Ben Botkin

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) A proposal in the Legislature would expand Oregon’s intoxicated driving law to cover all drugs, including legal medications that can be abused and impair drivers.

Oregon is one of four states that fails to include all drugs in its law that dictates when a driver can be charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants. House Bill 2316, heard Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee, would close that  loophole allowing motorists on drugs to evade these criminal charges. People convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants, DUII, can end up with a felony on their record and get their license revoked or suspended.

The bill would expand the law’s definition of “intoxicant” to include all drugs, a move Oregon prosecutors say is necessary so the law is clear and holds drivers accountable regardless of the type of drugs that impair them.

Under current state law, a driver can be charged for being under the influence of alcohol, cannabis, cannabis, psilocybin or a federally controlled substance. The federal government defines controlled substances, which encompass a range of illegal drugs that include cocaine, heroin and tranquilizers.

However, this means impaired motorists cannot be charged if they are impaired by medications or herbal and designer drugs like kratom, which is legal but used as a stimulant.

Kimberly McCullough, legislative director of the Oregon Department of Justice, said the change is necessary, especially as new drugs are hitting the streets.

“It closes a problematic loophole in our DUII statute that currently allows an impaired driver to avoid a DUII conviction by arguing that, although the person is impaired, the impairment is caused by the non-controlled substance in their system and not the controlled substance that is also present,” McCullough said in submitted testimony.

The department gave examples:

  • In 2018, a driver in Tigard was impaired and hit two vehicles. The driver had excessive Nyquil and other substances in a urinalysis, but couldn’t file charges because they aren’t controlled substances.
  • In 2019, a driver in Deschutes County was speeding at more than 80 miles per hour on a highway, tailgating and driving into oncoming traffic.  The driver had watery, glazed over eyes, slurred speech and would close her eyes frequently as if asleep. The woman told police she took Metaxalone, a strong muscle relaxer, and she was not charged.

The Oregon District Attorneys Association and law enforcement groups – the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police – support the measure. The legislative committee is sponsoring the bill at the request of district attorneys.

The police and sheriff organizations, in a joint letter, urged lawmakers to support the bills. Impaired motorists who abuse legal medications are as dangerous as those impaired by alcohol or other illegal drugs, the letter said.

Besides Oregon, the other three states that have a drug loophole are Alaska, Florida and Nevada.