DENVER – A bill that would set legal standards against driving under the influence of marijuana narrowly passed the Senate on Wednesday and moves to the House where it will fight against a tight time frame to be heard in the final week of the legislative session.
Senate Bill 117, sponsored by Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) and Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller (R-Colorado Springs), was passed in the Senate, 18 – 17, with an unusual mix of Republicans and Democrats voting for and against the measure.
In pitching the bill to the Senate, King recalled a similar bill that passed in the House and later was killed in the Senate last year. He read an editorial critical of that outcome published by the Denver Post this year – and it set the tone for the final comments on the bill.
“The Denver Post said that the Colorado legislature is expected to consider the issue of driving while stoned again this year,” said King. “And this time we hope lawmakers don’t allow the medical marijuana lobby to blow smoke in their eyes.”
“Last year’s show was embarrassing to watch, and lawmakers’ lack of action constituted in failure to protect the public. Study after study show marijuana use causes driving impairment. This time around we hope state lawmakers don’t listen to the fervent marijuana users who say they drive perfectly fine – even better when they’re high. Maybe they think so, but we don’t. The rest of the driving public should not be endangered to indulge their stoner fantasies.”
Like the bill last year, SB 117 would set the threshold DUI level for THC (delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol) at 5 nanograms per millimeter of blood. Though opponents of the bill argue that it’s not a fair level for chronic users of medical marijuana, King cited a task force study that stated impairment is detected at just 2 nanograms.
King said that when last year’s bill got to the Senate, “the marijuana lobbyists had come out in force and they pushed the idea of relative highness. They said some people drive just fine at five nanograms of THC in their system. They also called the research inconclusive, which is certainly one way to inject doubt into an argument that you don’t agree with. Thereby score one for the marijuana lobby – which is becoming a big force to be reckoned with.”
He said statistics by those, who don’t have an investment in the marijuana industry, show that marijuana impairment is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the number of drivers, who were involved in fatal crashes, and who tested positive for marijuana increased from 37 in 2009 to 42 in 2010. By contrast, the same statistics for drivers who tested positive for alcohol in their system decreased from 138 to 112.
Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-Denver) said the Denver Post editorial was “offensive.”
“I think it is unfair to essentially characterize this bill as about stoners or a stoners’ lobby,” declared Morgan. “It cheapens and undermines the fact that many of us have due process, constitutionally rooted principles.”
Carroll said that there are a lot of patients with a lot of chronic pain and debilitating conditions who are on prescribed medications as Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocent or medical marijuana, which is constitutionally sanctioned in Colorado.
“I will be the first to say that whatever you are taking for your chronic pain medication, you should not get behind the wheel if you’re impaired,” said Carroll, who staunchly opposed the bill.
During the bill’s second reading before the Senate on Tuesday, Carroll introduced a motion to exempt all medical marijuana users. King, however, noted that the number of medical marijuana users has increased in just five years from 2,000 to 80,000 currently. The amendment failed.
State laws already prohibit driving under the influence of drugs, but unlike the DUI alcohol law, there is no legal standard applicable to drugs. Carroll said the 5 nanogram level is an arbitrary number that is not based on proven science. Like statistics she said, there are deviations.
“Is it the role of government to magically pick some number that some study might actually support?” asked Carroll, who added that the “magic number” will ultimately result in convicting an innocent person who is not impaired.
If the state doesn’t set parameters, King said, “We are well on our way to a doped driving epidemic that will match the DUI epidemic we had 10 to 15 years ago.”
King said the number of Colorado drivers whose blood tested positive for THC has climbed from an estimated 200 in 2009 to more than 1,000 in 2011.
Opponents of the bill failed to produce compelling studies to counter the statistics and studies produced by King and the bill’s proponents during the Senate debate and the Feb. 27 hearing before theSenateState, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
“This has been a two year process,” King told The Colorado Observer. “I think that I’ve done the best that I can do. Now, it’s up to the House. I’d like to see the bill pass and go to the Governor to be signed into law.”
At the very least, he said, the bill has raised public awareness that “doped driving is every bit as bad as drunk driving.”