Drugged driving

There is drunk driving and then there is drugged driving.  This brings up yet more unintended consequences of legalizing “victimless crimes.”  Colorado has legalized marijuana.  But while there are laws defining drunk driving, there are no laws clearly defining drugged driving.   While the level of alcohol in the blood that impairs performance is easy to determine, the amount of THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) that would impair driving is much harder to pinpoint.

From Brady Dennis and T.W. Farnam in the Washington Post:

DENVER — When is someone too stoned to drive?

The answer, it turns out, has been anything but simple in Colorado, which last fall became one of the first states in the country to legalize marijuana.

Prosecutors and some lawmakers have long pushed for laws that would set a strict blood-level limit for THC, the key ingredient in cannabis. A driver over the limit would be deemed guilty of driving under the influence, just as with alcohol.

Such legislation has failed several times in recent years in the face of fierce opposition from marijuana advocates and defense lawyers, who claim a one-size-fits-all standard doesn’t work for marijuana because it affects the body differently than alcohol.

On both sides, passions run high.

“I haven’t had a car accident since I was 18, and I’ve had marijuana in my system for most of that time,” said Paul Saurini, 39, one of numerous weed activists, or “wactivists,” who spoke out against setting a firm blood-level limit during a public hearing in the state capital this week.

“We have to create some standards to protect public safety. Not doing so, in my opinion, is reckless public policy,” said John Jackson, the police chief in nearby Greenwood Village. “Any time you legalize things like this, you’ll have more of it on the roadway. If we had vending machines with Oxycontin, there’d be more people on Oxycontin driving on the roadways. And that’s not safe.”

Since the passage of Amendment 64 in November, Colorado has been wrestling with the many questions of how to regulate the new marijuana reality, from how to tax it and monitor its growth to where people can buy it, sell it, smoke it and advertise it.

But drugged driving looms as one of the most critical and controversial issues. The outcome of Colorado’s struggle to shape marijuana-related DUI laws could have far-reaching implications, as a growing number of states approve marijuana for medical use and others consider legalizing the drug altogether.

via Too high to drive? Marijuana-friendly Colorado debates blood-level limits. – The Washington Post.

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  • Fr. Gregory Hogg

    Wouldn’t it make sense to conduct a scientific study to see the effects of THC on driving skills? We have realistic enough computer simulation of driving that it could all be done in a lab. Then let the results show what they do, and let the law be guided by the results.

  • sg

    @2 That would never work. Democrats and druggies are anti science. They have preconceived ideas and won’t let simple scientific facts sway them. In fact, they are so irrational they don’t even believe you are a person until after you are born.

  • Michael H.

    isn’t that the kind of rhetoric that helps make current political discourse so toxic? Whether from left or right?

  • Abby

    @3 Why should the “left” have all the fun?

  • Paul Reed


    Any pro-lifer who says that pro-aborts don’t believe the unborn are humans has never protested at an abortion clinic (and probably has a more limited group of acquaintances.) Because you quickly get an idea into how pro-aborts think on your first day protesting abortion. We interact with women getting abortions regularly, and they will admit they are killing their baby. If we had a nickel for every time we’ve heard the phrase from an aborting woman, “I know it’s wrong, and I’m planning to ask God for forgiveness later”. Same with the clinic workers who work there. and pro-aborts elsewhere. In fact, from what I’ve found, they often know the science better than we do. They just feel that a woman has absolutely no obligation to be pregnant against her will, and most importantly this: they have no fear of God.

  • Cincinnatus

    Wait, wait, wait. This is an entirely manufactured controversy:

    1) “Drugged driving” is already illegal, just like drunk driving. In fact, you can be arrested not only for driving under the influence of illegal drugs–like marijuana–but also legal prescription drugs that include warning labels about operating heavy equipment. No “new” DUI laws need to be written. I fail to see the issue here. Colorado isn’t “struggling” to write new laws to deal with a “new” situation. The laws already exist.

    2) “Drugged driving” is already a problem. People–lots of people–already drive under the influence of marijuana and other illegal (and legal!) drugs. Whether or not legalizing various drugs will exacerbate the problem is still an open question, but it’s not acceptable to reach a kneejerk conclusion without any evidence.

    3) The extent to which THC impairs one’s ability to drive is not an unfathomable mystery. Simple tests already exist–albeit not as simple as a breathalyzer. No, scientists have not reached a standard so simple as BAC to determine “legal” limits of THC. The consensus seems to be that a single dose of marijuana is sufficient to impair one’s driving capacity. In any case, studies are being done, and will continue to be done, until something like a standard is achieved–as was the case with studying the effects of alcohol. The point is that I fail to see how the temporary lack of a clear standard means that marijuana must be prohibited FOREVER. Right now, if cops think you’ve smoked even one joint before/while driving, you’re under arrest.

    So, the law isn’t unclear, the problem isn’t new, and standards exist and are improving. Where is the problem?

  • Joe

    It is just not true that Colorado law does not have a mechanism to handle drugged driving. Colorado has laws against driving under the influence of drugs and against driving while impaired by drugs. See footnote 2 in the link. http://tornado.state.co.us/gov_dir/leg_dir/olls/PDF/COLORADO%20DRUNK%20DRIVING%20LAWS.pdf

    Moreover, the Colorado statutes expressly state that the fact that the drug you are on is legal is not a defense to driving under its influence or while impaired by it.

    All that is happening is that various interested parties are trying to craft the law in a way that suits their interests. One side wants a THC blood limit similar to BAC and the other side does not want that and instead wants to continue as they already are and rely on the observations of the arresting officer to make the case for impairment. In other words, its not a crises; its the democratic process at work. And it is a battle that began well before the state legalized pot. (In fact, as the linked article points out even states with out any legal way to use marijuana have been having this debate).

    I don’t think most people realize you can get arrested in most, if not all states, for drunk driving regardless of you BAC. The BAC is simply an automatic “impairment” threshold regardless of the actual effects on the specific driver. But the laws also allow for the possibility of being found to be impaired even if you are under the “legal” BAC based on the arresting officers observations. That is exactly how Colorado has been handling drugged driving issues for years – remember they had medical marijuana prior to the resent legalization law.

    That is what this is about. It is not an unintended consequence of the new law – its not oh no what do we do now. Instead, its simply the continuation of the debate that has been ongoing in many states that asks the question: are THC blood level tests a smart and fair way to regulate driving under the influence of pot given the fact that residual THC will stay in the system long after its effects have worn off?

    What they don’t have is a comparable to the BAC testing that they use for alcohol, but here is what people are missing – in most if not all states you can be arrested and convicted for drunk driving without ever having any kind of a BAC test done on you. For example in Wisconsin, you are presumed to be driving under the influence at .08 but that is not the only way you can be convicted of drunk driving. If the cop sees you swerving, pulls you over, and determines you have been drinking either by smelling you or asking you and then gives you the roadside tests he can use all of that information to determine that you are under the influence and arrest you with out ever giving you a breath test or a blood draw.

  • Joe

    Sorry that last paragraph was supposed to get cut in my last edit of my comment. Its kind of redundant to the rest of the comment.

  • I guess I’m not entirely clear about the difference between DUI and DWI

  • Joe

    J @ 9 – different states use different phraseology to express what we think of as “drunk driving.” Colorado, the state we’re discussing, has two different prohibitions – “Driving Under the Influence” (DUI) of drugs and/or alcohol and Driving While Ability is Impaired (DWAI) by drugs and/or alcohol. A DUI is applicable at a higher level of impairment.

    Wisconsin has “OWI” Operating a vehicle While Intoxicated. A DWI is a reference to Driving While Intoxicated/Impaired.

  • Steve Bauer

    I guess I’m not entirely clear about the difference between DUI and DWI

    Oh, like, wow…I knew that when I came in here, man.

  • Jon

    People on ‘ludes should not drive!

    –Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times At Ridgemont High

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    If you are yelling “Dave ain’t here, man” you are too stoned to drive.

  • My take is to get a good THC limit, you just average the THC levels in the blood of the average driver in Boulder. :^)

    Seriously, Joe and Cincinnatus have it right. The argument is simply over whether a testable threshold for THC intoxication should be implemented. If indeed THC does, statistically, lead to impairment–and my experience around many potheads suggests that for many, it does–then we need to have a reasonable threshold set. It will not be perfectly correlated to driving risk, but at least it’ll have applicable alpha and beta errors.

    And Boulder is the plact to test it, as I’d swear (having lived around there for a dozen years) that half the drivers there are stoned already.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    A weak pun, but funny – people in Boulder being stoned…. )

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Can’t even get the smiley face right! 🙂 There.

  • kerner

    Wisconsin has a “Operating while impaired by controlled substances” law, and people are sometimes charged with it. The problem with enforcement is that it requires a blood draw and testing at the state Hygene Lab, and test results are now backed up for at least six months. This of course delays litigation ans wastes court time, etc. But the alternative is to hire more lab techs, and nobody wants to spend the money.

    If we are going to legalize more intoxicating substances then we will have to be prepared for things like this. All our decisions hve this kind of ripple effect. To engage in a particular activity and then regulate it generates all kinds of new laws and legal problems. It’s such a great time to be a lawyer. 😀

  • Klasie; I didn’t intend that pun, but I’ll gratefully take the blame for it. Thank you!

    There is a bumper sticker in the “People’s Republic of Boulder” that says “Boulder; where it’s easier to find pure heroin than a parking space.” I’ve never tried to find heroin anywhere, but I suspect it’s true.

    I’m sure Kerner and Joe would also recommend Madison for a test site. I’m not quite sure whether the participants would be the left-of-center legislators or the left-of center university there, though. :^)

  • SKPeterson

    In Washington State they have a limit set, but, as this video shows, the level is far below that which would impair a variety of people. What I thought was telling was the people smoking marijuana knew when they had reached their limits, unlike many people who drink.

  • SK, if the 3x leads to noticeable lowing and errors, that’s about the same as we’d expect at .08, no? We can quibble over whether the limit should be at Washington State’s level, or at perhaps twice that, but they’re at least in the ballpark. What they appear to be trying to do is to let people know they’d better not drive right after smoking a joint.

    OK, problem in Colorado solved without risking death by Boulder traffic!