Driving While Buzzed to Become Illegal

A new Colorado law would make it unlawful to drive while intoxicated with specific levels of THC.

Colorado is inching closer to enacting a reactionary bill that would make it a crime to drive a vehicle with more than a certain amount of the main active ingredient in marijuana — THC — in the bloodstream. Designed to mimic laws for drunken driving, the Colorado medical cannabis community says the bill is wrongheaded and unjust, and if it passes, it may be a dark omen for other medical marijuana states.

The bill, HB 1261, passed the Colorado House of Representatives 51 to 14 last week and then moved to the Senate — the second of three main steps for the bill to become law. Co-authored by Democratic Representative Claire Levy, the bill makes driving with more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood in your body a crime. “This act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety,” the bill states. Of course, any THC in the blood remains a federal crime.

However, the five-nanogram limit is arbitrary and unscientific, and there’s no evidence showing medical cannabis patients have made the roads more dangerous, notes Kathleen Chippi, medical marijuana activist with the Cannabis Therapy Institute in Boulder.

The US Food and Drug Administration also has already in effect approved of driving while under the influence of THC when it comes to the prescription drug Marinol. The FDA label for Marinol warns patients not to drive until “it is established that they are able to tolerate the drug and to perform such tasks safely.”

That’s because the effects of THC can vary depending on numerous factors, the biggest of which is tolerance. California physician David Bearman looked at the research on the topic and concluded: “High levels of blood THC, (< =10 ng/ml), are a good sign of having used marijuana in the last hour or two. The problems are that (1) blood levels are highly variable and (2) have no clear-cut relation to actual impairment, i.e., 'being under the influence.'"

For example, researchers in the Netherlands got drivers stoned in 1994, put them on actual roads and found: “Plasma of drivers showing substantial impairment in these studies contained both high and low THC concentrations; and, drivers with high plasma concentrations showed substantial impairment, but also no impairment, even some improvement.”

Another 1993 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration found: “Of the many psychotropic drugs, licit and illicit, that are available and used by people who subsequently drive, marijuana may well be among the least harmful. Campaigns to discourage the use of marijuana by drivers are certainly warranted. But concentrating a campaign on marijuana alone may not be in proportion to the safety problem it causes.”

If HB 1261 passes, it will re-criminalize the sick and dying for driving to the pharmacy. The bill may be discriminatory, as well, because women tend to have more fat in their bodies than men. THC is fat soluble, so it stays around in women’s bodies longer than men’s.

Chippi said Levy is pushing the bill because she “wants to get ready for full legalization.” Chippi said Levy told her: “‘People in the state need to feel better about the fact that they are driving with people who smoke pot.'” But Chippi noted that Coloradans have “been driving with people who smoke pot for seventy years.”

Rather than set arbitrary limits, Colorado should study the issue, Chippi said. If local results differ from the consensus of numerous national and international researchers — then craft appropriate legislation.

But the “legislate-first-think-second” approach is a historic pastime in America. It’s so endemic that the Obama administration issued an unprecedented memo in 2009, saying policy should be based on “science, not ideology.” We’re not holding our breath.

Seeds and Stems

The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office sent sixty letters last week to local dispensaries ordering them to close. It’s part of LA’s crackdown on hundreds of unlicensed clubs. About one hundred dispensaries have been accepted into a lottery to win city permits, while several hundred more didn’t enter. Those dispensaries received letters throughout March ordering them to close. A dispensary owner in Reseda who qualified for the lotto and wishes to remain anonymous said the Southern California medical marijuana culture is politically inept due to disorganization, greed, and black market ties. No date has been set for LA’s pot lotto.

The Arizona Department of Public Health published final rules for its new medical marijuana industry Monday — setting up a billion-dollar, legal business in the state. Arizona voters narrowly approved of legalizing marijuana for medical use in November and told the health department to set up a seed-to-sale regulatory framework for the drug. As in California, Arizona patients can get a doctor’s recommendation of marijuana for many ailments, including “severe and chronic pain.” They then pay $150 to get an Arizona state ID card. Patients and their caregivers can then grow their own if no dispensary exists with 25 miles of their homes. Meanwhile, dispensaries must pay $5,000 to apply for one of about one hundred permits to grow and sell medical marijuana as a non-profit, starting June 1.

A different sort of pot convention comes to Richmond’s Craneway Pavilion on April 23. From the creators of Earthdance, Deep Green promises an “information-intense, and intensely fun fourteen-hour Earth Day celebration featuring a holistic exploration of the cannabis plant.” Oakland rap duo The Coup and Heavyweight Dub Champion MC Yogi are among the performers scheduled to complement an array of keynote speakers, expert panels, workshops. Exhibitors will show off gourmet natural foods, along with a medical dispensary showcase and vapor lounge. The event costs $20.


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