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DUI & Prescription Drugs

March 25, 2014

When people hear “DUI” or driving under the influence, the first thing that often comes to mind is drinking and driving.  What people don’t realize is that in fact, this may or may not refer to only alcohol.  Driving under the influence can also indicate drugs, both illegal and legal.

This includes, but is not limited to illegal narcotics and stimulants, and over-the-counter drugs and legal prescriptions.

California Vehicle Code Section 312 defines a “drug” as, “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.”  State law says whether lawfully possessed or not, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of any substance if it causes physical or mental impairment that makes a driver unable to do so safely.

Although we are in a day and age where there seems to be a medication for every ailment, most prescriptions come with warnings about side-effects.  While the prescribed medications are aimed to help, people do not always consider the potential harm in taking a prescription as directed and driving.  Let’s look at two medications that are commonly involved in DUI cases and how they can cause impairment that may impair one mentally and/or physically and in effect, their ability to drive:


  • Generic name: alprazolam
  • Drug group: benzodiazepines (schedule IV controlled substance)
  • Used to treat: Anxiety disorders, panic disorders, anxiety caused by depression
  • Side effects: Drowsiness, dizziness, feeling tired or irritable, blurred vision, memory problems, trouble concentrating
  • Warning(s): Do not drink alcohol while taking alprazolam; Alprazolam can increase the effects of alcohol


  • Generic name: zolpidem tartrate
  • Drug group: sedatives/hypnotics (schedule IV controlled substance)
  • Used to treat: Insomnia
  • Side effects: Drowsiness, dizziness, a “drugged” feeling, confusion, euphoria, ataxia (balance problems), visual changes
  • Warning(s): Alcohol has an additive effect with zolpidem and the two should not be combined; Zolpidem may impair your thinking or reactions; You may still feel sleepy the morning after taking this medicine, so wait until fully awake before driving, operating machinery, piloting an airplane, or doing anything that requires you to be awake and alert

Even when used as directed, medications such as these, can still affect one’s ability to safely drive a car. People must be aware of the possible adverse effects and warning labels such as, “Caution should be used when driving or operating heavy machinery when taking this medication,” on not only their prescription bottles, but also over-the-counter medications.  Even if a person has never had a past problem with a medication, side effects for an individual drug can change when taken in increased dosages or in combination with others.

Various California driving under the influence laws (Vehicle Code section (e) of Sections 23152 and 23153) are making it more focused for law enforcement to identify, arrest, and ultimately prosecute drug impaired driving cases.  If an officer pulls a driver over with reason to believe that they are driving while impaired by drugs, they must use means such as field sobriety testing or a drug recognition expert (DRE) to prove impairment.  These processes can be limiting with respect to diagnosing how much of a drug is in one’s system and when the drug was consumed.  However, if one is thought to be impaired at the time of arrest, then they can be charged with driving under the influence of drugs (DUID).

If charged with DUID, a doctor’s prescription is not necessarily an affirmative defense, however blood test results may be.  Many medications have a regular or daily dosage and as a result, remain traceable in one’s bloodstream.

By no means does this indicate that one is therefore guilty.

If one’s driving is negatively impacted while driving under the influence of a drug, regardless if taken as legally prescribed,then it is the same as with alcohol, and driving under the influence is illegal and more importantly, very dangerous.

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Top Gun DUI Defense Attorney Myles L. Berman

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