Caffeine may be the “nootropic” brain drug of choice in Silicon Valley, but an hour’s drive north in Solano County, California, the stimulant could get you charged with driving under the influence.
That is according to defense attorney Stacey Barrett, speaking on behalf of her client, Joseph Schwab.
After being pulled over on 5 August 2015, Schwab was charged by the Solano County district attorney with misdemeanor driving under the influence of a drug.
Almost 18 months later, Schwab is preparing to go to trial. The only evidence the DA has provided of his intoxication is a blood test showing the presence of caffeine.
Shcwab was driving home from work when he was pulled over by an agent from the California department of alcoholic beverage control, who was driving an unmarked vehicle. The agent said Schwab had cut her off and was driving erratically.
The 36-year-old union glazier was given a breathalyzer test which showed a 0.00% blood alcohol level, his attorney said. He was booked into county jail and had his blood drawn, but the resulting toxicology report came back negative for benzodiazepines, cocaine, opiates, THC, carisoprodol (a muscle relaxant), methamphetamine/MDMA, oxycodone, and zolpidem.
The sample was screened a second time by a laboratory in Pennsylvania, according to documents provided to the Guardian, where the sole positive result was for caffeine – a substance likely coursing through the veins of many drivers on the road at any given time.
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“I’ve never seen this before,” said Barrett. “I’ve never even heard of it.”
Barrett has filed a motion for the case to be dismissed because the charges were not brought until June 2016 – nearly 10 months after incident. If that motion is denied, Schwab will take his case to a jury on 11 January.
Sharon Henry, chief deputy district attorney for Solano County, said in a statement that her office was “conducting further investigation in this matter”.
“The charge of driving under the influence is not based upon the presence of caffeine in his system,” she added.
Barrett counters that if the prosecution has evidence of a different drug in her client’s system, it should have to provided that to her, based on the rules governing criminal procedings.
“I have not been provided with any evidence to support a theory of prosecution for a substance other than caffeine at this time,” she said. “Nor I have received any statements, reports, etc documenting any ongoing investigation since the [toxicology report] dated 18 November 2015.”
Henry declined to comment further, citing the right to a fair trial.
“It’s really stupid,” said Jeffrey Zehnder, a forensic toxicologist who frequently testifies in court cases. Over 41 years, Zehnder said, he had never seen a prosecution for driving under the influence of caffeine.
“If that’s the case, then they better come and arrest me,” he joked.
Zehnder was informed about the case by Barrett, but has not been contracted to testify on either side.
California vehicle code defines a “drug” as any substance besides alcohol that could affect a person in a manner that would “impair, to an appreciable degree” his ability to drive normally.
Making that case with caffeine would be difficult, Zehnder said, because the prosecutor would have to show that impaired driving was specifically caused by the caffeine and not any other circumstances.
“There are no studies that demonstrate that driving is impaired by caffeine, and they don’t do the studies, because no one cares about caffeine,” he said.
As for Schwab, he just wants this ordeal to be over. In a statement provided to the Guardian by his attorney, he said his reputation had been damaged.
“No one believed me that I only had caffeine in my system until I showed them the lab results,” he said. “I want the charges to be dismissed and my name to be cleared.”
A recent study out of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health — published in the American Journal of Public Health — shows that states that have legalized medical-marijuana reduced the number of drug-related car accidents.
The study was conducted across 18 states and analyzed data from 1993 to 2013. The data revealed that the number of opioid-related collisions were reduced in the years after medical marijuana laws were enacted.
Researchers believe that this is the result of medical marijuana acting as a substitute for opioids which are often prescribed as pain killers.
“We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” said June H. Kim, the study’s lead author.
Among fatal accidents that included marijuana across the country, Kim also found that, “25 percent [of drivers] died in states before an operational law went into effect, and 33 percent died in states that had never passed a medical marijuana law.”
However, another Mailman study compared data from around the world and found that marijuana users were more likely to be involved in an accident than those who drive sober.
While marijuana accounts for the majority of drug-related collisions, alcohol still tops the list overall with only 11% of drivers testing positive for non-alcoholic substances.
Meanwhile, the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety has said that marijuana related accidents has doubled in Washington since it became one of the first states to legalize recreational use in 2012.
But the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) maintains that it is not clear whether drivers under the influence of marijuana are the ones responsible for the majority of collisions or that the drug itself is ultimately responsible.
“In driving simulator tests,” the organization’s website states, “this impairment is typically manifested by subjects decreasing their driving speed and requiring greater time to respond to emergency situations,” claiming that high drivers are often slower and more careful.
Many researchers draw their data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, where the statistics on impaired driving includes collisions reports for drivers 12 or older, so experience and actually being able to see over the steering wheel could also play a role in these accidents.
Half of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical or recreational marijuana laws as of Election Day 2016.
(The Plaid Zebra does not condone impaired driving of any kind.)