Colorado senators on Monday diluted a proposal that would have set the country’s most liberal limit for what’s legally considered too high to drive, changing the bill so that it effectively becomes a study on the issue of marijuana impairment.
A subtle tinge of pot smoke permeated a committee room as the senators voted to amend the bill, handing a victory to medical marijuana advocates who argued they would be unfairly targeted.
Sen. Steve King, one of the bill’s sponsors, disagreed with committee’s decision to have a state commission study what is a proper level to consider a driver impaired.
“It’s a study at the risk of lives,” said the Republican from Mesa County.
It’s already illegal in any state to drive while impaired by drugs, but what constitutes impairment is often subjective. The bill proposed to set a blood-content threshold that would allow prosecutors to charge drivers if they have a level of at least 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Law enforcement groups support the bill, saying it will provide a benchmark similar to the one that exists for how much alcohol someone can have in the blood while driving.
Opponents of the legislation argued that there is no clear science that shows what level of THC makes someone too high drive. Medical marijuana advocates also claimed that daily users of the drug develop higher tolerance levels that allow them to drive safely.
“We’re pleased. We finally used science instead of reefer madness to apply a law,” said Kathleen Chippi, a member of the Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project.
States that have set a legal limit for marijuana have taken different approaches.
Nevada, which allows marijuana use for medical purposes, and Ohio have a limit of 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter for driving. Pennsylvania has a 5 nanogram limit, but unlike Colorado’s proposal, it’s a state Health Department guideline, which can be introduced in driving violation cases. Twelve states, including Illinois, Arizona, and Rhode Island, have a zero-tolerance policy for driving with any presence of an illegal substance.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, peak THC concentrations are present during the act of smoking and they generally fall to less than 5 nanograms within three hours.
House Bill 1261 will be heard by another committee before it’s considered by the full Senate, and King said it’s possible the bill could be changed back to its original form.
“Mark my words. I have no doubt. There will be fatality accidents as a result of someone driving the influence of THC,” King told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee before they voted to amend the bill. “Innocent people will die. This is a health and safety issue for the people of Colorado.”
Colorado is one of 16 states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes. Lawmakers proposed the bill as medical marijuana use in the state has skyrocketed over during the last two years.
Audrey Hatfield, a medical marijuana user from Colorado Springs, said officials should examine state transportation records to find out how many accidents have been caused by pot smokers.
“We need to find out first if this is such an important public safety issue,” she said.
Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, told committee members there have been traffic accidents where the driver was high. He said having a benchmark for marijuana DUIs would help prosecutors gain convictions.
“Having that number there would give us a better case,” he said.