Debate over blood-test warrants further clouds state pot law

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Washington state’s new voter-approved law legalizing marijuana, which to this point has been hazy, might become more clouded in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week. The high court ruled police officers generally must attempt to obtain a warrant before forcing uncooperative impaired driving suspects to submit to a blood test.

The focus of the ruling was drunken driving, but the principle would seem to apply to drugs as well as alcohol. If so, Washington state’s new laws on driving while stoned could be tougher to enforce.

In Washington state it’s illegal to drive with more than 5 nanograms of THC (an active ingredient of marijuana) per milliliter in the motorist’s blood. The only way to test for THC is by drawing blood.

At this point, the state has yet to figure out how the legal pot will be grown and sold or how to address the blood-test issue.

At what point will officers have to get a warrant — a judge’s permission — to draw blood in suspected marijuana cases?

The Supreme Court ruling, approved by eight of the nine justices, was not particularly helpful in answering the question as it relates to alcohol.

“A police officer reading this court’s opinion would have no idea — no idea — what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, who was joined in that view by Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito Jr.

The other five justices agreed the invasive blood test could be a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right, which prohibits unreasonable searches.

“In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The remaining four justices agreed with her opinion. The only dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas.

Since drawing blood — sticking a needle into an arm — is far more invasive than an alcohol breathalyzer test, it would be considered unreasonable by most people (particularly if it was their blood about to be drawn).

This isn’t likely to be the last word on this increasingly complex issue.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that routine blood tests for marijuana will be done, which is going to increase the number of warrants being requested.

If so, this is going to be time consuming — and very expensive.

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