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Lawmaker in Colorado seeks to snuff out drivers who are stoned

A Colorado lawmaker wants to send a message to drivers: Don’t toke and drive.

In February, Colorado state Sen. Steve King introduced a bill that would limit the amount of marijuana that motorists can have in their blood before they’re considered too stoned to drive.

In a Denver Post article, King, a Republican, was quoted as saying, "The privilege of smoking marijuana should stop at the vehicle door." He added that stoned drivers have been the cause of several traffic deaths in recent years.

marijuana_colorado"How many dead is the number that will cause us to act?" King asked.

King’s bill creates a per se limit for THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high. If passed, it would be a crime for Colorado drivers to have more than 5 nanograms of THC per millimeter of blood in their systems. (That's about three to five puffs on a joint).

It’s already against the law to drive in Colorado while impaired by drugs. But as things stand right now, prosecutors must prove in court that a suspect was impaired, rather than police officers determining so at the time of an arrest. The proposed limit would sidestep that process, as it would presume a driver was impaired above the limit (the same way it works with drunken driving).

This isn’t the first time Colorado has wrestled with the problem of stoned drivers. Lawmakers rejected a similar bill in 2011; they said the proposed limits were too low and could entangle clear-headed drivers along with stoned ones. Similar objections are coming back this time around, with several opponents of the bill saying the science behind marijuana impairment is too inconclusive at this point to warrant such legislation.

One of the bill’s critics is state Sen. Morgan Carroll, who was quoted by Denver Westword as saying that she still hasn't seen enough science to support any type of nanogram limit.

"I've seen ranges from 5 to 20 nanograms, which is a profound range of variation," said Carroll, a Democrat. "And it's already against the law to drive intoxicated. So if you're going to add pot per se, it's because you think you have enough scientific data to establish a point where people become impaired."

According to Cynthia Burbach, the state's forensic toxicologist, Colorado has been processing an increasingly high number of drugged-driver tests. In 2009, the state tested 8,625 samples from suspected impaired drivers. While most were tested for alcohol, 791 samples tested positive for THC, including 222 with more than 5 nanograms. In 2011, the state tested 10,393 samples, with 2,030 positive for THC. Of those, 574 had more than 5 nanograms of THC.

In some ways, King's bill goes even further than the one in 2011. For instance, it also would make it a crime to drive after taking any amount of Schedule I controlled substances -- drugs like heroin and LSD that have no known medical use and a high potential for abuse. It also would create a "permissible inference" that drivers are impaired if they test positive for any amount of a Schedule II controlled substance — drugs that may have a medical use but also have the potential for abuse and addiction, including oxycodone and codeine.

"Quite frankly, I think it's time we cleared the smoke out of this," King told the Denver Post. "If you drive high, it's against the law, it puts people's lives at risk, and you should deal with the consequences of making that bad decision."

Thirteen states have per se DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) laws on the books: Arizona, Utah, Illinois, Iowa, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island and Delaware. For a list of those laws and their penalties, visit the website of the pro-pot group NORML website. For a rundown of every state’s laws regarding marijuana and motorists, visit norml.org/legal/drugged-driving.

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