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Colorado Revisits Marijuana DUI Standard

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(credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

DENVER (AP) – The hazy debate over driving while high is back before Colorado lawmakers as a Senate committee voted Monday to endorse a proposal setting a scientific standard for determining whether drivers are impaired by marijuana.

The bill says drivers would be considered impaired if they test positive for 5 nanograms or more of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, per milliliter of blood. There’s disagreement over whether a blood THC test is a fair gauge of whether a driver is impaired, but a Senate panel voted 4-1 to forward the measure to the full chamber.

“The privilege of smoking marijuana should stop at the vehicle door,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve King, of Grand Junction.

Pot activists said they agree driving while high should remain illegal. But some vigorously object to blood testing as a measure of impairment. Because marijuana chemicals are stored in the body’s fat, levels can build up over time in people who use pot often.

Scientists gave conflicting testimony 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 Bregman, a Colorado physician who recommends marijuana.

However, lawmakers were swayed by conflicting testimony from Cindy Burbach, forensic toxicologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She told lawmakers that the agency is getting more requests from law enforcement for blood THC tests, from 8,600 requests in 2009 to nearly 10,400 last year.

“Five nanograms is more than fair,” Burbach told senators. She said the department used a different THC screening procedure before 2009, making comparisons before then impossible.

Also persuasive to lawmakers were arguments from law enforcement that even if the science isn’t conclusive, cops would be aided by a clear standard rather than relying on perceptions of impairment.

“I wish I had a nickel for everybody I arrested for DUI that said they weren’t impaired,” said John Jackson, Greenwood Village police chief who testified on behalf of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

The 5-nanogram limit still must clear the full Senate, where a similar measure was defeated last year amid bipartisan opposition. Then the measure would head to the Republican House, which approved a similar measure last year.

States that have set a legal limit for marijuana have taken different approaches.

Nevada, which allows marijuana use for medical purposes, and Ohio have a limit of 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter 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, Arizona and Rhode Island, have a zero-tolerance policy for driving with any presence of an illegal substance.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, peak THC concentrations are present during the act of smoking and they generally fall to less than 5 nanograms within three hours.

“I am not inclined to wait any longer” on a blood THC limit, said Democratic Sen. Betty Boyd of Lakewood.

Monday’s vote brought chants of “shame, shame” from a handful of pot activists in the crowd. They vowed to continue fighting the proposal when it heads next to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A legislative analysis released Monday estimated the pot DUI bill would cost more than half a million dollars next year to implement, requiring the bill to also be approved by the spending committee.

LINK: Senate Bill 117

- By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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