2018 with a summit that brought together safety partners, data and policy experts, law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, toxicologists and drug recognition experts to start a dialogue on how to battle drug-impaired driving across the nation. Though drug-impaired driving is already illegal in all 50 states, the NHTSA is making this issue a top priority as more and more people are gaining access to both legal and illicit drugs.

Forms of Prescription Drug Misuse

Even legal, prescription drugs can lead to a DWI. The following are common misuse behaviors: 

  • Taking opioid medications for longer than prescribed
  • Using left-over medication inappropriately
  • Taking larger than prescribed doses of medication
  • Mixing prescription medication with other drugs and/or alcohol
  • Taking someone else’s prescription medication
  • Taking more frequent doses of medication than prescribed

Even well-meaning drivers who may accidentally consume alcohol with their opioid medication or accidentally took their medication twice that day can find themselves charged with a DUI. However, it’s often people who are regularly misusing opioids who have much higher chances of being noticed by one of 7,000 officers across the nation who are specially trained as “drug recognition experts.” Because there is no on-site drug test that can be administered to drivers when pulled over for erratic or suspicious driving, these DWI instances can pose a situation where a driver is required to pass a urine drug test. If there is a refusal, it is treated the same way as a breathalyzer refusal in instances where drunk driving is suspected. Depending on the state, this can lead to a six-month license suspension on top of pending court appearances.

Those who regularly misuse either prescription or illicit opioids pose as potentially deadly drivers on the road. The consequences of DWIs for drugged driving can be as severe, if not more so, thank drunk driving and should be avoided at all costs. As the US continues to battle the opioid epidemic, law enforcement is looking to crack down on drugged driving in order to keep streets safe across the nation. Those who may have a substance use disorder are urged to seek out treatment facilities where they can enroll in programs to set them on the safe and sober road to recovery.