Evan: What It Means to ‘Get High’ in the Mile High State

In this Nov. 19, 2012 photo, prepared marijuana is displayed for sale for those who posses a medical marijuana card, inside a dispensary in the small Rocky Mountain town of Nederland, Colo. On Nov. 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington state legalized its recreational use. (Credit: AP)

Marijuana enthusiasts in Colorado have been riding high ever since Amendment 64 took effect a few months ago, and with good reason. In the previous decade, the Centennial State averaged roughly 10,000 arrests per year for possession of cannabis, and booking a single drug offender can cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. Legalizing the devil’s lettuce and the cost savings thereof should delight stoners and fiscal conservatives alike.

Alas, implementing an unprecedented policy is not as simple as “puff-puff pass.” Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order in December that enshrined the voters’ will in the state Constitution. Since then, adults—21 or older—have been permitted to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and home-grow a handful of cannabis plants. Despite the initial clarity afforded by the governor’s proclamation, important questions remained.

How much will marijuana cost in a legal, regulated market? How much will it be taxed? Who will be allowed to sell it? How will the law treat business owners, drivers, and out-of-state residents?

In addition to simply formalizing the vote on election night, Hickenlooper’s directive created a task force charged with working through these challenges and recommending policies to lawmakers. The amalgam of state representatives, medical marijuana advocates, and law enforcement officials wrapped up the bulk of its duties last week and presented its proposals.

The task force’s eighty-day turnaround on a complex policy problem is commendable, especially as our federal government seems to bungle every issue of national importance. Mandatory child-proof packaging and potency labels, a ban on public smoking, and even restrictions on advertising are commonsense regulations that any sane marijuana advocate should embrace with alacrity. However, some of the task force’s other recommendations will likely stir anxiety among Colorado’s pot aficionados.

One of the more controversial policies would allow employers to fire staff members for using marijuana off the job. In general, workplace authorities should have every right to ensure a drug-free environment whether it’s banning marijuana on company property or prohibiting employees from smoking pot or being high while at work. However, anyone who values liberty and privacy should be gravely concerned by the prospect of workers being punished for exercising legal rights away from the workplace.

While the laws vary state by state, tobacco and alcohol users in Colorado are protected under a broad statue that prohibits the “unlawful prohibition of legal activities as a condition of employment.” Marijuana should fall under the category of “legal activities,” but the task force is asking that Colorado lawmakers make an exception for the newly legalized substance.

Employment decisions should be made on job performance alone, and being under the influence of any intoxicant during work hours should be grounds for immediate termination. But why does it matter if an employee gets home after a long day at work, plops down on his couch, and smokes a joint. How is that any different than tossing back a few glasses of wine at dinner?

It would behoove the members of the task force to revisit the language of Amendment 64 and think about the intentions of those who drafted the law. Section 6a reassures employers that they are not required to permit or accommodate the use of marijuana in the workplace. However, it is quite a leap to suggest that the voters intended to deny marijuana users the same protections for off-the-job use enjoyed by alcohol and tobacco users.

Unfortunately, this is not the only area where lawmakers seem to be targeting pot smokers. The task force endorsed efforts in the Colorado legislature to dissuade stoners from taking the wheel. Now, it is perfectly reasonable for authorities to ensure safer streets by making it illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana. However, the standard set by House Bill 1114 is ridiculously stringent and will lead to unfair arrests and the persecution of marijuana users.

Any driver with at least five nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood would be in violation of this law. Opponents of the bill are quick to point out that any regular pot smoker or medicinal user will reach that threshold whether or not they are actually “high” while driving. THC is stored in fat tissue and thus lingers in the body long after the “influence” has worn off.

The law attempts to address the issue of unfair arrests by affording violators the opportunity to argue in court that they were not in fact impaired while behind the wheel. This is a luxury that drunk drivers might kill for. However, the burden of proof should never be on the citizen to prove he was not impaired. If a driver is clearly obeying all traffic laws and posing no danger to anyone on the road, he should not be arrested no matter how many nanograms of THC are coursing through his veins.

It’s difficult to find a perfect solution to the problem of “too stoned to drive,” but yielding to the discretion of police officers to determine impairment would be a better policy than H.B. 1114. Despite the inherent risks of cops abusing their authority to fill arrest quotas, marijuana users would probably feel safer without an arbitrary threshold for THC blood content.

Studies have shown that the impairing effect of marijuana on driving ability is moderate when taken alone, but severe when combined with alcohol. Drunk driving poses a much more serious threat to public safety than “high driving,” which makes it all the more ridiculous that the Colorado legislature would propose a standard more stringent for cannabis than alcohol.

There is a disparity between the reality of the effects of marijuana and the perceptions of politicians. Governor Hickenlooper has been a prime example with his gloomy predictions on what will become of Colorado under Amendment 64. He has predicted an increase in drug use and homelessness among teenagers as a result of legalization, despite evidence to the contrary.

National surveys have indicated that teenagers have a harder time getting tobacco and alcohol than marijuana. Thus, legalization of cannabis in Colorado should have the exact opposite effect on adolescents than the one suggested by the governor. As politicians bury their heads in the sand and ignore the mounting empirical data about marijuana, it is no wonder that the task force has signed on to flawed policies.

While legalization advocates have had a lot to celebrate since election night, they should pay close attention to how the story unfolds. Colorado lawmakers have already shown their willingness to blatantly target marijuana users and deny them the rights afforded those who enjoy other vices. The supporters of Amendment 64 must remain vigilant to oppose any policy that will undermine their historic achievements thus far.