Driving stoned

Proposed limit is a good start, and this time, pot DUI bill has bipartisan support

When it comes to drug policy, Colorado voters have been known to let their enthusiasm get way out in front of their common sense.

Medical marijuana? Great. Figuring out how to regulate it? Boring. Decriminalize use of the drug? Yes! Keep recreational use from harming others? Not so fast.

For the third year in a row, the Colorado Legislature will consider a bill to set a legal limit for driving while under the influence of marijuana. Let’s get it done.

The process is not as simple as legislating limits for driving under the influence of alcohol. As with alcohol, individuals react differently, but at some level, everyone is impaired. The challenge is to accurately identify impairment while not harassing everyone who smells like pot – which, for better or worse, is now legal. There is no effective breath test.

So lawmakers have crafted a bill that sets 5 nanograms of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) per milliliter of blood as the legal limit, but they have also built in a process by which individuals – for example, medical marijuana users whose blood levels are chronically high – can demonstrate that they are capable of driving safely. With that inclusion, they hope they can finally get a bill passed.

The absence of a concrete standard will place a higher burden on law-enforcement officers and prosecutors to demonstrate that drivers were acting dangerously. There may be little incentive for drivers to simply pay the fine, and they may clog court dockets, at least initially. Identifiable standards should emerge soon, and as drivers realize that convictions are being achieved, they will develop respect for the law and those trying to enforce it.

They should. Supporters say in 2011, the last year for which such data is available, alcohol was identified as a factor in 13 percent of “deadly crashes” in Colorado. How many of those drivers were impaired by the consumption of alcohol and other drugs is not apparent from that statistic, but there is no doubt that marijuana use can slow reflexes and contribute to accidents.

Of course, DUI accident fatalities and injuries are not limited to impaired drivers. Their passengers, pedestrians and unimpaired occupants of other vehicles and their passengers all are at risk.

Colorado needs a way to keep marijuana-impaired drivers off the road. It has always needed a way to do that, but first medical marijuana and then decriminalization have drawn marijuana use out of the dark and multiplied the number of users out in public.

While the mechanics of the law must be different because the drug is different, the public interest served by such a law is the same as those served by prohibitions against driving while impaired by alcohol. Impairment, not use, is the issue, and it is a real one.

This bill may not prove to be a perfect solution, but it is a good beginning that can be refined as time goes on. It makes no sense to pretend that pot-smokers are not driving, and that none of them are impaired by their use of the drug.