Teenagers smoke marijuana during a 4/20 celebration in Denver's Civic Center. (Andy Cross, Denver Post file)

$400,000 federal grant funds Colorado effort against stoned driving

Efforts are expanding to keep those who overindulge on weed from getting behind the wheel — and punishing those who do.

A $400,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is being used for an anti-imbibing and driving campaign and to train more law enforcement officers to spot pot-impaired drivers.

“It’s ironic we’re using federal funding for something that is illegal federally,” Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Emily Wilfong said. “But they (federal officials) do realize this is a traffic safety issue and needs to be addressed.”

A chunk of the money will go toward television advertising. Posters warning of the danger of impaired driving will be distributed to stores that sell pot.

The media push starts in March.

Owners of medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational pot shops, and some users, who want to keep pot use on the straight and narrow are helping develop the campaign by participating in focus groups, Wilfong said.

“CDOT and the industry want to stress the importance of using this newly legalized drug in a safe manner,” Medical Marijuana Industry Group executive director Mike Elliott said.

Public safety officials are worried that as the number of recreational pot shops increases, so will the number of people who get too high to drive.

“We may see more customers who used marijuana in the past, or those who have never used it, get behind the wheel,” CDOT highway safety manager Glenn Davis said.

Currently, there are 185 specially trained drug recognition experts spread among Colorado law enforcement agencies. Officials hope the new federal funding will cover training for 35 more officers.

But Davis, a retired Littleton police officer, would like to see the ranks of trained officers swell to 300 to match the likely uptick in the number of pot-impaired motorists.

Officers probably will encounter the same outsized confidence from marijuana users, just as they do from drinkers stopped for erratic driving. Maybe even more so, Davis said.

“Every time I see a news article about marijuana use and driving, I see the same comments from people who are users who think they drive better and not worse after using,” Davis said. “In many ways, it’s a real tough audience to reach and convince them that ‘No, you don’t drive better, you drive worse.’ “

Marijuana use was a factor in more than 1,000 driving-under-the-influence cases filed in 2012, according to CDOT. There were 24,742 DUI and driving-while-ability-impaired cases filed in Colorado that year.

People convicted of DUI must submit to alcohol and drug evaluation by the state probation department. Data collected by the state showed marijuana in 1,045 of 23,519 evaluations.

Under Colorado’s newest DUI laws, a motorist is presumed to be under the influence of marijuana if the driver’s blood contained 5 nanograms or more of active THC (delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol) per milliliter of blood at the time of driving.

A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.

But there is no consensus on the exact amount of pot a driver must consume before he or she is considered under the influence. That’s because THC is absorbed differently into the blood stream than alcohol.

“Are you under the influence from one bong hit or a cigarette? It really depends on the strain of marijuana you use and the concentration of the strain,” Glenwood Springs attorney Kip O’Connor said. “But when you drink a bottle of beer or a shot of whiskey, you have a pretty good idea of the dosage.”

There are also various ways to ingest marijuana, including lotions, beverages and foods.

“With a brownie, and depending on its concentration, it can be in your body one to three hours before you feel the effects,” said Kari Franson, associate dean for professional education for the Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Colorado.

Frequent smokers, including those who have been using medicinal marijuana, can also build up THC tolerance. Many of those users argue that the 5- nanogram threshold is too low. Medical marijuana users, for example, always have some level of THC in their blood.

“Even if someone feels fine,” Franson said, “they are still probably at a positive level.”

Monte Whaley: 720-929-0907, mwhaley@denverpost.com or twitter.com/montewhaley

This story was first published on DenverPost.com