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Colorado legislators working to draft drugged driving bill

July 25, 2015 Updated: July 27, 2015 at 10:50 am
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DENVER - Driving high and driving drunk carry the same charge in Colorado, and that's a problem for those who want to track the impact, if any, of legalized marijuana on the safety of the state's roads and highways.

It's impossible to break out state-wide statistics about the number of convictions for driving under the influence of marijuana or other drugs. The charges and convictions are all lumped together under the same impaired driving statute.

That's a problem, says Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, who will propose a bill in the 2016 legislative session to enable marijuana-related driving offenses to be tracked.

"The motivation is really to be able to have a real discussion with real numbers and real data," Keyser said. "If this is a problem we definitely need to address it, but right now we can't even say if it's a problem."

He's teamed up with marijuana legalization advocate Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, to draft a bill this summer that would create a separate charge for driving under the influence of drugs.

"We want to be able to pinpoint what public safety issues are out there related to impaired driving and whether that's alcohol, prescription pills or marijuana, or some combination of all those things," Singer said. "It's important for the public to know what the real public safety risk is and that way we can fine tune our approaches at the state level."

Keyser said they are in the beginning stages of drafting the bill. The session begins in January.

Opponents of the measure that legalized recreational marijuana sales, possession and use for adults in 2012 claimed lives would be endangered by the rash of stoned drivers. The U.S. Attorney General included the state's ability to prevent "drugged-driving" among a list of requirements for continued federal tolerance of the state's legalization of a federally illegal substance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advocated for the collection of drugged riving data by states back in 2009, Keyser pointed out. The issue was brought to him by a constituent who lost a son in an accident where the driver was under the influence of drugs.

Only recently was a legal-limit put in the statute for driving under the influence of marijuana. The test is similar to but less rigid than the blood-alcohol content threshold for alcohol.

The Colorado State Patrol began collecting data in January 2014 about the type of impaired driving citations issued by troopers.

"With the passage of Amendment 64 we understood there was going to be more inquiry," said Trooper Josh Lewis, public information officer for the State Patrol. "People will want to know if marijuana was a contributing factor."

That relatively new data set shows marijuana-related citations have held fairly steady month over month. But Lewis reiterated there is no data available for comparison purposes prior to legalized pot.

In the first half of 2014, troopers wrote 355 citations for impaired driving that involved marijuana, compared to 316 in the first half of this year.

Impaired driving citations that include marijuana account for about 13 percent of impaired driving citations issued over the past 18 months.

But those statistics are just a slice of what law enforcement sees on the road.

Keyser and Singer want a fuller picture.

So does Tom Raynes, executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council.

But Raynes said he's concerned breaking driving under the influence of drugs into its own statute with its own charge could cause problems.

"It's something that I think needs to be done cautiously," Raynes said. "You don't want to build in an inherent defense if an officer on the street has to make a decision at that very moment - is this person impaired by alcohol or marijuana?"

Raynes said in the court that could get tricky if the person was impaired by both, or the opposite one.

"Is there another way to pursue this data?" Raynes asked. "Because I'd love to have the data."

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Contact Megan Schrader: 286-0644

Twitter @CapitolSchrader

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