Jeff Krajnak did multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy Seabee. After 15 years of service, his squad was hit with an improvised explosive device.
“It changed me forever,” Krajnak said.
After developing PTSD and related pain issues, he was medically discharged from the military. During his nights, the traumas of war raked his brain and he found himself feeling isolated and without the energy to step outside his home. Veterans Affairs attempted to help him, prescribing him “pill after pill, after pill” – at one point he said he was taking up to eleven pills at a time. Flexeril, Oxycontin, Percocet, Zoloft, Vicodin, Tramadol, Oxazepam, were all part of his daily regiment.
“Add another pill, if that doesn’t work, add another pill,” Krajnak said.
For eight days, Krajnak spent time in the Spring Mountain Treatment Center for suicide ideation, a term used for an unusual and persistent preoccupation with suicide. The year Krajnak returned home in 2014, the suicide rate for veterans in Nevada was 59.8 per 100,000, significantly higher than the national veteran suicide rate of 38.4.
Something needed to change. He sought out a medical marijuana card, which he believes saved his life. The substance helped him sleep when he used it in the evenings before bed.
“It helps calm the mind at night and it promoted way better sleep. It actually calms down the memories from war,” Krajnak said.
On a Saturday in April last year, Krajnak drove back from a science program at Shadow Ridge High School, one that advertised fossils, a keen interest of his 6-year-old son.
“It was a father and son day,” Krajnak said. “He’s a dinosaur buff.”
At the intersection of Boulder Highway with the US 95 northbound off ramp, Krajnak’s black jeep Wrangler collided with a silver Nissan Altima. Krajnak and his son were fine, more rattled than injured, but the crash resulted in the death of the other driver, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
Witnesses were questioned by the Nevada Highway Patrol. One witness said Krajnak ran a red light, two more said he did not. Trooper Tyler Smith, a new officer in training, followed Krajnak to the Sunrise Hospital for a routine examination.
At the hospital the doctor told Krajnak the man injured in the car accident was not going to survive his injuries. In his report of the incident, Smith made a note that Krajnak’s eyes were red from crying on and off in the hospital.
“I’m in heavy counseling over the whole thing because I feel horrible that someone lost their life,” Krajnak said. “They lost their life in a car accident. Something I wasn’t planning on happening that day.”
When the trooper asked him if he was on any illegal drugs or medication, Krajnak told the the officer he was a medical marijuana patient. His blood was collected for testing, and after Krajnak passed all his field sobriety tests he was let go from the hospital with his son.
The results of the blood analysis later showed Krajnak had more than eight times the legal amount of marijuana metabolites in his system and double the legal limit of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana— THC.
Nevada criminalizes driving with a set amount of THC in a person’s system per se – it’s a crime whether or not they are found to be impaired. The per se THC limit in Nevada is 2 nanograms per milliliter of blood, or two parts per billion.
Krajnak said 32 days later a SWAT team came to his house in full tactical gear and arrested him. He had zero criminal history, not even a traffic citation on his record. He was initially charged with a felony DUI and Child Endangerment, facing up to 16 years in jail.
Nevada’s per se laws do not make an exception for medical marijuana patients, as is the case in some other states such as Arizona, Michigan, Delaware, and Rhode Island. In 2013 a bill was proposed to exempt medical marijuana patients from per se laws, but it stalled because of opposition from DUI advocates.
“If you smoke legal cannabis in Nevada and you drive a car, days, even weeks after that you are breaking the law,” said Mark Fierro, host of the Vegas Legal Magazine podcast. “You can be sentenced to prison if you get into an accident weeks after smoking legal marijuana, you can have your children taken away and your life destroyed.”
Research on the effects of cannabis is limited because of its federal status as a Schedule I drug, but in a 2009 study researchers found that THC blood levels in chronic cannabis users— like medical patients— persisted for multiple days after use, a finding they thought might impact the implementation of per se limits in DUI legislation.
“You see all these billboards that say ‘get your marijuana here’ but no one tells you about the per se laws,” Krajnak said. “It’s all about how much the state can make off it. They are worried about how much tax money it brings. That’s all you hear. Tax money and lounges. You never hear about the legal ramifications from the state.”
While the low THC limits are a precaution for a barely understood connection between cannabis and driving impairment, the impact on medical marijuana patients, who often have higher resistance to cannabis from repeated medical use, is real.
“It’s crazy that you can have medicine recognized in the state constitution and yet the district attorney would want to prosecute someone on the per se limits,” said State Sen. Tick Segerblom, who has run successful campaigns on progressive marijuana policy. “There is no standard for Xanax or Oxycontin or any other mind altering substances that is legally prescribed and this is legally prescribed under Nevada law.”
Minority Leader Michael Roberson, who opposed the legalization of marijuana, stated in a senate meeting that he worried about the state’s push to encourage the socialization of marijuana with appeals to tourists and the discussion of cannabis lounges.
“Nevada voters decided we are going to legalize a drug that is illegal under federal law. Many bills this session encourage the socialization of marijuana. Yet at the same time we are saying, if you have any amount of marijuana in your system, you cannot drive. We cannot test to determine whether you are truly impaired, but to be safe you should not drive for how long—hours, days, weeks? As a policy making body, we are sending different signals,” Roberson said.
Krajnak plead guilty to a reckless driving felony after a year of litigation “just to end the madness.” He spent six months in jail when he couldn’t make bail. The ordeal was stressful for his family and they exhausted their resources fighting the case.
He mentions he’s still on house arrest while his family is out watching the new Jurassic World film. He can no longer use medical marijuana as a patient because of his arrest. Ironically, one of the few ways you can be denied a medical marijuana card in Nevada is if you have a drug conviction.
“It’s night and day,” Krajnak said. “I’m back to not sleeping. But I guess they’d rather have me on pills.”
Assemblyman Steve Yeager, who passed legislation last year to test THC levels in blood rather than urine for more accurate testing, said per se laws were unlikely to change within the next legislative session, leaving medical marijuana patients like Krajnak in a legal gray area.
“Given as a state we are just treading into this recreational space, we just want to be deliberate and make sure we are doing things the right way,” Yeager said. “The science just isn’t there to figure out impairment like we have with alcohol.”
A report to congress by the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year called into question the reliability of tests to find THC, but also noted a problem with determining impairment, even arguing that per se limits appeared “to have been based on something other than scientific evidence.”
Yeager agrees, stating that the lack of science around impairment from cannabis use is what’s holding up legislative action.
“I regret that because of the prohibition we don’t have studies like we do with alcohol. Hopefully one day we’ll have a better idea what the numbers actually mean,” Yeager said.