Medical marijuana advocates are considering pushing their own bill to establish penalties for driving while under the influence of cannabis in an attempt to fight off a proposal by Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, which would establish much stricter guidelines.
Michael Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, told The Colorado Statesman that if King goes through with his driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) bill, then the trade association might find sympathetic lawmakers to introduce their own version, although they did not identify specific lawmakers to work with in the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 9.
At issue has been a threshold in King’s bill that sets a blood content of 5 nanograms per millimeter of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) in order to allow prosecutors to charge a driver with DUID.
“MMIG is considering pushing for a DUID bill that would implement the original policy recommendations of the Marijuana DUID Workgroup, which included increasing public education, enforcement of the current law, data collection and research,” said Elliot, referring to a workgroup created in 2011 by the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s Drug Policy Task Force. “We are also exploring impairment tests that are alternatives to highly intrusive blood tests.”
The issue has gained momentum again after Colorado voters backed the legalization of recreational marijuana. King attempted similar legislation in the past, but his attempts failed. He says he will be back again next year to introduce a similar DUID-marijuana bill, especially given the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“In 2011, we saw a 59-percent increase in the amount of people contacted for driving while under the influence of THC,” said King, who pointed out that the number has increased since Colorado voters in 2000 first legalized medical marijuana. “The constitutional legalization of that for recreational purposes potentially could increase those statistics because you still have an uneducated populous when it comes to thinking that they drive better when they’re high.”
King’s bill for the upcoming legislative session was first approved for introduction by the interim Transportation Legislation Review Committee on Sept. 14. But he said the proposal was killed when it was brought to an executive council session. That means King will be introducing the bill by himself, without the support of the Transportation Committee.
He chuckled that after watching his bill die in at least four previous sessions, “You should be open to all possible options.” But he says he will not allow the industry to force him into a watered down version that does not accomplish increasing safety.
“If you’re saying, ‘Well, we want you to compromise on a 15 nanogram per whole blood level,’ I mean, that’s foolish; that accomplishes nothing,” said King.
He acknowledged that voters endorsed marijuana this month, but he says that does not diminish the intent of his legislation.
“I am not a true believer when it comes to the idea that it’s the devil’s weed and you have to be a true believer in the fight against it,” he said. “It’s obvious that the people of Colorado have spoken. My concern is the health and safety of the traveling public and the people in our state.”
Elliott, however, said his group is not willing to bargain on the 5 nanogram threshold. He points out that traffic fatalities have decreased in Colorado in the years since medical marijuana proliferation.
“Such a standard is not supported by the science, and would undermine basic principles of criminal justice such as the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “We will continue working with the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, the DUI Task Force and the Colorado Department of Transportation on efforts to reduce impaired driving in Colorado.”
Task force assembling to implement marijuana regulation
As both sides work on their respective DUID bills, lawmakers are also seeking ways to implement comprehensive rules and regulations that will govern marijuana legalization in Colorado.
House Speaker-elect Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, has proposed that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office assemble a task force to discuss a package of bills that would respect the will of Colorado voters. The electorate on Nov. 6 sent a mandate to policy makers to regulate marijuana, including potential retail.
“It was just an idea I threw out there about trying to figure out how we can deal with it in a sensible and constructive way, while not having a billion bills introduced and trying to figure out the policy during the session,” Ferrandino told The Statesman.
The governor’s office declined to comment on the implementation of the task force.
The legislature next year is required under Amendment 64 to craft a regulatory model for recreational marijuana.
Proponents had little information about the task force when asked by The Statesman. But their first question is, who will make up the advisory board?
“We have been chatting offline with various government officials about the need for a proponent, at least one proponent, on such a task force, and it seems like maybe they’re going to ramp this up by the end of the month. But beyond that, they’ve been kind of mum,” said Brian Vicente, co-author of Amendment 64.
“I think if you can get the right people in the room that are committed to implementing the will of Colorado voters, then that will be a positive thing, and I think accomplishing that in a task force versus spending five months at the legislature hammering through this whole thing makes sense to me,” he added.