Opiates are commonly prescribed for patients recovering from painful operations or for long-term treatment in patients with chronic pain. These drugs can be very helpful for patients to relieve pain during recovery but their side effects can make other activities more dangerous, including driving.
Driving under the influence of opioid medication may put you at increased risk of getting into an accident. However, drivers under the influence of prescription drugs can also risk an arrest for impaired driving. Driving under the influence of drugs is considered a drug DUI, even if the driver has a prescription. If you were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of opiates, talk to an experienced criminal defense lawyer for legal advice.
Opiates and Opioid Drug Treatments
Opiates and opioids are drugs that interact with the opioid receptors in the brain to make the user feel pain relief, relaxation, and euphoria. Under the influence of these synthetic or natural drugs, the body releases dopamine, which many users want to continue to feel after the effects wear off. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of the most prescribed opioids include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Oxymorphone (Opana®)
- Morphine (Kadian®, Avinza®)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies drugs into 5 categories or schedules, based on the drugs medical use and dangers. Many opioids are categorized as Schedule II drugs, which are defined as having a high potential for abuse, with the potential to lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Non-Prescription Uses of Opiates
There is a high risk of addiction with opiate drugs. Patients who are initially prescribed opiates by a doctor may later find that they have a hard time staying off the drugs, even after their prescription runs out. Individuals may turn to buying drugs illegally, stealing drugs from other patients, or even switching to illegal street drugs, including heroin.
Effects of Opioids on the Body
Opiates can have an effect on multiple systems, including the central nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and gastrointestinal tract. The central nervous system (CNS) includes the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that control the body. Many of these drugs have a warning label that advises patients against driving or operating heavy machinery until the effects of the drugs have been determined.
These drugs can make a driver feel sleepy, dizzy, or lightheaded. The effects of these drugs can be exacerbated if the driver is also drinking alcohol or using other prescription drugs with alcohol. The combination of opiates and alcohol can depress the central nervous system, including the respiratory system, and even lead to overdose death.
Driving Under the Influence of Opioids in California
Under California Vehicle Code Section 23152(f), “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”
The definition of “drug” includes prescription drugs, illegal drugs, and even over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Under California Vehicle Code Section 312, a drug can include any “substance or combination of substances, other than alcohol, which could so affect the nervous system, brain, or muscles of a person as to impair, to an appreciable degree, his ability to drive a vehicle in the manner that an ordinarily prudent and cautious man, in full possession of his faculties, using reasonable care, would drive a similar vehicle under like conditions.”
Signs of Impairment and Chemical Testing for Opiates
Police officers do not have the medical training of doctors or nurses. Instead, police officers go through short training programs that can qualify them as “drug recognition experts” (DREs). These week-long courses do not go very in-depth into drug pharmacology or physiology but instead hit bullet points that police like to rely on when evaluating drivers.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Drug Recognition Expert course manual, persons under the influence of opiates, or narcotic analgesics, "often pass into a semi‐conscious type of sleep or near‐sleep. This condition is often called being 'on the nod.' They often are sufficiently alert to respond to questions effectively. Higher doses of narcotic analgesics can induce coma, respiratory failure, and death."
According to DRE training, other effects of narcotic analgesics include: :
- Slowed reflexes
- Slow and raspy speech
- Inability to concentrate
- Slow and deliberate movements
- Slowed breathing
- Skin cool to the touch
- Itching of the face, arms, or body
The effects of the drugs can begin immediately when injected and may be observable for some time after. However, from 4 to 6 hours after use, the user may show signs of withdrawal, including aches, chills, insomnia, and nausea. Other signs of withdrawal can resemble the flu or the common cold. The effects of withdrawal can continue for days after use.
Field Sobriety Tests and Opioids
Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) are the roadside tests police use to evaluate a driver's impairment. However, the results of these tests can be different depending on whether the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In some cases, a driver could "fail" the tests even if they are sober, based on medical conditions, roadside conditions, or even footwear.
Field sobriety tests are not required for drivers in California and you can refuse to submit to these tests. According to law enforcement, expected results of SFSTs under narcotic analgesics include:
- Horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) will not be present
- Walk-and-turn (WAT) test and one-leg-stand (OLS) test results will be impaired and reflect slow and deliberate movements
Opiates and Blood Testing
When the police arrest a driver for driving under the influence, they can have the driver submit a chemical test sample. Drivers have given their "implied consent" to drug or alcohol testing when they drive on California roads. If the driver is suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, the police may request a breath test. However, if the police suspect the driver is under the influence of drugs, they can request a blood sample for chemical testing. A blood test panel can look for signs of a number of common drug types, including:
- Opioids/narcotic analgesics
- Depressants, including benzodiazepines
- Dissociative drugs
A blood test can show the presence of opiates in the body but it may not show the amount of the drugs or whether the driver is still feeling the effects of the drugs. In some cases, a driver can test positive hours or even days after the drugs have worn off. If you tested positive for drugs but were sober at the time you were driving, talk to your DUI defense lawyer about challenging drug blood test results.
California Drug DUI Penalties
Most arrests for a first-offense drug DUI will lead to misdemeanor DUI charges. The penalties for a misdemeanor drug DUI may include:
Multiple drug DUIs or an injury accident DUI can result in more severe penalties.
Drug DUI Defenses for Oakland Drivers
Talk to your East Bay DUI defense attorney about legal defenses for your drug DUI charges. East Bay attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 39 years of drug DUI defense experience and understands how to approach each case for the greatest chance for success. Representing drivers in Oakland, Alameda County, and Contra Costa County, Lynn Gorelick is familiar with the local criminal laws, local officers, and the prosecutors involved. Contact East Bay DUI defense attorney Lynn Gorelick today.