The torturous journey through the Colorado legislature of a proposal to set a stoned-driving limit ended Tuesday, when the state Senate gave final approval to the plan.
The latest iteration of the proposal, House Bill 1325, now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he supports the plan. The bill sets a limit of active THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana — that drivers can have in their blood before juries can presume they were too high to drive.
Tuesday’s 24-11 vote in favor of the measure came without discussion and it belied the difficulty the proposal has had at the state Capitol. The bill was the sixth try in the past three years for supporters of a limit. Two separate but identical proposals — a stand-alone bill and a provision amended into a bill on recreational marijuana regulations — both failed earlier this year in Senate committees.
Supporters say the limit is needed to stem the rising tide of stoned-driving cases in Colorado, especially now that voters have legalized use of marijuana for adults.
“The reason I keep coming back,” Sen. Steve King, a Grand Junction Republican who sponsored the bill, said Monday, “is because the numbers are going the wrong way.”
Opponents of the plan say the science behind the limit is unsettled and that the bill could lead to sober drivers being convicted. Many worried that the bill would unfairly punish medical-marijuana patients.
“To take this standard and apply it to those who use (marijuana) as medicine is to me not appropriate,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.
The bill does not change anything about how police identify, stop, question or test stoned drivers. Except in extreme circumstances, drivers would have to give consent to have their blood drawn — though they could lose their licenses if they refuse a request for a blood test.
The bill’s impact is in the courtroom, where it creates a “permissive inference” — essentially a nudge — to juries that people with more than 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood were stoned. That is a smaller impact than in previous years, when versions of the bill made it an automatic conviction to drive with a THC blood level above the limit.
Ultimately, relaxing the standard proved the key to getting the bill through the legislature — though it took a last-minute bill and a careful committee assignment in the Senate to get it to Tuesday’s vote.
“We’ve come to a good compromise,” Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, said during debate on the bill Monday.
The stoned-driving bill was just one of three hotly debated measures on marijuana the Senate considered on Tuesday.
Shortly after passing the stoned-driving bill on a final vote, the Senate gave initial approval to a bill proposing sizable taxes on recreational marijuana. House Bill 1318 would impose a 15 percent excise tax and a sales tax initially set at 10 percent on pot. Voters will ultimately need to approve the taxes before they go into effect.
The first $40 million generated by the excise tax each year would go to school construction. The sales tax would be used to pay for regulation of marijuana stores.
“We have to make sure we collect enough money not to hurt other things,” said Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge. “This has to be a self-sustaining program.”
Opponents said the rates were set too high and would encourage marijuana sellers to keep buying from illegal dealers.
“I have a concern about the black market and the cartels just salivating at what is happening here at the Capitol and just hoping that over-taxation and over-regulation occurs,” said Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins.
The Senate on Tuesday morning also began debating House Bill 1317, a major bill on regulation for recreational marijuana businesses. Among the amendments the Senate adopted before breaking for lunch were a ban on incorporated marijuana collectives, a ban on mobile marijuana stores and a prohibition on city governments becoming pot retailers.
That last amendment blocks a proposal by Aurora officials that the city run its own pot shops.
If senators give initial approval Tuesday to HB 1317, both it and HB 1318 will need one more vote in the Senate. Changes the Senate made to the bills would need to be approved in the House before the bills could go to Hickenlooper.