Colorado driving-while-stoned bill goes up in smoke once again

Greg Campbell | Contributor

UPDATE: The bill might be dead, but the issue may be revived as an amendment to other pot bills (see below)

Colorado’s third attempt to define when someone is too stoned to drive through the adoption of a blood-THC limit went the way of its predecessors Monday when it was killed in the state Senate’s judiciary committee, much to the surprise of those who have tirelessly campaigned against it and expected it to pass.

“To be honest, I was hopeful, but never confident, that it would be killed in committee,” said Teri Robnett, a medical marijuana patient who was among those leading the effort against the bill. “And the moment the vote came down, I was stunned.”

The measure would have triggered a charge of driving under the influence of drugs for people with 5 or more nanograms of THC (marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient) per milliliter of blood.

Unlike previous versions of the bill, the 5-nanogram limit could not be used as proof that someone was too high to drive, but only allowed prosecutors to infer that they were impaired. The distinction meant that defendants had a chance to argue in court that the pot in their system did not affect their ability to drive.

The new version was slightly more palatable to some who had opposed the bills in the past. THC persists in the bloodstream far longer than users feel its intoxicating effects.

Medical marijuana patients who use cannabis products frequently for pain and other ailments were among the bill’s core opponents, arguing that a perfectly sober cannabis user could have several times the limit in their bloodstream at any time.

“First, let me say that no one wants people driving impaired by any substance,” said Robnett, who answered questions from The Daily Caller News Foundation via email. “(But) when it comes to determining an appropriate and realistic blood level of THC to determine impairment, the science is all over the map. The 5 nanogram limit might be appropriate for occasional novice smokers, but does not address those who use cannabis every day and will have high residual THC in their blood with no impairment.”

They also argued that the bill was unnecessary. Colorado already outlaws impaired driving, whether it’s due to pot, beer or prescription medication.

Yet ever since Colorado’s medical marijuana industry took firm root in 2010, lawmakers have felt the need for a numerical way of measuring pot smokers’ level of intoxication, assuming that as marijuana use becomes less taboo, more people would be doing it.

The perception that a new measurement is necessary was renewed after Colorado voters legalized marijuana for recreational use with the passage of Amendment 64 in November.

“This measure will make our roads safer,” said Republican House Minority Leader Mark Waller, when the bill passed the House in early April. “Giving law enforcement the tools they need to help ensure people are making responsible decisions behind the wheel is an absolute priority.”

Shortly before the committee heard the bill, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a drunk driving case that blood tests cannot be conducted without a court order, a decision that complicated the bill and gave opponents even more ammunition.

“Even after the SCOTUS decision, we proceeded as though it had never happened,” Robnett said. “We made sure to get expert opinions to the committee, either through emails or in testimony. We wanted to give the committee as many reasons as we could to either amend the bill to exempt medical marijuana patients or to kill the bill completely.”

In the end, only one senator voted in favor of it.

Robnett credits relentless public pressure for its demise, but said she wouldn’t be surprised to see another version of it introduced in the future.

“We refer to it as the zombie bill because it just won’t die,” she said. “I expect to see it again, in some form or other. And if it looks pretty similar to this one with an arbitrary limit and no exemption for patients, we’ll fight it all over again.”

Update:

The so-called “zombie bill” has indeed come back, more quickly than many had expected.

After the bill was killed earlier this week, lawmakers began working on ways to append it to one of several remaining marijuana bills yet to be voted on. Waller, the House minority leader, told the Denver Post there were at least two bills that could accommodate the 5 nanogram DUID limit.

Activists are left scrambling to counter the measure anew, sending out word on social network sites for opponents to ramp up their efforts once again.

Many of the remaining marijuana bills will be debated throughout the week. According to Amendment 64, lawmakers must pass a law outlining regulations before the end of the legislative session May 8. If they don’t, the issue may be debated in a special session.

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