Senate Public Safety Committee Waters Down Marijuana DUI Bills

SACRAMENTO, Apr 25: Two bills by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) to create stricter laws against drivers testing positive for marijuana were watered down substantially before being passed by the California Senate Public Safety Committee today.

As originally written, SB 65 would have suspended the license of any driver under 21 found to test positive for any amount of marijuana via an oral swab or other chemical test (just as they currently lose their licenses for having a detectable amount of alcohol in their system). At the urging of the committee, which expressed skepticism about the accuracy of marijuana drug tests, Sen. Hill agreed to drop the drug testing provision and limit the license suspension only to cases where the driver is actually smoking or using MJ while driving. He also exempted legal medical MJ users under 21 from the bill.

Another provision of the bill would have prescribed possible misdemeanor penalties for any driver or passenger found guilty of using marijuana (or alcohol) while driving. Sen. Hill agreed to drop the misdemeanor penalties, leaving these offenses as infractions, which is how they’ve been treated for the past 40 years.

Commenting on the bill, Committee Chair Sen. Nancy Skinner observed that people have been using marijuana for years, and it’s not clear whether the situation is likely to change signficantly. “Studies give pause as to whether we have good testing to determine whether people are impaired [by marijuana]," she noted, adding that the University of California has been charged with conducting further research on the DUI issue.

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Compton) expressed similar doubts. “Cops tell me, you know how to tell marijuana-using drivers? They’re doing the speed limit and stopping at stop signs. We’ve had medical marijuana for 20 years and haven’t seen any increase in problems. It’s meth and alcohol that are the problem.”

Sen. Hill’s second bill, SB 698, was targeted at the combination of marijuana with alcohol. As originally written, it would have required automatic license suspensions and possible misdemeanor penalties for anyone found driving with both 0.04-0.07% alcohol and 5 nanograms/ml THC in blood as determined by chemical testing.

To satisfy the committee, Hill added a three-year sunset clause, lowered the penalties to a simple infraction, and added the requirement that the driver first fail a field sobriety test. Sen. Bradford called the 5 ng limit “arbitrary” and expressed skepticism about adding new crimes, noting that minorities were far more likely to be stopped for marijuana offenses than whites. The watered-down bill was approved by the committee without Bradford’s vote.