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FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2012, file photo, a person holds a freshly rolled marijuana joint just after midnight at the Space Needle in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Colorado poised to be the first state to regulate pot sales

Greg Campbell
Contributor

Against what looked like long odds at the beginning of the week, the Colorado state legislature passed several historic marijuana bills with time to spare on the last day of the lawmaking session Wednesday.

If signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper — as expected, although he has voiced his reservations about legalized pot in the past — Colorado will be the first state to officially regulate sales of the federally prohibited drug.

Among the new measures is a bill passed Tuesday that sets a stoned-driving limit of 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood, arguably the most contentious of the pot bills heard this year.

Lawmakers have tried six times over three years — including three times this year — to pass such a law. Opponents have said the limit is both arbitrary and a poor indicator of impairment, since marijuana affects people differently and chronic users can have elevated levels of THC even when they are perfectly sober.

The measure that finally succeeded is different from past attempts in that defendants who are over the limit aren’t automatically convicted of drugged-driving. Instead, juries can infer that they were impaired behind the wheel, but the defendant can present evidence to the contrary.

THC levels would be determined through a blood test after an officer decides through other ways — such as roadside sobriety tests — that a motorist is too stoned to drive. The test can be refused, but the motorist would risk losing his or her license.

On Wednesday, lawmakers also approved a regulatory framework for retail sales, dictating such things as licensing fees, product manufacturing standards and retail ownership requirements. Only Coloradans can operate pot shops and for the first nine months, only owners of existing medical marijuana dispensaries can apply to convert their businesses for retail.

The state Department of Revenue has until July 1 to draft the new regulations.

Finally, lawmakers also gave final passage to a taxing scheme that’s been the source of much drama lately. In November, voters will be asked to tax pot by a total of 25 percent — 15 percent of which is an excise tax and 10 percent being a special marijuana tax levied at the point of sale.

Because Colorado voters must approve all new taxes, lawmakers are worried that the measure will fail at the ballot box, meaning regulation and enforcement of the industry will have to be paid for from the state’s General Fund.

To avoid such a worst-case scenario, two-dozen senators supported a last-minute bid to ask voters to also strip retail sales from the state constitution if the tax measure fails. But facing a filibuster by opposing senators that would have run out the deadline to vote on the measure, Senate President John Morse never brought it to the floor.