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THC driving bill up for final reading, activist fears passage after previous failed attempts

Yesterday, most of the drama at the State Capitol involved an Amendment 64 repeal proposal that fell short. But while that was happening, a THC driving standard proposal that had apparently been killed by a Senate committee last month not only rose from the dead but passed two readings. It's headed to the Senate floor today, and marijuana attorney Warren Edson, who's been updating us on a measure he sees as dangerous and unjust, thinks only a massive response from opponents can prevent it from becoming law.

On April 1, we published "Marijuana: THC driving bill continues steady march to passage," and the headline accurately reflected the measure's progress at that time. But over the course of the next several weeks, the proposal to establish an intoxication standard of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood -- a limit based on what critics see as dubious or nonexistent evidence -- suddenly hit a major roadblock.

As we've reported, the measure was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee. (The Senate rejected similar bills in 2011 and 2012.) But the concept still had a lot of support in the House and among law enforcement groups, who wrote in a letter to Governor John Hickenlooper and other officials that passing legislation without the THC standard would be irresponsible.

Supporters subsequently affixed a hefty amendment about the THC standard to HB 1317, the main bill to regulate and implement Amendment 64. Last week, Edson described the twenty pages or so of material as "just the same, regurgitated stuff from the original bill," but made "bigger and broader by absorbing the standard DUI language. All they did was cut and paste the DUI statutes we've already got on the books into the bill."

Shortly thereafter, HB 13-1325 -- the original measure nixed by the judiciary committee -- was reintroduced. (See it below.) For a time, both it and HB 1317, which contained the same driving-standard restrictions, were moving forward simultaneously. But Edson speculated that the language would be stripped out of the larger bill -- and he feared that the separate proposal would fly under the radar, winning approval from senators more focused on the larger proposal.

That's precisely what happened. Speaking this morning, Edson says "they stuck it onto the big bill, 1317, and tried to get it to stick -- but when that ran the risk of tanking the big bill, they created a new, little bill. It's the same 22 pages that was in 1317, but taking it out removed the controversy -- and it passed two readings yesterday.

Here's the measure's legislative history to date:

03/09/2012 Introduced In House - Assigned to Judiciary 03/27/2012 House Committee on Judiciary Refer Amended to Appropriations 04/17/2012 House Committee on Appropriations Refer Unamended to House Committee of the Whole 04/19/2012 House Second Reading Laid Over Daily 04/23/2012 House Second Reading Passed with Amendments 04/24/2012 House Third Reading Passed 04/25/2012 Introduced In Senate -- Assigned to Judiciary 05/04/2012 Senate Committee on Judiciary Refer Amended to Appropriations 05/08/2012 Senate Committee on Appropriations Refer Amended to Senate Committee of the Whole

Is there anything that can stop the bill at this point?

Continue for more about the THC driving bill.  

Rhonda Fields, sponsor of the THC driving bill, flanked by Governor John Hickenlooper and Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia.
Rhonda Fields, sponsor of the THC driving bill, flanked by Governor John Hickenlooper and Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia.

"It sure looks like it's en route to passage," Edson says, "unless a whole lot of folks call and let their representatives know this morning that they don't want it to pass."

Problem is, Edson doesn't see a powerful opponent to the bill, especially within the community of marijuana advocates, many of whom appear to have been placated by a language shift that slightly alters the latest bill from its two failed predecessors.

As we've explained, the legislation from 2011 and 2012 would have made the five nanograms standard per se -- meaning that a test registering five nanograms or more would be seen as irrefutable proof of intoxication.

Critics countered that because THC tends to linger in users for longer periods of time, it's next to impossible to determine actual impairment via a blood test, at least under currently available technology. So this year, the five nanogram limit was left in place, but the per se language was replaced by "permissible inference," which would allow people who register at five nanograms or above to present other evidence to prove that they weren't actually impaired, rather than being considered guilty as a result of the test reading.

Marijuana attorney Rob Corry sees this change as only a slight improvement over the previous legislation, making the new proposal 95 percent bad as opposed to 100 percent. But Representative Rhonda Fields, who sponsored the latest bill, feels the change takes care of most objections -- and supporters such as the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) feel likewise.

Momentum is certainly on the bill's side -- but that was true in 2011 and 2012, as well. Perhaps an unexpected political twist can still derail it, Edson says: "Last year, we had Republicans hating civil unions more than they loved DUID [driving under the influence of drugs] regulations. Maybe there's hope the Republicans will hate tuition benefits for children of undocumented individuals...."

Still, Edson goes on, "I'm not quite seeing that scenario playing out this year." And if the bill passes, the only way Hickenlooper won't sign it, he believes, "is if he drinks more fracking fluid."

To him, the prospect of the bill becoming law is flat-out appalling. In his view, "it's based on poor-to-no science and is going to end up with innocent people being punished and incarcerated."

Here's the bill, followed by contact information for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee; it was recently shared in a post by Westword medical marijuana critic William Breathes:

HB 13-1325: Reintroduced Driving Under the Influence of Drugs Bill

Lucia Guzman, Chair Capitol phone: 303-866-4862 E-mail: lucia.guzman.senate@state.co.us

Jessie Ulibarri, Vice-Chair Capitol phone: 303-866-4857 E-mail: jessie.ulibarri.senate@state.co.us

Irene Aguilar Capitol phone: 303-866-4852 E-mail: irene.aguilar.senate@state.co.us

Steve King Capitol phone: 303-866-3077 E-mail: steve.king.senate@state.co.us

Kevin Lundberg Capitol phone: 303-866-4853 E-mail: kevin@kevinlundberg.com

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: THC driving bill back from the dead, but will it get vote on Senate floor?"


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