A Senate committee has passed a THC driving bill considerably broader than one put on hold last year. Since then, there's been debate about how expensive the measure would be, with one report estimating the cost for the state's public defender's office at almost $600,000. But an attorney, former judge and marijuana advocate thinks the total price tag could be as much as five times higher.
"I'd be willing to say $3 million a year at absolute minimum," says Leonard Frieling. "And we often discover that the most crude of estimates is far more accurate than you would ever expect."
We first profiled Frieling last August. He's a member of LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, as well as a former municipal court judge for the City of Lafayette who quit his job in 2007 over marijuana policy.
These days, Frieling works as a lawyer and often represents clients charged with driving under the influence of drugs, a topic he discussed at length in a December post previewing a seminar on the subject. As such, he read with interest the Denver Post article linked above, which noted the state public defender's office estimate of almost $600,000 extra per year to defend drugged-driving cases under new rules that would establish a THC-impairment standard of five nanograms per milliliter of blood.
The science behind this number has been heavily questioned due to the way THC lingers in the system of users. Note that Westword medical marijuana critic William Breathes tested at nearly triple the proposed limit while sober last year. Moreover, the latest measure also imposes a zero-tolerance standard on all Schedule I and Schedule II drugs, including many prescription medications. Frieling believes all of these elements contribute to the overall cost of the bill.
"We need to include more than what it costs for public defenders," he says. "Think about it in terms of D.A. time: We pay for that. Court time: We pay for that. Trial time: We pay for that. And then there are the dollar demands on sick people who are appropriately prescribed medications and who are not impaired, or who are less impaired."
An example Frieling mentions in this last regard is Adderall, a Schedule II drug typically prescribed to patients with ADHD as a way of helping them better focus.
"When a person enters a guilty plea in court, every judge, every time, will look at the person and ask, 'Are you under the influence of any drugs, medication or alcohol that would interfere with your ability to think clearly today,'" he allows. "And frequently -- more than ten times -- I've had clients say, 'I'm taking Adderall.' The judge asks, 'That helps you think more clearly?' And the client will say, 'Absolutely. That's the reason I can understand what's going on today.'"
In other words, patients properly prescribed Adderall presumably are better drivers when medicated, not worse -- but the bill would mandate that such a person would be driving impaired if even a trace of it was found in his system. "Did I say hypocrisy?" Frieling asks. "Did I say irony?"
Unwarranted prosecutions would only add to expenses that Frieling sees as potentially staggering. "The cost in the public-defender budget is a significant cost when it comes to criminal court cases in the State of Colorado, but it's a smaller segment. You also have to look at the cost of training the police right on down to the cost of having them on the street to the cost of putting someone through the system who may be guilty or not guilty to the cost on the system itself and the cost on the individual and the system afterward. So $600,000 is the tip of the iceberg -- just a fraction of the actual cost. So I'm sticking with $3 million"
Granted, Frieling has a dog in this fight: The bill would make it much more difficult for attorneys like him to question whether their clients were actually impaired. But since, he says "there's already a 90 percent conviction rate under current law" and perhaps as few as sixty people in 2011 who weren't convicted after being accused of drugged driving, he sees no compelling need for the legislation. "Where's the problem they're solving?" he wonders.
Legislators "killed this bill once, so why are we back here?" he goes on. "And why does adding to it make it better? If your engine is bad, how does it make it better to put in a sun roof?"
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And a pricey one at that.
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More from our Marijuana archive: "THC-limit bill could ban many seniors and veterans from driving, activist says."