THC DUI bill moves forward, passing out of committee

Medical Marijuana patients and recreational users of the drug filled the Old Supreme Court chambers of the Capitol Thursday as they emotionally testified against a bill to make driving while high a DUI per se. Targeting what they said were faulty or old studies, medical marijuana users failed to convince the House Judiciary Committee that marijuana did not pose a risk to themselves and others while they drove. The vote passed 6-3 with many members absent.

As introduced, HB 1261 makes driving with a blood content of 5 nanograms of THC or more a misdemeanor and creates the presumption that the person is driving under the influence of drugs as a result. The offense would essentially be treated the same as a DUI for alcohol.

“Some folks say that we are going to prevent legitimate medical marijuana users from exercising their right to drive,” bill cosponsor Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, said. “Well it is currently against the law to drive under the influence of marijuana just like it is any drug.”

Many of those testifying against the bill
called into question the 5 nanogram per se limit and called for an 8 nanogram limit if there was to be a limit at all. They said that many long-term medical marijuana users have developed a tolerance that allows them to perform better than occasional users.

A number of experts testified to the effect that while a person may think they are not affected their body is not performing up to speed. They said one test that is done, for example, is to see if someone can cross their eyes–an action that those too heavily under the influence cannot perform.

Waller said the presumption of impairment can be rebutted, while Boulder Democrat Claire Levy said simply the bill was necessary to protect public safety.

“Whether you are a marijuana patient or not, it is a bill about public safety,” co-sponsor Levy said. “There are studies to support this result. Law enforcement, I think will behave responsibly in having probable cause to stop and to require a blood test and I think it is just a matter of common sense.”

Many in the audience disagreed with Levy’s faith in law enforcement and the bill’s pertinence to public safety.

“The profile for a medical marijuana user is somebody who drives five miles under the speed limit and obeys all of the traffic laws,” Laura Kriho, public relations coordinator for the Cannabis Therapy Institute said. She said the new policy was little more than a witch hunt.

Alan Shackelford, a medical doctor who also sits on the Department of Revenue medical marijuana rule making-group, said he testified for the bill with caveats. Those caveats included raising the limit to 8 nanograms.  “It is important to note that many substances including cannabis … have an accommodation effect, that is that people who are novices and have never been exposed to cannabis before … can be significantly impaired at low doses while after a significant amount of use the impairment of that person’s ability to function are significantly reduced.”

Sgt. Craig Simpson, a drug recognition instructor for the Colorado Springs Police Department, said “Our arrest is not based on a number, our arrest is based on impaired performance on the divided attention path which very strongly has been shown to correlate with a person’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.”

He further explained that there has been an increase in impaired driving related to marijuana use and that he looked to this bill to help bring those numbers down. However he said that one of his officers in Colorado Springs had just reported that in the last three stops of individuals who had smoked marijuana each had passed the roadside test and been let go.

Cindy Burbach, a toxicologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, refuted claims made by many of those testifying that studies on marijuana were outdated and inaccurate. She said that the department had used the newest information in working with the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to determine the limit of THC allowed to be present in the blood of drivers.

“This is not about an attack on marijuana patients anymore than it is about the legal use of alcohol or pharmaceuticals or anything else,” Committee Chair Rep. Bob Gardner, R- Colorado Springs, said.

However, few advocates on Thursday felt their concerns had been heard.

“I am going to lecture this committee, because this is the judiciary committee which mean pertaining to justice and there is injustice here,” Miguel Lopez said. “This is a constitutional medicine and there is no other medicine that has been targeted like this community has, and I am speaking as an openly gay Chicano.”