Article By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town
A bill cracking down on driving while high on marijuana cleared its first hurdle at the Colorado state Capitol on Thursday.
House Bill 1261 would set a limit of five nanograms per milliliter of blood, above which a person would be considered too stoned to legally drive, reports John Ingold at The Denver Post. Bill supporters tried to equate the five-nanogram THC limit to the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level that determines driving when drunk.
"If you test above that limit, you would be guilty of the misdemeanor driving under the influence of drugs," said Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder), who is one of the bill's sponsors.
After hours of heated testimony, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill on a 6-2 vote.
It is already against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana, and drivers suspected of doing so already have to submit to a blood test or face license suspension. But this bill, its sponsors claim, would give law enforcement officers a way to quantify precisely when a person is too high to drive.
Twelve states across the U.S. have zero-tolerance levels for blood-THC levels, i.e., any amount of marijuana metabolites means you are legally considered "under the influence," even though it could have been a month or more since you used pot. Two states have a two-nanogram limit.
The proposed five-nanogram limit is supported by scientific literature as causing impairment, claimed Cynthia Burbach, a state health department toxicologist.
But that claim touched off a fierce debate over what the literature actually says. Both supporters and opponents of the bill presented conflicting statements from different studies -- even some from within the same study -- about whether marijuana impairs driving, and at what levels.
Marijuana advocates pointed to the scientific debate over whether marijuana actually impairs driving as a reason to vote against the bill.
"Table the bill until there is more science," suggested Scott Greene, who heads Mile High NORML.
Medical marijuana patients expressed concerns that their frequent use of cannabis, along with the tolerance they've built up, might cause them to test above five nanograms even when they aren't high.
"I'm scared to death that I'm going to jail for being intoxicated when I'm really sober," said patienet Max Montrose.
"Clearly, we see it as a witchhunt on medical marijuana patients," said Laura Kriho, spokeswoman for Colorado's Cannabis Therapy Institute in her testimony at Thursday's hearing, reports The Huffington Post.
Medical marijuana attorney Rob Corry said the measure won't make roads safer and could spur lawsuits, reports Michael Roberts at Denver Westword. "There will be extensive litigation," Corry said. "First and foremost, there'll be a drastic increase in the number of people criminally prosecuted.
"Many of those people will hire lawyers, and some of them may hire me -- and if they do, I'll certainly assert the unconstitutionality of this new bill as a defense in the criminal case," Corry said. "And I will also evaluate whether to bring an action under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act."
Corry said the ADA "prohibits government from discriminating against someone because of their disability -- which is exactly what this does. And passing a one-size-fits-all nanogram standard is not an accommodation."
"There may be a case where an occasional recreational smoker who might smoke a joint on a Friday night once a month could be impaired immediately after consuming a significant quantity," Corry said. "But the same analysis does not apply to a medical user who is merely following a doctor's recommendation. That person is in the position of being able to compensate for any effects the medicine can have."
The bill still has several votes to win before it would go to the governor's desk to be signed into law.