Debate over driving stoned appears settled by lawmakers

May 8, 2013 Updated: May 8, 2013 at 7:20 am
photo - Bud tender Kelley Schaffer trims buds  Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana indoor farm in Colorado Springs.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Bud tender Kelley Schaffer trims buds Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, at Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana indoor farm in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Colorado drivers who use marijuana had best learn their limits: A seemingly cursed bill that sets a legal blood standard for driving high quietly passed the Senate on Tuesday and now awaits the governor's signature.

A version of the bill had been proposed and rejected six times this legislative session, with opponents arguing such blood tests are an invasion of privacy and that current science is inadequate to establish when a person is pot-impaired.

The latest bill, however, passed the Senate 24-11 and now heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he supports the measure and mentioned a need for a legal limit in his State of the State address.

If signed, drivers whose blood exceeds 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter will be presumed to be driving while stoned. Unlike the 0.08 blood alcohol threshold for driving drunk, though, people who exceed the limit can argue in court that due to tolerance or habitual use, they are not impaired at the 5 nanogram level.

Several patients who use medical marijuana to manage chronic pain spoke against the bill in committee, often saying they were certain they always exceed the 5 nanogram level but without the side effects of delayed reaction time that can make driving high dangerous.

Proponents of the measure point to statistics from the Colorado Department of Transportation that show the number of fatal crashes where a driver has tested positive for THC has increased from 21 in 2006 to a high of 52 in 2011 even though the total number of all fatal crashes in the state has decreased significantly.

House Bill 1325 - the last bill introduced in the House this session - made it through the legislative process at break-neck speed. It whizzed through three committees and the House and Senate in just four work days. After a similar version of the pot bill was killed in a Senate committee earlier, Democratic leadership assigned the second version to a friendlier panel to get it to the Senate floor.

Marijuana has consumed much of this legislative session, as lawmakers grapple with voters' decision in November to legalize adult recreational use of pot. In addition to the driving-while-stoned bill, a package of marijuana taxation and regulation bills are nearly wrapped up going into the final day of the session despite considerable drama over the past four months.

The Senate passed two other important marijuana bills Tuesday: One asks voters to approve special taxes on the drug, and the other regulates the industry.

Both bills must still pass the Senate on third reading and then return to the House for consideration of changes the Senate made.

'If the House concurs, we could be done by noon, out of here by 3 (p.m.) at the latest, ' said Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. 'If we have to go to conference that could take hours, literally, and we could be here all night. '

Everything must finish up by midnight Wednesday to become law before the Colorado General Assembly concludes this legislative session.

'We are in very good shape in terms of getting everything done, ' Morse said.

House Bill 1318 asks voters in November whether there should be a 10 percent sales tax on all marijuana products and a 15 percent excise tax on the marijuana industry.

The bill specifically states the sales tax could be increased to a maximum of 15 percent by lawmakers.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, was one of several lawmakers who urged their colleagues not to adopt such a high tax rate to avoid incentivizing a black market of illegal pot dealers trying to circumvent taxes.

'Our task is to make the legal market as attractive, as easy, as safe as possible, and that requires us to phase in these taxes, ' Hill said.

House Bill 1317 outlines how the marijuana industry will be regulated, specifically limiting retail business licenses only to individuals who currently hold or have applied for medical marijuana business licenses. The bill also includes other mandates, such as limiting out-of-state residents to buying only a quarter of an ounce of marijuana at a time compared to Colorado residents, who can buy up to an ounce of pot at any one time.


Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644

Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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