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Can You Get a DUI for Prescription Drugs?

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can affect your reaction times, ability to think straight, and awareness. Their effects on your body may also come with altered consciousness and inability to concentrate, which can unintentionally affect your care in driving. Even if you have a prescription, you can get a DUI for prescription drugs (DWI in North Carolina). You can also face reckless driving or child endangerment charges. Let’s look at some of the more commonly prescribed medications and your chances of facing criminal charges while driving. 

Medications to Watch

Some medications can make people take more risks, contribute to mania, or increase suicidal thoughts. Other prescription drugs may affect your driving when you take more than the prescribed amount. According to the FDA, certain medications can cause significant effects on your driving ability. These include:

  • Opioid pain relievers or products with codeine
  • Prescription anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines)
  • Anti-seizure drugs (antiepileptic drugs)
  • Antipsychotic drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Cold remedies and allergy products, such as prescription or OTC antihistamines
  • Sleeping pills
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Diarrhea medications
  • Medicines for motion sickness
  • Diet pills, “stay awake” drugs, and other stimulant medications (caffeine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine)

For example, anti-seizure medications work in the brain. They can cause slowed reactions with side effects such as sleepiness, lack of muscle control or coordination of voluntary movements, involuntary eye movements, nausea, visual disturbances, and headaches. If you drive on any of these medications, and law enforcement witnesses a traffic violation, you may wind up being investigated and charged with impaired driving. 

A court may cite warnings on a medication bottle and the side effects listed in the materials your pharmacist gave you. Even if you’ve taken the exact prescribed amount, you can face conviction for a DWI (same as DUI in NC) and the private and public humiliation of that charge. In addition, a criminal record can haunt your future job prospects and ability to rent a home.

Drug Interactions

According to the NHTSA, “Using two or more drugs at the same time, including alcohol, can amplify the impairing effects of each drug a person has consumed.” Mixing prescription medications with herbal preparations, alcohol, or other drugs could cause reactions or side effects that you are not prepared to handle while driving. If you swerve over a yellow line, tailgate another vehicle, or drive over the speed limit, a law enforcement officer can pull you over on suspicion of impaired driving. Especially if you mixed medication with alcohol, your blood test might hold up in court as proof that you were driving while impaired. 

You CAN face DWI charges whether you are taking medications as prescribed or not. 

Substance Abuse Disorder

If you struggle with a substance abuse disorder, you may regularly mix medications or take more than the prescribed amount. According to NC Vision Zero, street drugs affect your driving radically:

  • Marijuana: Slow reaction time, decreased coordination, loss of attention to the road, difficulty judging time and distance.
  • Stimulants (Cocaine, amphetamines): Aggressive, reckless driving, increased tendencies to take risks, confusion, difficulty concentrating, impaired vision and coordination.
  • Benzodiazepines: Dizziness, drowsiness, lack of coordination, altered perceptions, impaired memory, and slower reaction time.
  • Opiates: Slow reaction time, reduced coordination, drowsiness, mental confusion, visual impairment.

Chemical tests taken by law enforcement can show even the leftover metabolites that prove you’ve taken a drug recently.  A law enforcement officer may pull you over anytime they have probable cause to think you are driving impaired. At that point, they may request a breathalyzer and a chemical blood analysis.

You can face charges whether you are driving impaired or not.

Finding Relief From DWI Charges

Even if you have not been drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs, you can receive a reckless driving or DWI charge. If you have children in the car with you, you can face child endangerment charges.

Even if you take medications exactly as prescribed, you can face DWI conviction and future consequences and penalties. The law in North Carolina (§ 20‑138.1) states that you can be charged with DWI if you:

“commit the offense of impaired driving… upon any highway, any street, or any public vehicular area within this State… while under the influence of an impairing substance.”

To find your way out of DWI charges, you need a criminal defense attorney who may argue that:

  • Your medication has no studied effect on driving, using expert medical witnesses
  • Point to a good driving record despite previous use of the same medication
  • The state did not perform preventive maintenance procedures on breathalyzer equipment
  • Improper chain of custody for evidence
  • Violation of your rights
  • Blood chemical tests performed by someone with expired certification or faulty equipment

According to state law, the fact that you are legally entitled to use alcohol or a particular drug is never a defense to a DWI charge. The prosecution may rest only on the fact that you drove a vehicle on a public road while subject to an impairing substance. 

We Can Help

If you are facing DWI charges for prescription drugs and driving, contact the experienced criminal defense team at Scharff Law. We understand that sometimes it is hard to know if medication affects your driving. Our experience and background in drug defense cases can help you find your way through a legal system that often leaves people behind. Whatever your charges, we investigate whether law enforcement violated your rights, any evidence chain of custody discrepancies, and the integrity of the charges against you. Contact us today and find out how we can help you.