Colorado legislature gives final OK to marijuana driving limit

Colorado LegislatureWith three big votes on three contentious, momentous marijuana bills, Colorado lawmakers stepped to the threshold of history Tuesday.

If the legislature gives final approval to the last two remaining pot bills before it adjourns on Wednesday, it will become the first in the country to pass laws regulating the sale of marijuana to any adult over age 21 for any purpose in special retail stores.

One of those bills, House Bill 1317, creates the regulatory framework for the stores. The other bill, House Bill 1318, levies taxes on them. Both bills received preliminary approval in the state Senate on Tuesday. Amendments adopted Tuesday bar cities from running their own pot shops, as Aurora has considered, and ban incorporated marijuana collectives that skirt the regulations.

The third bill, meanwhile, seeks to counter one of the negative consequences many lawmakers fear will come out of marijuana legalization: an increase in stoned driving. The Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a bill setting a stoned-driving limit and sent it to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it.

The 24-11 vote in favor of the bill, House Bill 1325, belied the struggle the proposal has had at the Capitol. The bill approved Tuesday was the sixth try in the past three years to pass a stoned-driving limit, which supporters say will give prosecutors a tool to combat an increase in stoned-driving cases.

“The reason I keep coming back,” Sen. Steve King, a Grand Junction Republican who sponsored the bill, said this week, “is because the numbers are going the wrong way.”
Indeed, the unprecedented debates came more with apprehension about the new future of legal marijuana than with excitement.

In advocating for HB 1318, sponsor Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, said sizable taxes on marijuana would be needed to regulate the stores.

“We have to make sure we collect enough money not to hurt other things,” Jahn said. “This has to be a self-sustaining program.”

And Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, decried how much of the entire debate around marijuana this session had focused on making legalization work, without consideration of legalization’s overall merits.

“We need to mark this day on the calendar as a day we were implementing something that is profoundly and foundationally wrong,” Balmer said.

Lawmakers were forced into regulating marijuana by Colorado voters’ approval in November of Amendment 64, which legalized use, limited possession and commercial production of marijuana for people 21 and older. The measure instructed the legislature to draw up the blueprint for implementing marijuana legalization. The state Department of Revenue will later add more details.

By the end of the day Tuesday, Colorado’s new rules for recreational marijuana had become much clearer.

Under HB 1317, marijuana stores would have to be licensed by the state and owned by Colorado residents. For the first nine months, only current medical-marijuana dispensary owners could apply to open recreational pot shops. The first recreational marijuana stores to open would have to grow what they sell, but wholesale growers and stand-alone retailers would be allowed starting in October 2014.

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 the rates 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.

The Senate approved an amendment to HB 1317 on Tuesday that outlaws businesses that incorporate as marijuana collectives, seeking to avoid state rules for regulation of stores and taxes. Activists had championed such collectives as recently as this week as viable alternatives to pot shops.

The Senate also OK’d an amendment that cities can’t run marijuana stores. Aurora was considering several proposals regarding recreational marijuana, including growing and selling marijuana itself.

But Mayor Steve Hogan said it doesn’t look like the city will be getting into the pot business now.

“I’m assuming that if that particular bill is all the way through the legislature, we probably won’t do anything with it,” Hogan said.

“It makes it tough at the local level to make determinations when rules are changing all the time,” Hogan said.

Cities won’t have to wait much longer to get the final rules, though. Both HB 1317 and 1318 need one more vote in the Senate on Wednesday, the legislature’s last day. Changes the Senate made to the bills would need to be approved in the House before the bills could go to Hickenlooper.

The bill already on its way to the governor, House Bill 1325, 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.

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.

“We’ve come to a good compromise,” Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, said during debate on the bill Monday.

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