Alcohol vs. Marijuana DUIs: Legal Limits & Penalties

The difference in how marijuana and alcohol are processed by the human body and how they each affect individuals has been a significant concern for experts and lawmakers that enforce driving under the influence (DUI) laws. In fact, the science behind these issues and the vast difference between the two substances have led to substantial debate over finding an accurate means for determining when a driver is “too high to drive.” It also creates debate over legal limits imposed by states that have marijuana DUI laws, including the state of Nevada, where cannabis is legal for recreational and medicinal use by adults 21 years of age and older.

Although there is ongoing research into the body’s response to marijuana, the fact remains that laws are in place, and that states like Nevada make it a crime to drive under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. As we have discussed in previous blogs, understanding the laws in place when it comes to marijuana DUI is critical to protecting your rights, ensuring cannabis is used responsibly and within the law, and understanding your options for defense should you be charged with a crime. Below, our Reno DUI attorneys at Joey Gilbert Law help illustrate the differences and similarities of DUI laws for both alcohol and marijuana.

Legal Limits

Legal limits for alcohol DUI have been in place for many years, and the science supports how intoxication at a certain level impairs a driver’s ability to safely operate their vehicles. However, because marijuana legalization is only beginning, the same cannot be said of DUI laws and legal limits regarding cannabis.

Alcohol – Per law, drivers with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or greater can be charged with driving under the influence. This legal limit is in place in Nevada and every state, and because it is a statutory “per se law,” accused individuals have little room to argue that their abilities were not impaired if their BAC level was higher than .08 or that they are not guilty of a crime (aside from arguments over the accuracy of testing devices). In fact, drivers can still be arrested and charged with an alcohol DUI if their BAC was below .08, provided that the law enforcement officer believed their ability to drive safely was compromised.

BAC readings can be obtained through breathalyzer devices or chemical testing of a suspect’s blood or urine. BAC readings are considered accurate for the purpose of DUI enforcement because alcohol can be processed through the body in a matter of time, meaning a BAC reading indicates recent alcohol consumption.

Marijuana – Legal limits for marijuana DUIs are much different. Drivers can be charged with the offense if their blood contains 2 ng of marijuana (THC) per ml of blood, or 5 ng of marijuana metabolite per ml of blood (per se laws). These limits have been criticized for not providing an accurate assessment of impairment, as THC and metabolites can remain in the body far longer than alcohol, meaning that a reading above the legal limit doesn’t necessarily mean that a driver is impaired or even recently consumed cannabis. However, because they are “per se” laws like the alcohol legal limit of .08, having this level of THC or metabolites constitutes a crime by itself. Still, the disparity between legal limits and science can open the door to effective defense strategies.

Marijuana “intoxication” can only be tested using a suspect’s blood, though research is being conducted to develop a breathalyzer device that can detect THC. Urine tests are not considered an accurate assessment of impairment at the time of an arrest, as they only indicate whether someone has consumed marijuana in the past. In addition, as with alcohol DUIs, suspects can still be charged with marijuana DUI if law enforcement officers have reason to believe their driving abilities have been compromised, regardless of the amount of THC or metabolite per ml of blood.


Though the legal limits that apply to alcohol and marijuana DUIs are substantially different, the penalties defendants face are equally severe. For example, a first offense can result in between 2 days to 6 months in jail, community service, fines, and driver’s license suspension. Repeat offenses within 7 years of a previous conviction, whether they are for marijuana or alcohol DUIs, can result in enhanced penalties. A second offense is punishable by 10 to 6 months’ imprisonment, and a third or subsequent offense is a felony that carries between 1 to 6 years in prison, depending on the circumstances.

Although many aggravating factors can result in enhanced penalties, there is a unique enhancement for alcohol DUIs that does not exist for marijuana DUIs. A person with an elevated BAC level at the time of an arrest, for example, can face greater penalties. With both alcohol and DUI, there can also be related charges for having an open container (of alcohol or marijuana), as well as felony DUI charges and enhanced penalties when intoxication leads to accidents, injuries, or deaths.

Charged With a DUI? Contact Joey Gilbert Law!

Whether you have been charged with an alcohol or marijuana DUI, you must understand that both are serious allegations that pose substantial and sometimes life-altering penalties. To protect your rights, freedom, and future after a DUI allegation – especially one involving multiple offenses or aggravating circumstances – you need to act fast to consult with proven and experienced defense attorneys.

At Joey Gilbert Law, our Reno DUI attorneys have extensive experience representing clients charged with all types of DUI offenses. Our insight provides us with an invaluable understanding of the laws in place, including those related to new marijuana DUI laws and standards, as well as effective strategies to defend our clients and seek the best possible resolutions. To discuss the facts and circumstances of your case, contact us for a free and confidential case evaluation.


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