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Prescription Medicine Intoxication and Drugged Driving

Unbeknownst to many in North Carolina, motorists can be charged with driving while impaired or DWI, not only for driving while impaired by alcohol, but also for driving while impaired by prescription medication. Even if a driver is taking medication legally and that medication was prescribed by a doctor, they may be liable under North Carolina’s Impaired Driving statute.

Under North Carolina General Statute § 20-138.1, a person can be convicted of DWI if he or she drives a vehicle under the influence of an impairing substance. An impairing substance is defined as “…any drug or psychoanalytic substance capable of impairing a person’s physical or mental faculties or any combination of these substances (N.C. Gen. Stat. 20-4.01(14a)). This means that if you take medication, whether prescribed or not, and that medication affects your ability to drive, you may be charged with a crime.

People may be surprised to find out that well known drugs such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and even Nyquil can have great detrimental effects on driving ability. These medications may cause weakness, vision changes, dizziness, or drowsiness – all of which could affect driving performance. Recently, for instance, the North Carolina Appellate Court upheld a conviction after a patient was pulled over after leaving a dentist’s office. The patient had been given Floricet, a pain medication, which was held to be an impairing substance. The Court went on to state the by taking the medication, the driver knew or should have known that the drug had the capability of impairing his driving.

The fact that a doctor prescribed you medication or you had drugs administered to you at a dentist’s office is not a defense to DWI in North Carolina. For instance, if a doctor prescribed a patient valium and the valium impaired the patient’s driving faculties to the extent that he was pulled over, he could not claim that he was taking the drug legally as a defense. Thus, legal consumers of medication could face the same harsh penalties as would a driver who was found to have a blood alcohol content or BAC over .08.

Unlike cases of driving under the influence of alcohol for which blood alcohol content can be measured via a breathalyzer or blood sample, it is much more difficult to measure the amount of prescription medicine a motorist has ingested. Additionally, medications affect people in vastly different ways. This means that it may be difficult to prove someone was impaired by the medication. There are no bright-line standards as there are for alcohol (BAC .08) that can be used to determine when a person is legally impaired. One way prosecutors attempt to establish liability is to have a pharmaceutical expert testify at trial. It is especially important to have an experienced defense attorney fight for your rights when dealing with evidentiary issues relating to medicinal impairment, from questioning and possibly excluding the prosecution’s evidence to providing independent expert testimony.


Penalties for a DWI conviction are quite severe, ranging from Level 5, the most lenient, to Level 1, the harshest. The level at which you are placed depends on aggravating and mitigating factors. Aggravating factors are those that increase the severity of the criminal act such as previous impaired driving convictions or driving with a revoked license. Mitigating factors are those that would weaken the severity of the crime such as driving with a safe record or if the impairment was caused primarily by a prescribed drug for an existing medical condition. If you were to be convicted of a DWI, whichever level you are placed at you will likely face a fine, a suspended license, possible jail time, and a conviction on your criminal record. Our experienced criminal attorneys would aggressively defend against any aggravating factors as well as highlight mitigating factors, giving you the opportunity for the best outcome possible.

Contact Us Today

A DWI charge is a very trying and stressful ordeal that nobody wants to go through. The criminal defense attorneys as Arnold & Smith, PLLC have years of experience fighting a variety of DWI charges and are prepared to defend you. Contact our office today and let our attorneys protect your legal rights.