By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town
The recurring debate and driving while high is back in the spotlight in the Colorado Legislature, where a Senate committee voted Monday to endorse a proposal setting what they are inaccurately calling “a scientific standard” for deciding whether drivers are impaired by marijuana.
The bill says drivers would be considered per se guilty of driving under the influence of cannabis if they test positive for five nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of blood, reports Deb Stanley at The Denver Channel. There’s nothing “scientific” about that arbitrary cutoff point, of course, and any sane standard for DUI marijuana would include actual impairment in the equation.
But of course, sanity doesn’t often play much of a role in the ongoing drama over per se limits on blood THC levels. A similar controversy in Washington state threatens to sink this year’s limited legalization effort there. Many patients are concerned that they will, in effect, be banned from legally driving by a 5 ng/ml limit written into I-502, which will go before Washington voters on the general election ballot in November.
There’s plenty of disagreement over whether a blood THC test is a fair measure of whether a driver is impaired — especially, well, since most experienced pot smokers aren’t impaired at that level — but a Colorado Senate panel voted 4-1 on Monday to send the measure to the full chamber.
“The privilege of smoking marijuana should stop at the vehicle door,” said the bill’s well-coiffed demagogue sponsor, Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction). King, while he seems mighty concerned about people driving on marijuana, evidently spends a lot less time worrying about things like ethics. In 2010, he faced an ethics probe over apparently charging both the state and his campaign fund for travel expenses.
While many marijuana advocates agreed that driving while high should remain illegal, they argued for actual impairment — rather than a specific THC level in the blood — as the final determining factor in charging drivers with DUI cannabis.
Many advocates vigorously object to blood testing as a legal measure of impairment. Because marijuana chemicals are stored in body fat, THC levels can build up over time in people who use cannabis often or heavily — you know, like medical marijuana patients.
Scientists gave conflicting testimony in the Colorado Legislature on Monday.
“Nobody in this audience wants to have drugged driving policies, (but) there is disagreement about per se limits in chronic users,” said Dr. Paul Bergman, a Colorado physician who recommends marijuana.
But the gullible lawmakers were swayed by conflicting testimony from Cindy Burbach, a forensic toxicologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Burbach told the lawmakers that her agency is getting more requests from law enforcement for blood THC tests, from 8,600 requestsin 20-09 to nearly 10,400 last year.
Of course, the fact that cops smell a cash cow — and a “reason” to arrest folks of whom they otherwise disapprove — doesn’t suddenly prove that everyone driving with a blood THC level of more than 5 ng/ml is “impaired,” either.
“Five nanograms is more than fair,” Burbach claimed. She said the department used a different THC screening procedure before 2009, making comparisons before then impossible, which seems pretty convenient when you think about it.
The lawmakers were also reportedly swayed by law enforcement testimony that “even if the science isn’t conclusive,” (and it damn well isn’t), cops would be “aided” by a “clear standard” rather than relying on, you know, ascertaining if the driver is actually impaired or not.
“I wish I had a nickel for everybody I arrested for DUI that said they weren’t impaired,” claimed John Jackson, Greenwood Village police chief who testified on behalf of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
?The 5 ng/ml THC DUI limit must still clear the full Colorado Senate, where a similar measure was defeated last year with bipartisan opposition. That one went down after, among other things, Denver Westword pot critic William Breathes took a blood test, unimpaired in the morning, and showed up more than three times the proposed cutoff of 5 ng/ml.
Nevada (which has a medical marijuana program) and Ohio each have THC limits of 2 ng/ml 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 and medical-marijuana states Arizona and Rhode Island, have a zero-tolerance policy for driving with any amount of THC in the bloodstream.
“I am not inclined to wait any longer” on a blood THC limit, said Sen. Betty Boyd (D-Lakewood).
Monday’s vote was greeted by chants of “shame, shame” from marijuana advocates in the crowd. They vowed to continue fighting the proposal as it heads to its next destination, the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The marijuana DUI bill would cost more than half a million dollars next year to implement, according to a legislative analysis released on Monday, meaning the bill must also be approved by the spending committee.
You can read Senate Bill 17 for yourself by clicking here [PDF].
Article From Toke of the Town and republished with special permission.