Bill Targets Drugged Driving

February 28, 2012
ZanePaul Photos /Free Photos

DENVER, CO – The Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee advanced a bill to include marijuana under the state’s DUI law that currently sets legal limits for driving under the influence of alcohol. The Senators listened to more than six hours of scientific, legal and personal testimony of proponents and opponents.

Senate Bill 117 would extend Colorado’s DUI “per se” limit for alcohol impairment to include marijuana. More than 5 nanograms of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) per milliliter in blood is the legal threshold for “permissible inference that the defendant was driving under the influence of drugs.”

“The number of accidents has gone down. Yet fatal crashes with THC-impaired drivers have doubled in four years,” said Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction), sponsor of SB 117.

King co-sponsored a similar bill last year, but this year’s DUI bill criminalizes possession of a Schedule I controlled substance, such as LSD and heroin. If a driver is suspected of being impaired and tests confirm the presence of a Schedule II controlled substance, such as cocaine, codeine and oxycodone that is considered a permissible inference.

Critics argued that there are conflicting studies, that chronic users may show high THC levels even when they are not impaired, and medical marijuana users may be unjustly charged. Proponents countered that there are sufficient studies and drug-related traffic accidents support the need to address the issue.

King read testimony by Jan Ramaekers, an expert on behavior toxicology of medicinal drugs and drug abuse. A professor at University of Maestrichtin in the Netherlands, Ramaekers stated that 2 to 5 nanograms of THC impairs judgment that if driving increases the accident risk.

The professor said chronic users do not develop tolerances to euphoric feeling, but they can develop tolerance to some of the impairment effects. Ramaekers estimated that 20 – 25 percent experience significant impairment after a single dose of THC.

Mike Elliott, an attorney and medical marijuana advocate, said the time is right to wage a public education campaign warning users not to drive under the influence. But, he opposed the bill because there isn’t enough data and research on THC testing and unimpaired people could be charged unfairly with a DUI.

Dr. Paul Bregman, a self described medical cannabis expert, said there is disagreement in “per se” THC limits in long-term users.  THC is stored in the body’s fat cells, he said, and that it can be released over time and cause a wide variation in blood levels when people are not impaired.

Cindy Burbach, a forensic toxicologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health, said there are reliable studies and that the five nanogram limit is appropriate.

The number of THC blood tests processed by the department for law enforcement agencies, she said, climbed to nearly 10,400 last year – a significant increase from the 8,600 tests in 2009.

“This bill will guarantee that innocent people will be convicted,” declared Sean McAllister, a criminal defense lawyer. He said administering the blood test would violate the presumption of innocence.

Not true, said Chris Halsor, Traffic Safety Resource prosecutor for the Colorado District Attorney’s Council. A law enforcement officer must have suspicion of probable cause to pull over a driver and then, probable cause such as impaired behavior to do a roadside sobriety test. Depending on that outcome, the officer again would have to have probable cause for a blood test.

Halsor said the bill is a “reasonable safety measure.”

Perhaps more compelling than scientific studies, law enforcement statistics and legal arguments, was the testimony of the Cordova sisters, Cordelia and Jeanette, whose 23-year-old niece Tanya Guevara and her baby Adrian were killed by Steven Ryan who was driving under the influence of marijuana in November 2010.

“(Ryan) pleaded down to one count of vehicular homicide. That’s like saying that baby wasn’t in the car,” declared Cordelia Cordova. “That’s wrong.”

“How many dead is the number that will cause us to act?” asked King. “This legislation advocates for the families of the severely injured and the dead. It advocates for the preservation of future victims.”

“All through this testimony from the opposition, we have heard that we need to wait. Let’s wait,” said King. “We’ve heard that people are better drivers when they’re high on THC. I think we’ve been there and done that years and years ago with alcohol. Oh honestly, officer, with two martinis I’m a much better driver.”

“The privilege of smoking marijuana should stop at the vehicle door,” declared King. “But we want to wait?”

He described fatal accidents caused by drug-impaired drivers who were charged with vehicular homicides since 2006, including a pending case of a man charged with driving onto a sidewalk and killing a woman and her dog.

“Wait. Wait. Wait for the science,” said King. “I say no.”

Sen. Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City) agreed, “Another year and we’ll hear more evidence is needed. If we did that we’d be stuck in 1984 with pre-DUI laws, waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s time to get this in place.”

The committee approved the bill, 4 -1. Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton) voted no.

“I’m extremely concerned about the Schedule II drugs and the fact we have zero tolerance. For that reason, I can’t support the bill based on that alone,” said Neville. “I’m also concerned about the medical marijuana issue… I do no want to put people in a situation where they’re facing imprisonment or extra fines.”

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