DENVER– When Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol, few envisioned the challenge ahead. And some believe that challenge will become a lot tougher after members of the Senate Judiciary Committee snuffed a bill to set DUI drug limits for marijuana on Monday because it can’t be measured like alcohol.
“This is a good safety bill,” said Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction). “The (traffic accident) fatality rates for alcohol are going down; the fatality rates for marijuana are going up.”
House Bill 1114, sponsored by House Minority Leader Mark Waller of Colorado Springs, Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) and King, was similar to three previous failed bills which limited marijuana’s active component Delta 9 THC at 5 nanograms per milliliter in the bloodstream.
Citing a Colorado Public Health and Environment study, King told fellow committee members that there was a 10 percent increase in drivers who tested positive for THC in 2009 compared to 59 percent increase in 2011.
Though the bill had sailed through the House with bipartisan support, the Senate committee members weren’t convinced that the bill’s DUI blood test standards were scientifically sound.
They also expressed concerns that medical marijuana patients, who have higher drug tolerance, could test over the limit and be falsely accused of driving while impaired.
“It’s not a specific science, unlike alcohol that can be measured,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) who voted against the bill.
He said the test’s 5-nanogram limit could be a valid measurement for an occasional cannabis consumer, but unlikely for a chronic user. The latter could result in false positives, Lundberg said, and prosecuting people who aren’t impaired.
The committee listened to over two hours of testimony by proponents, including representatives for the Attorney General’s office, Colorado Sheriffs Association, Colorado State Highway Patrol and citizens, and opponents, mostly medical marijuana patients.
This is a significant public safety concern,” declared Deputy AG Matt Durkin of the Criminal Justice section. “The time has come to pass this bill.”
Ed Wood asked the committee to “show more concern for the victims of drugged driving than the perpetrators.”
The state needs more stringent marijuana DUI laws, said Wood, because too often drugged drivers, who caused serious accidents, were convicted only of reckless driving.
Opponents argued the bill would cause hardships – from paying legal fees and fighting false charges – and infringe on their liberties.
“What about protecting my safety against persecution from law enforcement because I choose to use cannabis?” asked Phillip Barton.
If stopped at a sobriety check point, Barton said, a law enforcement officer could smell marijuana in the car, demand a roadside test and a blood test. If Barton refused to take the test, his Colorado driver’s license would automatically be suspended for a year.
“It’s just a bigoted reaction to marijuana,” declared another man. “We don’t need more reasons to put people in jail.
“What we suffer from in this country is hysteria around drugs which is often fueled by economic interests,” said Titus Peterson, a medical marijuana attorney. “That’s part of what I see going on in this case so I just ask you to take a sober look.”
The committee did and the bill was defeated, 4 to 1, with Lundberg joining the Democrats in opposition.
“For me being the only yes vote,” said King, “I thought what were they smoking?”