NORML expert says Colorado taking right approach to pot-impairment laws

Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told The Colorado Independent this morning that Colorado seems to be approaching the issue of marijuana-related driver impairment appropriately.

The Independent reported earlier today that a state task force has recommended the legislature pass a law creating a per se level of THC in the blood, above which a driver would be considered impaired.

He said Pennsylvania is currently the only state with a 5 nanogram threshold and is also the only state that approached the issue from a scientific persepctive. He said the Pennsylvania legislature wanted to set a per se limit, but legislators acknowledged they didn’t know enough about the subject to set a limit, so they passed a law instructing the state’s health department to set the limit.

“Pennsylvania is the only state so far to set their limit based on science,” he said. Armentano said he has been following Colorado’s work toward setting a limit and says the Colorado Drug Policy Task Force has taken the right approach in relying on scientific research and the testimony of state toxicologist Cindy Burbach, rather than looking first to political considerations.

Armentano said he has studied the effects of marijuana for years and has been used as an expert witness in numerous cases and has consulted on many more.

“Five nanograms seems to be the level above which people have trouble driving,” he said.”There is some consensus that there is an elevated risk of an accident at five or higher. I’m pleased to see Colorado basing their law on science.”

He said passing a per se level is not so much about public safety as it is about making cases easier to prosecute. “It is already illegal to drive stoned in Colorado, but now judges and juries have to look at the totality of evidence. If a per se limit is adopted, all they have to do is draw blood and if someone is over the limit, that’s all they need to prove.”

He agreed with Task Force members who told us yesterday that they chose the five nanogram limit to make it easier to prosecute people who were driving stoned without proecuting people who had residual THC in their blood but were not currently high.

Armentano said the research is sketchy on how high someone’s THC levels are if they smoke regularly but have not smoked for a day or so, but said for the most part such people will test well under five nanograms.

“THC levels spike when you ingest marijuana, but then dissipates fairly quickly so for the most part only someone who has smoked recently will be over that limit,” he said.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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