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Troopers: Too soon to tell legal pot's impact on Colorado roads

By: Chhun Sun
March 13, 2016 Updated: March 14, 2016 at 12:37 pm
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Has the legalization of recreational marijuana made Colorado roads more dangerous?

The Colorado State Patrol recently released a report detailing the number of tickets handed to suspected impaired drivers, but officials say it's still too early to know the impact of pot-smoking drivers.

In 2015, troopers issued 4,546 citations for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, with 347 of them - or 7.6 percent - involving only marijuana. The drug was suspected as one of the intoxicants in 665 citations.

The total number of DUI citations fell by seven compared to 2014.

Col. Scott Hernandez ordered State Patrol to keep track of marijuana-related citations in January 2014, when recreational sales of the drug went into effect.

"It's a very, very small sample size," said Trooper Josh Lewis, a State Patrol spokesman. "We don't know if there's an anomaly we don't know if the numbers will continue going down or will shoot up. We can't say one way or another what we anticipate in the coming years but we're going to continue our efforts."

In other words, it's hard to say whether marijuana has made roads less safe - at this point.

"It can be every bit as dangerous as driving drunk," said Sam Cole, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman, referring to marijuana-impaired driving. "Unfortunately, many marijuana users admit to driving high and are unconcerned with the impairment it causes."

Cole said his department's focus is on drunk driving "since it's a bigger issue."

In 2014, more than a third of the 488 fatalities in Colorado were alcohol-related, CDOT reports. In comparison, 84 of the 684 drivers involved in fatal crashes tested positive for weed.

Similar data for 2013 and 2015 were not available.

"Colorado law enforcement is meeting the challenge by training more and more officers on how to identify - and arrest - marijuana impaired drivers," Cole said. "It should be noted that drivers did not begin driving high with the legalization of marijuana. They have long been arrested for doing so. What is different is that now we have the funds to increase law enforcement training. We also now have the funds to provide public outreach on the dangers and legal consequences of driving high."

One example: State Patrol has 64 troopers who are trained in expert drug recognition.

There's no clear separation in state laws between driving under the influence of alcohol, pot or other drugs. Law enforcement officers use the same sobriety tests on suspected drunk drivers and suspected marijuana-impaired drivers, according to one local lawyer.

"I think (lawmakers) need to make some progress and updating the standards to evaluate if somebody is actually under the influence of marijuana and if that is actually affecting their driving right now," said Jeremy Loew, a Colorado Springs lawyer who specializes in DUI cases. "Police can say whatever they want and the District's Attorney is stuck with that."

Loew said lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and drivers are still learning about weed enforcement.

"The roadside maneuvers that they're using for marijuana are the same as that use for alcohol," he said, "but everyone knows that marijuana and alcohol impair you in different ways so it makes no sense that the roadside maneuvers that we've used alcohol for all of time is now being used for marijuana."

Drivers found to have more than 5 nanograms of THC - or tetrahydrocannabinol, a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - in their blood are considered impaired. Anyone suspected of impaired driving who declines a blood test will have their license revoked for at least one year, according to Colorado State Patrol.

But Loew said that the test doesn't prove the driver was high at the time.

"One of the flaws right now is that you can be presumed high while driving under the influence of drugs at only 5 nanograms," he said, "But you could have smoked a week ago and you're blood right now could be 5 nanongrams. So the fact that they have an arbitrary number like 5 nanograms makes that more difficult to defend the cases. And it's easier for the prosecution to say someone is under the influence of drugs."

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