Is it legal to smoke marijuana — or drink a beer — in an RV if you are living in it?

Question: I live in an RV and I’m a cannabis user. I’m trying to abide by the law, which says that you can only use cannabis in a private location, which for me is my home. But my home is a vehicle and I don’t want to get a DUI. Can I use cannabis in my RV legally?—

Answer: I’ll begin by thanking you for your effort to keep your cannabis consumption within the bounds of the law.

But if you’re only allowed to consume cannabis at home, and your home can drive on the road, what do you do? I appreciate your concern, so I’ll start by putting you at ease; this isn’t actually the problem you think it might be.

Think back to the last time you were at a campground. You might have seen someone standing in the doorway of a motorhome drinking a beer (or other adult beverage of choice) while looking in awe at the natural beauty we’re so fortunate to enjoy in the Northwest.

Was that person breaking the law by consuming alcohol in a motor vehicle? The answer, which you’ve probably already guessed, is no.

Washington has a couple of related laws on impaired driving, titled “Driving under the influence” and “Physical control of vehicle under the influence.” In an effort to grossly over-simplify, the big difference between the two laws is that in the first one a vehicle is moving and it the second one it’s not.

Quick side note: Alcohol and cannabis (and any other impairing substances) are all covered under the same DUI and physical control laws.

Physical control isn’t defined in the law, but if I were going to explain it (which I am), I’d describe it as when a person has the ability to control the movement of a vehicle.

Some examples that have resulted in convictions include sitting in the driver’s seat with the car keys in hand, taking a nap while the car is running and even sitting in the driver’s seat of a car that has broken down.

The courts have traditionally held a pretty broad understanding of physical control. In one instance, the courts concluded that a passenger who briefly grabbed the steering wheel and caused a head-on collision was in physical control of the vehicle.

Based on that understanding of physical control, it seems like anyone who’s impaired and in possession of keys to their RV could be guilty of physical control while impaired.

But the law provides a defense for people who, while they could theoretically drive a vehicle, obviously don’t intend to drive. In what is called the “safely off the roadway” defense, the law states that, “No person may be convicted ... if, prior to being pursued by a law enforcement officer, the person has moved the vehicle safely off the roadway.

I’m not going to be the one to determine where the line is between physical control and safely off the roadway, but if your RV is parked in a location that seems semi-permanent, such as a campsite, driveway or the side-yard of a buddy’s house, and you’ve got the awning out, the deck chairs set up and the barbecue cooking, it’s clear that you’re safely off the roadway.

The whole point of the physical control law is to give law enforcement the ability to intervene when an impaired person is in a position to drive, before they actually put the car in motion and put themselves and others on the road at risk.

Compliance with the law comes down to how you’re using your RV. Are you using your RV as a house or as a vehicle?

Given the high cost of housing, I’m encountering more people who are choosing to give up their apartment and all the associated costs and instead buy an RV as their primary residence.

For all those who choose that route, you can legally consume cannabis inside, as long as your RV is being used as a home at the time, and not for transportation.

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David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.