CARSON CITY, NV — Some Nevada lawmakers say medical marijuana patients shouldn’t be deemed impaired when driving just because they have small amounts of marijuana in their system.
The idea sparked intense debate Tuesday when Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, presented Assembly Bill 351 to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
“Marijuana is currently the only drug we have a limit where we say, ‘you have this much, so you must be impaired,’” Horne told committee members. “I think that’s unfair.”
Under current law, drivers with a certain trace of marijuana in their blood are deemed impaired and are guilty of driving under the influence. The same concept applies to the blood alcohol content in drunken drivers.
This bill would remove the binding power of residual marijuana content for medical marijuana cardholders. Prosecutors could still use the blood test to augment their case, but further proof would have to be provided to show the driver was actually impaired.
“I don’t have a problem with the per se limits being there for everybody else,” Horne said. “What I am saying is, for a patient, those per say limits should not apply because we don’t apply them to any other drug.”
The laws would be unaltered for users who do not have medical marijuana cards, causing Republicans on the committee to call it a “double standard.”
“This is making a policy statement that that threshold doesn’t impair your ability to drive,” said Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno. He added that if the levels are not dangerous for driving, the per se limits should be applied evenly to recreational and medical users alike.
While supporters said the bill does not prevent prosecution, prosecutors contended that it makes it much more difficult.
To prosecute a DUI case, prosecutors have two avenues: the per se limits, and proving impairment by driving behavior, witness statements or a field sobriety test.
Because marijuana impairment is a neurological issue primarily — unlike alcohol — signs cannot always be identified by officers’ evaluations because users can focus and accomplish simple tasks like driving straight when a police officer is behind them or passing a sobriety test, said Brian Rutledge with the Clark County District Attorney’s office.
But evaluating complex situations and making the quick decisions necessary when driving is nearly impossible for those drivers, he said.
“It would make more sense to ban people who use marijuana from driving entirely, rather than saying people who use it regularly can drive without worrying about the per se limits,” Rutledge said.
Most fatal accidents caused by impaired drivers result in the driver being injured and taken to a hospital, so field evaluations of the driver — which would be essential for prosecution without the per se limits — wouldn’t happen, he said.
“This would effectively be a get-out-of-jail-free card for the most severe cases,” Rutledge said.
Several opponents to the bill testified about family members lost to impaired drivers and urged the committee to vote down the bill so more Nevadans don’t lose loved ones.
“If you pass this bill, you are going to put more impaired drivers on the road,” said Jim Holmes, chairman of the Northern Nevada DUI Task Force.
The committee took no action on AB351.