Too High To Drive? Colorado Considers Pot DUI Law

DENVER (AP) – The surge of medical marijuana use in Colorado has started another debate in the state Legislature: What constitutes driving while high?

Lawmakers are considering setting a DUI blood-content threshold for marijuana that would make Colorado one of three states with such a provision in statute — and one of the most liberal, according to Rep. Claire Levy, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Under the proposal, drivers who test positive for 5 nanograms or more of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, would be considered too impaired to drive if the substance is present in their blood at the time they’re pulled over or within two hours.

Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, said she’s gotten resistance from medical marijuana advocates who fear it will restrict patients from using the drug.

“What I’ve tried to assure the patient advocates is that we’re not talking about sobriety checkpoints, we’re not talking about dragnets and massive stops,” she said. “They’re not going to be stopped if they’re driving appropriately.”

While it’s already illegal to drive while impaired by drugs, states have taken different approaches to the issue. Twelve states, including Arizona, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Rhode Island, have a zero-tolerance policy for driving with any presence of an illegal substance, said Anne Teigen, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota has the same policy but exempts marijuana.

Nevada, which is among the 16 states that allow medical marijuana, and Ohio and have a 2 nanogram THC limit for driving. Pennsylvania has a 5 nanogram limit, but that’s a state Health Department guideline, which can be introduced in driving violation cases, Teigen said.

Don Christensen, the executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, which supports the 5 nanogram THC blood-content benchmark, said he thinks it’s a fair way for law enforcement and the public to know how much marijuana you can consume while legally being able to drive — just as there’s a limit with alcohol.

“I think it’s fair to tell them the rules to be played by,” he said.

Pot activists, including the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, say they hope marijuana DUIs are not based solely on the amount of the drug that is found in someone’s system, but rather on the totality of the case, such as how the person was driving and other observations an officer makes.

They argue that medical users of the drug may have higher tolerance levels which would allow them to drive or still have trace levels of THC long after they’ve smoked the drug. Some also worry that medical users may be unfairly targeted.

“My only concern is that, because medical marijuana is controversial, that we’re entering a new phase of not racial profiling but medical profiling,” said Sean McAllister, an attorney at Denver’s Cannabis Law Center. McAllister was on a state panel that recommended the 5-nanogram standard, which he said is a fair judge of impairment for most users.

Not all marijuana advocates agree.

“We’re concerned the nanogram limit is too low because most medical marijuana patients are going to have higher levels in their bloodstream because of their continued use of medical cannabis,” said Laura Kriho, a spokeswoman with the Cannabis Therapy Institute in Colorado.

Rep. Mark Waller, a Republican who is sponsoring House Bill 1261 with Rep. Levy, said their proposal is meant to set a THC-blood level at which someone is presumed to be too impaired to drive.

“It’s a rebuttable presumption, though,” said Waller, adding that drivers won’t be automatically guilty of a DUI and will still get a chance to argue their case.

The bill is yet to come before a committee for a hearing, but Levy said she’s already getting a lot of comments from medical marijuana users.

“I’m getting a lot of pushback, a lot of concern that this will hinder the ability of medical marijuana patients to make use of their medicine,” Levy said. She said the bill is about safety, not targeting people who use pot for medical purposes.

“I’m very supportive of medicinal use of marijuana,” Levy said. “You just can’t allow people to be driving when they’re high.”

– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

  • Liatrus

    The part about this that concerns me: This proposal replaces the traditional breathalyzer test for impaired drivers with a mandatory blood test. Fpr everyone. That’s going too far.

    • Dude

      Refuse to allow the blood draw,based on fourth amendment protection.

  • Jim

    They had better be pretty sure that people are impaired beyond a reasonable level if they’re going to start dragging them to the hospital for blood tests. Seems as though this could lead to myriad lawsuits in instances where people either weren’t driving in a dangerous fashion or if testing shows they’re under the 5ng level. I’m all for setting some sort of limit, especially given that there’s a legitimate chance we’ll be dealing with a fully taxed and regulated system for those over 21 in the near future, but we need to be sure both the blood drawing process and the legal limit are fair and enforceable.

    • Dude

      JIM, Not enforceable, you just have to refuse the blood draw, you do not go along with the program, they would be forced to tie me down to a gurney before they get a drop of my blood, and no nurse is going to put her license on the line forcing a medical procedure on a non consenting person.

  • Kathleen B

    Liking this.

  • John

    Well let’s see here, we create a medical farce called legal medical marijuana and now we don’t know what to do when it causes a problem?
    What makes anybody think the Alcohol law is always fair?
    On construction sites workers are often checked for drugs and alcohol, I wonder what will happen now that this baloney is allowed?
    When someone working on a construction job kills or seriously injures someone what happens then?
    Do we simply shrug it off and say it was for medical reasons?
    What a joke this law is, if you want tro legalize this garbage just legalize it and stop pretending it serves a bona fide purpose.
    It will be interesting to see the lawsuits as people are injured or killed in traffic accidents or on construction sites.
    Yoiu know it’s going to happen, its only a matter of time.
    Medical Marijuana my Bucket!!!!!!!!!

    • Gene

      I think the real issue with this law is the 5ng threshold, it’s uncertain as to whether or not that is indicative of recent use in all people. The .08 limit for alcohol is pretty cut and dry as alcohol doesn’t stay in the system for days, weeks, or even months. THC can be stored in fat cells and show up in a blood test or urinalysis at high levels weeks after use in some people, that’s the big difference between testing for alcohol and THC. I don’t feel that the medical laws are a complete sham as I’ve known people suffering from a number of conditions (including cancer) that have had their quality of life greatly increased by cannabis. I do, however, agree that there are many who are essentially using the laws to acquire the product for something closer to “recreational use.” I suppose I would rather have people making their purchases in safe clean storefronts (not to mention they’re providing tax revenue) rather than in dangerous, uncontrolled environments any day of the week, though. I think that ultimately this law is being drafted in preparation for the full taxation and regulation model that you referred to in your post. The point that those opposed are most concerned with is the 5ng limit, is it equivalent to the .08 for alcohol or is it more like setting alcohol’s limit at .02? I’m not a scientist, so it’s tough to say… but as long as it’s the proper limit, I don’t see an issue with the bill. I respect your opinion and wish you a pleasant day.

    • Dude

      What do you mean “now we don’t know what to do when it causes a problem?”
      How about observing someone, if they act like they are impaired pull them aside and test them. Same with driving, if an officer see’s impaired driving do a roadside sobriety test on video, if they fail then do a blood draw.
      As to your opinion regarding Medical use of Cannabis , you are ignorant of the facts.

  • Dude

    “What I’ve tried to assure the patient advocates is that we’re not talking about sobriety checkpoints, we’re not talking about dragnets and massive stops,” she said. “They’re not going to be stopped if they’re driving appropriately.”

    HOGWASH, it is always left up to the discretion of the officer, if they want to stop you for ANY reason they will. There are no scientific studies that prove “impairment” if an officer suspects impairment they should have to do a roadside sobriety test, on video, if the suspect fails that then take a blood draw.

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