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Too Stoned To Drive? Marijuana DUI Bill Passes Colorado House

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A bill that sets a legal limit for THC in a motorist's bloodstream passed in the Colorado House on Tuesday.

Under House Bill 1114, drivers caught with 5 nanograms THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the "high" sensation, in their blood would be considered to be driving under the influence of marijuana and could be ticketed similarly to a person who was considered to be too drunk to drive.

HB-1114 now needs one more vote in the House before it goes to the Senate. Read the full text of HB-1114 here.

"This is about traffic safety in the state of Colorado," said bill sponsor Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), The Denver Post reports.. "This bill will send a very strong message that no longer can you get behind the wheel after smoking marijuana."

This is the fourth time in three years that the state House has supported a marijuana DUI bill, however all previous attempts have failed in the Senate in years past. But this year, Rep. Mark Waller (R-Colorado Springs), the bill's other sponsor, thinks that a standard blood-THC limit is more critical with the passage of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults.

As in previous years when marijuana DUI bills have come up for debate, opponents say that the 5 nanogram standard is too low for frequent pot smokers, especially medical marijuana patients, who regularly have this level of THC in the bloodstream and therefore, if passed, these people would lose their driving privileges, The Denver Post reports.

But Waller says that this bill is different than the previous bills because it allows for a person who has been charged with having 5 nanograms of THC in their blood to rebut the charge that they are too impaired to drive, according to 7News.

"For example, if you did not exhibit poor driving, you can put that on as evidence to say, 'Look my driving was not poor, I'm not unsafe to operate a motor vehicle,'" Waller said during the hearing.

Waller also said he would have preferred this bill to be a so-called "per se" limit bill -- all three of the previous failed marijuana DUI bills were "per se" bills -- meaning if a driver tested above the legal 5 nanogram limit, the result would be an automatic conviction nearly every time.

But are drivers measurably impaired while under the influence of marijuana like they clearly are when under the influence of alcohol? That has been one of the core questions opponents of the bill have been asking about bills like these each year they are introduced. Westword spoke to Attorney Leonard Frieling in 2012 over last year's marijuana DUI bill who described the clear correlation between blood alcohol level and driving impairment -- the higher the blood alcohol level, the more impaired drivers are. But he questions the correlation between marijuana blood levels and driving impairment saying to Westword, "that appears not to hold true as cleanly with cannabis. So talking about impaired driving is one thing, but trying to give a number a meaning it doesn't have is something else entirely."

Last year Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) spoke out about the issues that make marijuana blood limits problematic like the fact that THC is fat-soluable, so blood limits could remain above the 5 nanogram limit for days after the user last legally smoked pot, CBS4 reported. The user would not appear stoned, but legally they could still be considered impaired. With this thinking in mind, Steadman tried and failed to exempt medical marijuana patients in the bill.

This fact of THC's different effect on the body than alcohol's was stunningly shown in 2011 by Westword pot reporter William Breathes. After a night of sleep and not smoking pot for 15 hours, a sober Breathes still tested nearly three times higher than the proposed legal limit.

To add confusion to the matter, Washington state television station KIRO recently assembled a group of volunteers, had them smoke pot and set them loose on a driving test course to try and answer the question: How high is too high to drive?

The less-than-scientific results, while entertaining, unfortunately don't add much clarity to the question at hand. A regular smoker of marijuana tested above the legal limit to begin with, yet drove without much of a problem. Two casual smokers also navigated the course without incident. However, after smoking more marijuana, driving ability began to devolve quickly.

Washington state voters, along with voters in Colorado, passed recreational marijuana amendments last November, but Washington, unlike Colorado, already passed a marijuana DUI bill in 2012 setting the legal impairment standard at 5 nanograms in the state.

And in Washington, the enforcement of the law ultimately comes down to common sense. Explains Bob Calkins, a Washington State Patrol spokesman, to The Oregonian, "We don't just pull people over and draw blood... If you're driving OK, we're not going pull you over. But driving impaired is still driving impaired." Watch KIRO's full stoned driving segment here.

The bill now advances to the House Appropriations Committee for another vote.

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