Driver’s marijuana use below legal limit in U.S. 2 pileup

EVERETT — A Granite Falls woman tested positive for marijuana a few hours after causing a pileup on U.S. 2, but state toxicologists said the result was below the state’s legal limit.

Heather Marie Lee, 27, told her lawyer that she smoked marijuana daily to treat anxiety. On Wednesday, she vowed to give up marijuana and seek mental health treatment.

“I was trying to quit marijuana before the accident,” Lee said at her sentencing. “It has caused nothing but problems in my life.”

A Snohomish County Superior Court judge advised Lee to be careful about taking other drugs used to treat anxiety. There are far more “habit-forming and dangerous drugs than marijuana,” Judge George Bowden said. He advised her to find “competent help” to address her anxiety disorder.

Lee was expected to be released from jail Wednesday evening after Bowden granted her a first-time-offender waiver and sentenced her to three months in jail.

She has already served more than two months and was expected to get credit for good behavior.

Lee, still in a wheelchair because of injuries she suffered in the accident, told the judge that she just wanted to get home to her children.

Before the June 2 crash, the Granite Falls woman was studying to be a certified nursing assistant at Everett Community College. As a result of her felony conviction, she has lost her scholarship and is no longer eligible to obtain a CNA license, the judge was told.

“I’m so sorry this happened. I never intended to hurt anyone,” Lee said.

Lee was headed east toward Sultan. She told police that her two children were fighting in the back seat and she turned her head to check on them. She was unable to brake in time for vehicles stopped in front of her. She crashed into two other cars. A dozen people, ages 1 to 72, were involved in the pile-up. Three people, including two boys, ages 10 and 13, suffered severe injuries, including broken bones and internal wounds that required surgery.

Lee also was taken to the hospital.

That day she admitted that she had smoked a “bowl of marijuana” earlier, and police found a marijuana pipe in her vehicle. Lee’s blood was drawn at the hospital after State Patrol troopers obtained a warrant, about three hours after the crash.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Tobin Darrow charged Lee with two counts of vehicular assault based on her admission and pending the results of the toxicology tests. He alleged that Lee was driving in a “reckless manner” and was under the influence of drugs.

If convicted of that charge, Lee faced up to a year in prison, and she wouldn’t have been eligible for a first-time offender waiver. It also would have been a strike under the state’s persistent-offender law.

State toxicologists later reported that Lee tested at 3.8 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood — below the legal limit of 5 nanograms.

That compelled Darrow to reduce the charge to an allegation that Lee had disregarded the safety of others but wasn’t under the influence of drugs.

State toxicologist won’t speculate if Lee’s THC level would have been higher at the time of the crash, Darrow said.

The concentration of THC, the active component in marijuana, rapidly decreases in the blood, said Dr. Fiona Couper, a toxicologist with the Washington State Patrol, in an email to the Herald.

“However, unlike alcohol, there is no standard rate at which THC dissipates. So although the level was presumably higher three hours earlier, we cannot determine what the exact level was at the time of the incident,” she said.

Darrow, the deputy prosecutor, said Wednesday that he has no doubt that marijuana played a role in the crash, but he wasn’t convinced that a jury would convict Lee of the more severe charges.

Bowden seemed to disagree with the deputy prosecutor’s conclusion.

“It is clear that had the defendant been looking at the road, she could have avoided the accident,” Bowden said. There was no evidence to suggest that the accident was caused by her drug use, he said.

Bowden ordered Lee to get a drug and alcohol assessment and follow any treatment recommendations. The judge, however, declined to order Lee to stop using marijuana, saying it appeared that she was using the drug to treat a medical condition and that he’d leave it to her treating physician to determine the best course.

“Remember, even if you use marijuana to deal with anxiety, it will never be an excuse for traffic violations,” Bowden said.

Diana Hefley: 425- 339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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