A bill making its way through the Montana Legislature seeks to set a criminal threshold for something that's been long debated by law enforcement and marijuana users: Exactly how high can you be when operating a motor vehicle?
House Bill 168, introduced by Missoula Republican Rep. David "Doc" Moore, would revise Montana's DUI laws to establish a legal limit for Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The proposed law would set the maximum limit for drivers at five nanograms per milliliter, which can only be tested via blood drawing. Moore says that limit is already in place for medical marijuana cardholders.
"There's an inherent unfairness in that policy, " Moore says. "We've had so many accidents and fatalities involving alcohol and THC, and the present law holds medical marijuana cardholders to a legal limit, but not recreational users."
Rose Habib, a chemist who testified against HB 168 in front of the House of Representatives in February, calls the five nanogram limit arbitrary.
"There's no actual proof there's a correlation between the blood levels of Delta 9 THC and being impaired. How the body metabolizes marijuana isn't done in a way that correlates with an amount of impairment you feel at a certain time," Habib says. "Law enforcement will admit that this is essentially a tool to incarcerate people better."
Moore says the proposed law would be more of a service to prosecutors in the aftermath of a fatal accident rather than a way to pull impaired drivers off the road. He referenced the death of Judy Wang, a Missoula attorney who was killed in 2009 by a drunk driver who tested positive for THC after the crash.
"You can't make the argument that cannabis does not impair you to some degree, even if you're a regular user," Moore says.
Habib says that while Moore may single out the detection of marijuana in the blood of David James Bugni, the driver convicted in Wang's death, as evidence of the drug's power to impair, marijuana alone did not lead him to the wreck. "(Bugni) was also driving 110 miles an hour," she says. "At night."
HB 168 passed its third reading in the Senate and is now headed to the governor's desk to be signed into law.