Marijuana: THC driving bill continues steady march to passage

As we've reported, legislation to set THC driving standards in Colorado has failed twice before. However, a new version that also tweaks alcohol DUI rules won unanimous approval during its first House committee hearing in late February.

Momentum for the bill has not flagged in the month-plus since then. Today, it was favorably reported out of the appropriations committee. It'll next head to the House floor, where it faces little organized opposition. Why the change?

We put that question to Representative Rhonda Fields, a co-sponsor of the latest measure, HB 13-1114; read it below in its entirety. In her view, "the reason this bill is different is because it has a permissible inference in it. The previous bill had a per se limit."

To explain: The legislation from 2011 and 2012 would have established THC intoxication at five nanograms per milliliter of blood and made this standard per se -- meaning that a test registering five nanograms or more would be seen as irrefutable proof of intoxication. But critics argued 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.

This year, the five nanogram limit is still in place, but the per se language is gone, 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 Fields disagrees -- and she cites the support of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) as another key factor in the gathering support.

Granted, there are plenty of people who continue to believe a five nanogram limit doesn't measure intoxication in a consistent, predictable way. They argue that medical marijuana patients, who use cannabis regularly, can register at well over this limit even when they're not intoxicated -- something demonstrated by Westword MMJ critic William Breathes. During a 2011 test, he scored nearly three times beyond five nanograms when sober.

Fields, though, doesn't see the conviction of innocent people as a likely outcome of the measure. "The bill looks for active THC in the system, not inactive THC," she stresses. "If someone is a chronic user, like medical marijuana patients who use it as part of their treatment, we won't be looking at something that's residue. We'll only be looking at the active THC level."

Moreover, patients or others who believe they weren't intoxicated despite a five-nanogram-plus reading will be able to make an argument in court, as opposed to simply having to accept their fate.

The bill had to pass the appropriations committee because of what Fields calls "some funding aspects." However, the committee has now moved it along in the process. Fields expects that it will soon be scheduled for action on the House floor.

Look below to see the bill, followed by the CCJJ recommendation -- which, interestingly enough, features negative discussion points that are longer than the positive ones.

House Bill 13-1114: Marijuana Driving Standards

THC Driving Bill Recommendation

More from our Marijuana archive: "Driving-while-stoned videos help fuel momentum of THC driving bill."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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