NORML exec predicts THC driving bill's return, hopes for improvement

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Update: As we reported below, the much-debated THC driving bill died because Senator Nancy Spence, whose vote made the difference between passage and failure, was on vacation. But even as opponents of the measure celebrate this left-field victory, Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, which issued an action alert about the proposal, believes the concept will be back -- and if written properly, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

"Just from a legislative standpoint, this was an aberration," says St. Pierre in reference to Spence, who told the Denver Post she was willing to fly back to Colorado from California, where she was marking her grandson's birthday, to vote for the bill but couldn't do so because of communication mix-ups. "It doesn't sound like it wound itself out -- but it brings up a larger discussion.

"Colorado, more than any other state, has legalized medical marijuana use, but law enforcement is so opposed to any cannabis use, even if you're sitting at home, that the subject of public safety logically follows. So there are disparate forces at work...and one imagines that the forces for reform, if you will, for having an impaired standard are going to come back in the next session and likely have all the ducks lined up to pass it."

St. Pierre includes NORML among these reformers, at least at a conceptual level: "From NORML's pragmatic point of view, why not have some reasonable standard?" he asks. But there are problems: "For almost a dozen years, the federal government has been fumbling and bumbling around the science and pharmacology of cannabis, and despite all the impetus and money available to it, they still have not produced any cogent science or regulations that would instruct anybody what the impairment levels truly are regarding cannabis. And more important, how long after using cannabis can you safely drive?"

Those who fought the bill believe its limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood was too low, since THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, tends to linger in the systems of frequent users such as patients. Note that medical marijuana reviewer William Breathes registered at nearly triple that figure while sober after a blood test last year. As such, he's intrigued by a last-minute proposal by the Medical Marijuana Industry Group to raise that number to 15 nanograms -- not that he thinks it would be a political cakewalk to get such a standard approved.

"It's not like Australia and Germany and other countries haven't also been dealing with this issue for thirty years or more," he says. "But usually those numbers, to the extent that any are ever established, are on the conservatively low side, deferring mainly to law enforcement's concern. But 15 nanograms would definitely create a larger scope for patients and consumers not to be unnecessarily ensnared in the criminal justice system. There is a cogent argument to be made that there's not a great level of impairment at that level, and at the same time, that degree of measurement would not create such a catch all. It's something you could actually pass with the support of industry -- with the idea that industry/advocates could sit down with the institutions and come up with reasonable standards both sides could agree on."

Still, he goes on, "nobody at the state or federal level, or even in other countries, has really been attracted to rounding those numbers upward. When you go to federal seminars and what not, they have dreams and visions of getting down to 1 nanogram. And insurance companies are arguing for lower numbers, too, and they have much more sway than we as reformers do, to put the heavy hand of commerce into this discussion."

Of course, these are topics for another day -- one St. Pierre expects will come sooner rather than later.

Here's a comment about the defeat of the bill from MMIG executive director Michael Elliott, followed by our previous coverage.

MMIG statement:

Our main concern with the 5 nanogram per se DUID bill is that it is unnecessary and would criminalize the innocent. Colorado's current DUID law, which bans driving while impaired to the slightest degree, has been successful and fair. We support Colorado's current law, which has a 90 percent conviction rate and has led to a 19 percent reduction in traffic fatalities over the last four years. We will continue partnering with state agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Transportation, to build awareness about the dangers of drugged driving, and to help make our roads safer.

We would especially like to thank the UFCW, CBA, ACT4CO, Sensible Colorado, CSMCC, and many others who put in so much time and effort to defeat this bill. It was great working with everyone.

Update, 2:56 p.m. May 15: Earlier today, Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente sketched out a scenario under which the THC driving bill, which looked like a lock, might actually fail. He cited reports that one senator who'd previously supported the measure would be gone, leading to a tie vote dooming the legislation. Turns out he was right: The DUID bill appears to finally be dead for this term -- and all because Nancy Spence was on vacation.

In 2011, Spence backed further study for a THC driving bill that was nearly identical to this year's version after sections pertaining to Schedule I and II narcotics were stripped out for budgetary reasons. Second time around, however, she changed her vote and backed the legislation, which passed the Democratic-controlled Senate by an 18-17 count. She has not responded to multiple interview requests from Westword.

Cut to last week, when Governor John Hickenlooper called for a special session due largely to the death of the civil unions bill -- which expired again last night. However, he also designated six other measures that he wanted lawmakers to address, and the THC driving bill was among them. The proposal started out in the Republican-controlled House, which approved it with lightning speed -- and since the Senate had already given its blessing, the bill seemed bound for Hickenlooper's desk.

But no: Spence was gone on vacation, according to an e-mail from Senator Pat Steadman currently being circulated among members of the marijuana community. Everyone else present voted as before, leading to a 17-17 tie that couldn't be broken despite several attempts to do so.

In our earlier conversation, Vicente thought such a result would trigger a tiebreaker of some sort. That didn't prove to be the case: A deadlock wound up being the equivalent of an outright rejection.

In the coming days, expect to hear debate about whether the special session was a loss for Hickenlooper due to the demise of the civil unions and THC driving bills, or if he's playing a long game and hopes Democrats can use the legislative spectacle against Republicans during the November elections. Whatever the case, though, the driving measure is in the garage until the next legislative session at the earliest.

Look below to read our previous coverage.

Original post, 10:38 a.m. May 15: This year's special session gave new life to a pair of marijuana-related measures -- a THC driving bill and a proposal to shift millions in patient registry fees to help fund the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. The latter legislation has now been declared dead, says Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, while the former seems headed for approval. But Vicente is hearing about a scenario that could stop it short of the finish line.

"There's been no shortage of action," says Vicente. He's particularly pleased at the success of a bill that sanctions a soil-remediation program using hemp, a marijuana relative sans psychoactive properties, as a filtering agent.

"It's on its way to the governor's desk and waiting to be signed," he points out, "and we think that's really a massive, progressive step forward in drug policy in Colorado to recognize that hemp has been unfairly maligned for all these years. For the state to step forward in using it for one of its many practical purposes is worth noting." He adds that Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, for which he's a prominent proponent, includes language "tasking the state legislature with establishing a licensing system that would allow farmers to grow and process and distribute hemp" for industrial uses that range "from construction supplies to paper to fuel to food."

As for the MMED bill, "it died on a party-line vote," Vicente confirms. "So that money" -- nearly $10 million worth -- "will remain with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and their patient registry fund. It's our hope that they'll use it to actually speed up the process, speed up issuing red cards and assist patients with that money, and that the MMED will tighter its belt and bring in more money through licensing fees and so forth to keep functioning."

Sensible Colorado "had mixed reactions to that bill," he goes on. "We certainly believe patients deserve to have well-regulated storefronts to access their medicine from, and MMED plays a crucial role in licensing and overseeing those businesses. But at the same time, we were concerned that the money to pay for that was coming directly through patient fees. They're really supposed to stay with the health department and foster that program in terms of producing red cards in a timely fashion. So it seemed like a little bit of a bait-and-switch. But now, that money will stay with the health department, and I have no doubt MMED will continue to function in a meaningful way. They'll just have to do more with less."

Regarding the THC driving bill, Vicente tells us it's expected to pass the House this morning, right about the time of this item's publication. "But then, I think it's really anyone's guess about what's going to happen," he says. "Some people believe it's going to sail through the Senate. But we're hearing some other things."

Specifically, Vicente cites information that one Senate supporter of the bill may not be present for a vote. If that's the case, and if all the other senators stick with their previous positions, the result could be a tie. (The Senate previously approved the bill by an 18-17 margin.) Under this scenario, Vicente suspects Senate leadership, which is in the hands of Democrats, would be called upon to cast a tie-breaking vote. Whether that would mean passage or rejection is unclear, but it would make the results less certain than they currently appear.

Vicente isn't ready to predict an outcome one way or the other. "The DUID bill has been a rollercoaster for the past two years," he maintains. "People keep saying it's going to pass, but it keeps finding a way not to. So we'll just have to wait and see."

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More from our Comment of the Day archive: "Reader: Activist ready to go to jail to fight THC driving bill."

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