Recreational marijuana use became legal in Colorado in 2014. Since then, there have been different struggles related to the legislation. One of the biggest issues police officers face is how to handle people suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana.
Marijuana use is growing across the state, and several other states are moving to legalize marijuana use at varying levels. Because marijuana legalization is a relatively new situation, there are not many facts about the drug’s impact on driving. In addition, standard ways to test for marijuana-related impairment or convict people of driving while high are not yet known.
The current state law in Colorado dictates prosecution is possible if a person’s blood has more than five nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the element of marijuana that causes psychoactive effects. The law might seem straightforward, but THC can stay in the system for quite a while. Theoretically, a person could test positive for marijuana in their blood even though they used the drug days before and are no longer impaired.
There are other issues as well. Someone who uses marijuana medically might use it every day. They may have high levels of THC in their blood but not seem or feel like they’re impaired.
Marijuana Field Tests
When it comes to alcohol impairment, law enforcement officers will often perform field sobriety tests. These tests have been in place for decades, and they tend to show someone’s level of intoxication with a fair amount of accuracy. Most law enforcement officers also have quite a bit of experience with drivers who have been drinking alcohol. They know how to recognize the signs, such as slurred speech or the smell of alcohol.
The same level of information and experience isn’t available with marijuana. Currently, there are two primary approaches a law enforcement officer can take if they suspect someone is impaired from drugs. One way is a blood test, which has its aforementioned problems. Another route is the use of drug recognition experts. Drug recognition experts are specifically trained to identify impairment from a substance, and some Colorado State Patrol members have this certification.
Regardless, there is currently no consistent, reliable way for law enforcement officers to determine whether someone is impaired from marijuana use. Right now, it depends on an officer’s assessment at the time and their body camera footage, if it’s available.
In many of these cases, a plea deal is made. The person may pay a fine, but punishments in these scenarios aren’t as harsh as they are for a DUI. There is no impact on driving privileges in many situations.
New Laws and Regulations
Though Colorado is pioneering how to deal with marijuana use and driving, the state is dealing with other legal areas as well. Lawmakers have been weighing possible changes in legislation to account for situations where someone might drive under the influence of marijuana.
A bill proposed this year would have eliminated the 5-nanogram THC threshold and given law enforcement full decision-making power through the use of blood and field sobriety tests. However, opposition led to the shelving of this bill indefinitely.
Another issue remains for Colorado and other states with legalized marijuana. Since marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, the ability to research the topic is very limited. There’s likely to be quite a few bumps in the road as states start looking at the logistics of legal marijuana and its implications.
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Maiolo, Derek. “How High Is Too High? 5 Years After Legalization, Colorado Struggles to Test Marijuana Impairment for Drivers.” Steamboat Pilot, July 6, 2019. Accessed August 8, 2019.