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Warning for Drivers Taking Prescriptions

CEDAR RAPIDS, IA (CBS 2/FOX 28) -- An Iowa court case may change the way the state deals with drivers under the influence of prescription medication.

An Urbandale woman took medicine that her doctor said would be OK to drive on before she crashed into a mailbox in 2011. The Iowa Department of Transportation suspended her license, arguing she could not make a "prescription drug-defense".

Friday, the court ruled that the DOT's interpretation of the law was absurd, and drivers following doctors' orders can use the defense.

Local law enforcement and health officials still say no matter what the ruling means for drivers, prescription meds and driving still don't mix.

As a pharmacist at Hy-Vee, Mike Conrey knows all about side effects.

"Some medications we'll just tell them flat out no driving, alcohol, no heavy machinery," he says.

It also means he knows driving and drugs can often times be a prescription for disaster.

"It can make you drowsy, less alert, it can impair vision, just make you more prone to accidents."

Iowa law does allow drivers to take prescribed medications and drive, as long as they aren't mixing it with alcohol. However, police say during a stop, distinguishing alcohol impairment from prescription med impairment can be tough.

"We don't know exactly what's in their system, so we treat it as a regular OWI," says Sgt. Phil Fort with the Marion Police Department.

It means you'll be submitted to the usual battery of tests reserved for drunk drivers.

"The eye test, walk and turn test, and a one leg stand," Fort says.

In most cases a blood or urine test is required to ensure the drugs in your system are legal. If the test verifies that, it means your criminal charge - and with Friday's Iowa Supreme Court ruling, your DOT violation - will be cleared.

Often times, before you can clear your name, you still have to suffer through the embarrassment - and sometimes the financial impact - of an OWI.

"You might go to jail, you might lose your license until you get it back, and it could cost you some lawyer fees," Fort says.

It's why Conrey says it's always best to know before you go.

"Usually we tell them to first try it at home, see how it affects you, before you do anything that requires alertness or attention or heavy machinery," Conrey says.
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