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Glenwood Council denies marijuana retailer’s permit request because of limited parking

The Glenwood Springs City Council voted down a special-use permit for a marijuana dispensary Thursday after several members of the public questioned the city’s need for another “pot shop.”

During their regular session, councilors reviewed Kind Castle’s site proposal for a 738-square-foot retail marijuana establishment to be located in a commercial strip building at 2114 Grand Ave.

Citing mostly parking concerns, councilors shot down the permit request — agreeing with the Glenwood Springs Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous vote to recommend permit denial — despite city staff’s recommendation to approve.

The proposed location has access to 10 parking spaces with the potential for adding six more, city documents state.

Mayor Jonathan Godes said he’d never seen city staff and the commission at odds on a special-use permit recommendation, and asked Community Development Senior Planner Trent Hyatt for insight into the situation.

“We just try our best to evaluate these specific to the criteria,” Hyatt said, explaining the permit application met all the city’s requirements. “There was quite a bit of opposition that may have played into (commission’s decision) as well.”

City Code requires a marijuana retail location to be more than 500 feet from a school zone and 900 feet from another marijuana retailer, but it does not limit the number of marijuana retailers within city limits.

Kind Castle representative John Dyet said the proposed site was 650 feet from the nearest school, Columbine Christian School, and 3,000 feet from the nearest marijuana retailer, Green Dragon.

Dyet added this was his second attempt to apply for a special-use permit. When he first suggested locating the marijuana store downtown, the application was rejected, and he was told the city didn’t want retail marijuana establishments in the downtown district.

“Here I am going to the outskirts, and you’re saying go back downtown,” Dyet said. “I’m following the current code as it is written.”

Mayor Pro Tem Shelley Kaup asked Dyet to explain what odor mitigation methods he would put in place to ensure the site was compliant with the city’s no-odor outdoors requirement for marijuana retailers.

Before opening shop, Kind Castle would install two independent, activated-carbon filtration units each capable of cleansing 2,000 square-feet, or about four-times the proposed space, Dyet said. 

Additionally, he said he would install a forced air unit to pull in outside air and force it through the filtration units as well as reinforce the location’s ceiling structure.

Councilor Paula Stepp questioned the Kind Castle’s parking layout, given an independent traffic study showed traffic to the area could increase. 

City staff, however, reported traffic increases would not be significant.

Dyet said Kind Castle would be moving into two of the building’s storefronts, granting the business more parking options. If approved, the marijuana retailer also planned to work a trade with a residential tenant in the building for an off-site residence, allowing Kind Castle increased parking in the rear. Furthermore, Dyet said he planned to have all employees park off-site and commute or walk to work from nearby parking facilities.

Because a residence is connected to the proposed shop location — though no through-access is available — several councilors questioned Kind Castle’s security.

Dyet said he planned to install 20 video cameras throughout the store and install two separate alarm systems.

During the public comment portion, Monica Wolny, who has frequently criticized the City Council in public meetings and Godes via email for not supporting local business, asked the council to justify the need for another “pot shop.” She added that as a mother and resident, she saw no purpose for another marijuana retailer to open in Glenwood Springs.

Haley Carmer said she represented the Cedar Lodge Motel, located next to Kind Castle’s proposed location, and after reviewing the application documents, the motel’s owners did not believe the odor mitigation measurements would be enough, overflow parking could trickle into the motel’s lot and the fact the shop would share a wall with a residence was not “appropriate.”

Tim O’Keefe, a local pastor, said he didn’t feel the building’s parking was adequate for the use, nor did the city need another marijuana retailer.

Godes and Councilor Rick Voorhees said they didn’t agree with denying the application, because it would stifle the free market and city staff recommended approval.

The special-use permit was denied 5-2 with Godes and Voorhees voting against.


Planning and zoning continues Triumph-Bell Rippy apartment proposal, denies retail marijuana shop

A 100-unit apartment development proposal was continued and a retail marijuana special use permit request was denied by the Glenwood Springs Planning and Zoning Commission on May 26.

Triumph-Bell Rippy

Applicant Triumph Development West, LLC seeks to build 38 one-bedroom units and 62 two-bedroom units in six separate apartment buildings adjacent to Palmer Avenue between 26th Street and Blake Avenue.

The planning and zoning commission provides a recommendation to Glenwood Springs City Council for applications which include 25 or more new dwelling units.

The commission held off on making a recommendation about Triumph Development West’s application until a meeting between the city, nearby residents and the applicant was held to further discuss traffic impacts.

“I don’t want you guys to go out there and say ‘I hate this, I don’t want this, this is too big.’ That’s not what we’re doing,” said Marco Dehm, Planning and Zoning Commission chairman concerning the forthcoming meeting. “We’re looking for additional information on traffic, circulation and mitigation. I want to make sure that the discussion stays on those topics.”

According to Triumph Development West’s updated traffic impact analysis, the development would add 489 vehicle trips on an average weekday.

The updated analysis also said the development would generate 30 vehicle trips during morning rush hours and 38 vehicle trips during evening rush hours.

“That seems a little incredulous,” Commissioner Sumner Schachter said. “I have yet to see, over the years, any traffic study…that hasn’t underestimated the impacts in this pretty unique valley.”

Several residents have disputed the traffic impact analysis and commissioners also expressed concerns over the area’s already inadequate infrastructure.

The city has not released an official date for the neighborhood meeting concerning traffic and circulation near Blake and Palmer Avenue.

Kind Glenwood LLC

The planning and zoning commission also provides a recommendation to city council concerning marijuana special use permits and unanimously denied Kind Glenwood LLC’s request for one at its May 26 meeting.

The applicant has proposed remodeling the interior of an existing 738-square-foot unit at 2114 Grand Ave., currently occupied by Framing Expressions, to accommodate the sale of retail marijuana.

“As a young citizen of the community, I am opposed to this establishment receiving a permit for business,” Michelle Keplinger stated in her written public comments. “I feel that this small town has more than enough options for purchasing marijuana products as it is.”

Commissioners took issue with parking availability and the facility’s considerable distance from Glenwood’s downtown core area, among other things.

“My hangup with this is, we have two residential units in the back and, correct me if I’m wrong, all the other dispensaries in town are either in commercial buildings or freestanding,” Dehm said. “That’s why I don’t think this is a correct location.”


Colorado justices approve medical marijuana during probation

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled people may use medical marijuana while serving probation.

KMGH-TV reports the state’s highest court issued the ruling Monday.

The justices approved an exception for prosecutors to show evidence that using the drug would run counter to achieving the probation goals in individual cases.

Records say the case stemmed from a lower court decision to prevent a woman who pleaded guilty to DUI from using medical marijuana during her 12 months of unsupervised probation.

The woman held a valid medical marijuana card.

A county court blocked her use because a medical professional did not testify about her need for it.

The Supreme Court ruling says the language of the medical marijuana statute creates a presumption the drug can be used while on probation.

Craig Apothecary fined and suspended for not selling enough locally-grown marijuana

The state of Colorado used to punish residents for growing marijuana. Now, you could be punished for not growing enough.

State laws in this area have led to Craig’s only marijuana dispensary shutting down temporarily until the end of this month due to what owner Shaun Hadley called a state infraction for not selling enough locally-grown marijuana.

“In 2017, we weren’t able to make our 70/30 requirements,” Hadley said.

Hadley explained he tried to abide by the law.

“In 2016, we were kicked out of a grow. Our lease ended early,” Hadley said. “We were trying to find a grow in Craig. But laws at the time prevented us from doing so… At the time I wasn’t able or willing to move my store.”

Shaun Hadley’s Craig Apothecary had to temporarily shut down this week after failing to secure enough locally-grown marijuana.
Clay Thorp/Staff

Though the laws regulating medical dispensaries like Hadley’s have since changed, he found himself facing no easy options from Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division. Hadley said the MED’s original proposed fine and penalty was worse.

“I haggled with them…until we settled on a $10,000 fine and a two-week suspension,” Hadley said.

Colorado’s MED was unable to respond by press time Tuesday to questions about Hadley’s fine and suspension, but Hadley said his suspension began Saturday, Nov. 9 and will end for an official reopening date of on or about Nov. 23. Hadley said his infraction is known as a ‘general infraction,’ unlike health and safety infractions such as selling to minors whose punishments are more severe.

“It’s not like I did something terrible,” Hadley said. “We were forced into a crappy situation that we couldn’t get out of.”

Tumbleweed coming soon

According to Tumbleweed CEO Mark Smith, their company is getting closer to opening its store in Craig at the Silver Building across from the Cool Water Grille on West Victory Way after council’s approval of the dispensary and voters subsequently passing all three of the city’s marijuana ordinances last week.

“We have just started to design the interior and exterior of the building,” Smith said in an Oct. 25 email, adding they hope to have those drawings completed sometime in mid-November.

“We will submit for building permit and anticipate a 10-week build out,” Smith said. “We will be hiring and training employees at our Steamboat (Springs) location during the build out phase, so as soon as build out is complete we should be ready to go.” 

Smith estimates they will open some time early next year.

“My best guess as to an opening is last week of January,” Smith said.

California suspends hundreds of marijuana supply businesses

DENVER (AP) — California has suspended 394 marijuana business permits in a move that critics say will temporarily reduce the number of legal cannabis shops in the state.

The suspension affecting about 5% of California’s legal cannabis supply chain comes after the businesses failed to complete mandatory training and credentialing, Marijuana Business Daily in Colorado reported Wednesday.

The suspensions include retailers, distributors, delivery services and microbusinesses that have not completed steps needed for the track-and-trace system that allows regulators keep tabs on the supply chain, according to the state Bureau of Cannabis Control.

All 394 suspended businesses had ample time to complete the requirement, and the companies must stop all sales until their licenses are reinstated, bureau spokesman Alex Traverso said.

“These were just the stragglers,” Traverso said. “It turned out to be a couple extra months that we gave them. It’s just a matter of getting a password, getting a log-in and doing the training.”

Businesses must upload business inventory data so state regulators can track pot with software from Florida-based Metrc.

Participation in the system is a requirement for a provisional license, which is a transition from a temporary license to a permanent annual permit. All temporary licenses expired over the summer, officials said.

California has 7,392 licensed cannabis businesses. The control bureau oversees 2,630 companies with either provisional or annual licenses, while the state Department of Public Health oversees an additional 932 manufacturers. The state Department of Food and Agriculture oversees 3,830 farmers.

Some industry members said the suspensions could give a boost to the illicit cannabis market, especially if retailers are forced to halt operations.

“We’re kind of incentivizing the illicit market, which is a much more affordable option right now” for consumers,” said Josh Drayton of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “What we really need to be focused on is access and affordability.”

Congress is weighing whether to give marijuana businesses access to banks. In Colorado, that’s already happening

Colorado’s cannabis industry has had a chief request since marijuana was legalized: Give us access to banks. 

But it turns out that hundreds of the state’s pot businesses are already working with financial institutions under the close watch of federal regulators, even though marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. As many as 35 banks and credit unions offer services to the state’s $6.5 billion-plus industry, according to the Colorado Bankers Association.  

Most financial institutions are secretive about their business relationships with companies that grow and sell marijuana legally, limiting the number of customers they will take on and asking their clients to sign nondisclosure agreements, said Amanda Averch, a spokeswoman for the bankers association.

“They’re serving this business, effectively, anonymously,” she said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.

Cannabis Café: America’s First Consumption-Friendly Restaurant opens in California

Oct. 1, 2019, will go down in history as the date the legal cannabis movement made its most progress yet. The first-ever cannabis consumption-friendly restaurant is now open for business in the U.S.

Lowell Herb Co.’s pioneering business concept is licensed to serve both food and marijuana products, bringing cannabis out of hiding and into mainstream society. While it is still illegal to smoke cannabis in public in all legal states, the city of West Hollywood advocated for social use and in 2017, approved an ordinance for business licenses to serve this purpose.

Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café was the first license granted among a pool of 300 applicants (eight more approved businesses are on the way), based on factors from social equity and innovation to community and design. This year, WeHo was able to accomplish what the first wave of legalized states is still trying to figure out and will be the model for how other cities can catch up. Local legislation in Los Angeles still restricts licensed businesses from serving dishes infused with cannabis.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill in May allowing cannabis lounges, which will take effect in early 2020.

“A place for public cannabis consumption was a natural next step for Lowell Herb Co. For us, this signifies the real end of cannabis prohibition in California,” Lowell Herb Co. CEO and co-founder David Elias told me. “This restaurant is a historic moment for the cannabis movement, and in steering the normalization of the plant for the country as a whole. As the first of its kind, we want to make sure we do this right, and set a good example for the industry. We are humbled to be leading the way.”

In 2017, Elias founded The Hacienda, the parent company for Lowell Herb Co., turning it into the fastest-growing and best-selling cannabis brand in California. Known for its organic, sun-grown flower and perfect packs of pre-rolls, Lowell swiftly gained a cult following among the cannabis-friendly celebrity crowd. Last month, Lowell announced an A-list of new investors for its latest round including Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Mark Ronson and Sarah Silverman; it also received a strategic investment from MedMen in 2018. The company additionally unveiled a Social Justice Program last year, giving special employment consideration to nonviolent cannabis offenders and providing opportunities to those who have been affected by unjust cannabis laws. Participants in the program currently make up 8% of the company’s workforce.

The restaurant project cost roughly $3 million to open and is already Hollywood’s hottest table; reservations — available 30 days in advance — are fully booked. A billboard emblazoned with “Eat, Drink, & Smoke Here” hangs overhead the barn wood-covered building with lush landscaping leading the way to Lowell Café. Upon arrival, a faint smell of cannabis is apparent only when entering the building. Some neighbors were concerned marijuana odor would seep across the street, but Lowell, which developed the space in partnership with Los Angeles restaurant group Houston Hospitality, installed a casino-grade air purification system that’s powerful enough to keep it contained.

Inside, the 6,000-square-foot space features a dining room and lounge (open to the outside), and garden café where farm-to-table fresh coffee, juice and cannabis is served seven days a week. A non-smoking patio is slated to open by the end of the year with the possibility of alcohol sales pending application approval from the state.

As I was taken to my table for two in the Italian olive tree-covered garden, weed smoke wafted over me, evocative of an Amsterdam coffee shop. But when I sat down, I immediately realized Lowell Café is how cannabis could and should be consumed. Paying homage to pre-Prohibition era cannabis “tea pads,” Lowell Café celebrates the end of 100 years of prohibition and the future of cannabis enthusiasts finally having a place in this world.

Executive chef and partner Andrea Drummer joined me for a brief chat and marveled, “To see people casually dining and ordering pre-rolls and smoking bongs, it’s amazing. It’s what it should be. Does it look odd to you? It’s just normal, right?”

Right. Drummer, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, started working with Lowell on the project from the beginning after tapping the brand for dinners hosted through Elevation VIP, the cannabis cuisine cooperative she founded in 2012.

Drummer said of her inspiration: “Farm-to-table was the foundation, but you also see some of the subtle influences of my upbringing in the South and plays on my formal training. I wanted to do comfort foods — the go-to’s once you consume cannabis.”

But her menu is far from standard munchies fare. Dishes range from $10 and $30 and are designed with flavor profiles to complement strains offered in-house. Drummer sources ingredients from local farmers markets for most menu items including: crispy Brussels sprouts and turnips dusted with spice blend and cojita cheese; tomato carpaccio with red onion, basil, and burrata; sticky confit wings with house-made tamarind glaze; and pulled pork shoulder with blueberry barbecue sauce, caramelized onion, and kale slaw.

After I told the waiter I’d like the vegan cauliflower bahn mi, Bianca Blanche, Lowell Café’s managing flower host (think sommelier) stopped by to take my cannabis order. The extensive Lowell Café cannabis menu covers a daily farm-fresh flower selection, cannabis-infused beverages and edibles, concentrates and oils. Even accouterments are available to rent for a small fee from a curated list of leading luxe accessory brands like Summerland Ceramics, Miwak Junior, PAX, Puffco, Session, and My Bud Vase.

The team of 40 staff flower hosts come with a combination of dispensary and hospitality experience — an indicator of Lowell’s commitment to consumer education. Guests are asked about their cannabis consumption habits before ordering to avoid the risk of over-indulging along with their personal preferences to help flower hosts guide each table through a safe, enjoyable session. Each section of the cannabis menu also includes an estimate of onset and duration times depending on the method you choose to imbibe.

My pack of Lowell Smokes mini-joints in the Lucid Sativa blend was soon delivered on a gold tray. The strain is said to “send you to the moon with joy” and I am still feeling that historic high.

IF YOU GO. . .

Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café

1201 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood, Calif.

323-975-7676, lowellcafe.com

• Lowell Café is open from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. A “last call” for cannabis is at 9:50 p.m., but if you wish to smoke later, you can pre-order and consume until close.

• Cash is required for cannabis purchases.

• Take an Uber or Lyft. Valet parking is also offered for designated drivers.

• Reservations are available up to 30 days in advance. Bar seats in the lounge are on a first-come, first-serve basis.

• Each table is allotted a 90-minute visit.

• There’s a “bring your own bud” policy for a $20 “tokeage fee.” The BYOB policy also covers bringing your own pipes, bongs and vaporizers. All rental accessories are cleaned and sanitized.

• A non-smoking patio that will serve wine, beer, and craft cocktails is slated to open by the end of the year.

• The Café section is open to all ages; the Garden, Lot, and the Lounge allow cannabis consumption and are for adults 21 and up.

• A casino-grade filtration system effectively keeps clean air flowing, but fair warning if you’re sensitive to smoke.

• Guests who don’t finish their cannabis are not permitted to take it home.

• It’s available for private parties.

Katie Shapiro can be reached at katie@katieshapiromedia.com and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.

Rifle man sentenced for 2,000-plant marijuana grow operation

A man charged with operating an illegal marijuana grow field in Rifle was sentenced to 7 years in federal prison Monday.

Long Luong, also known as Peter, pleaded guilty May 21 for participating in a conspiracy that involved between 400 and 700 kilograms, or between 800 and 1,542 pounds of marijuana.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Marcia S. Krieger also ordered Luong to pay $30,000 and serve 5 years supervised release during his sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Grand Junction.

Luong was one of three codefendants charged with conspiracy to grow and distribute more than 1,000 kg of marijuana and 1,000 or more marijuana plants.

According to court documents, including the stipulated facts in Luong’s plea agreement, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration learned of a large outdoor marijuana grow operation in Rifle on Sept. 16, 2016.

Agents confirmed the existence of the operation and began surveillance. Heung Yu Wong, a co-defendant in the case, owned the property where the grow operation was located. The Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Task Force (TRIDENT) assisted in the investigation.

The day after starting surveillance, agents observed numerous individuals harvesting marijuana plants and loading them into a large truck. 

A short while later, agents observed many of these individuals attempting to flee from the grow operation, and stepped in to arrest several individuals, including Luong and his wife, Guoying Tang, another codefendant.

Federal agents found 2,420 large, mature marijuana plants on the property.

Despite the arrest, Luong and Tang conspired again with others to set up another grow operation in southwestern Colorado.

Luong, while supervising at least five others, harvested this field and loaded it onto two large trucks. Agents apprehended one of the trucks on Sept. 23, 2017, and found 50 kg, or 110 pounds, of freshly harvested marijuana destined for Grand Junction.

Agents searched Luong’s Grand Junction home and found 179 marijuana plants, as well as a 9mm Beretta handgun hidden in a clothes hamper in the master bedroom.

“The DEA is committed to protecting our communities by working alongside our state and local law enforcement partners to identify and target the most significant threats to the public safety,” said Deanne Reuter, acting DEA special agent in charge. 

“Long Luong ran a massive illegal marijuana grow operation that flagrantly and grossly violated both federal and state law. The DEA will continue to target these large illegal grow operations that seek profit over the public well-being,” Reuter said.

“The cultivation of marijuana for the black market is an issue this office and our law enforcement partners continue to aggressively pursue,” U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said.  “The defendant will now face the consequences of growing and distributing this illegal product.”

Codefendants Tang and Wong have also made guilty pleas, and are awaiting sentencing.

West Glenwood gets a bit greener — new cannabis shop to open in late October

The Green Solution has 17 cannabis shops in Colorado and plans to grow its business farther west with a new location in Glenwood Springs.

Located at 51701 Highway 6 & 24, in the space formerly occupied by Vic’s Route 6 Grillhouse, The Green Solution plans on opening its strictly recreational cannabis shop in West Glenwood Springs by late October.

“It looks really like an Apple store,” The Green Solution CEO Steve Lopez said. “Nice, clean, no one has to be afraid of staying in the parking lot and getting a hippie vibe or any of the stoner stereotypes.”

The 4,300-square-foot shop will offer flower, edibles, beverages, topicals and more. The vast majority of which The Green Solution cultivates out of its three indoor grow facilities in Denver as well as its 150-acre outdoor grow in Trinidad.

According to Lopez, the Colorado-based, family-owned business employs approximately 700 people across its company and strives for a concierge approach when serving its patrons.

“First we try to understand exactly what our client needs,” Lopez said. “We have some folks that come in for pain relief. We have some folks … say they are going to a concert.”

The Green Solution breeds its own strains, which tailor to unique experiences such as live music or video games. Some of those strains include the sativa dominant Red Rocks Diesel for live shows and Player 1, a sativa intended for gamers.

“We have had gamers come in all of the time and say, ‘Hey, we’d love to have a strain for us,’” Lopez said of the impetus for growing Player 1. “So, we developed one.”

Additionally, The Green Solution’s Rubicon strain was recognized as the best CBD flower in the 2016 High Times Colorado Cannabis Cup and in last year’s Rooster Magazine THC Classic.

“Then we have a very large line of edibles,” Lopez said. “Gummies, brownies, lollipops we really run the gamut on that.”

One of The Green Solution’s most popular beverages includes its 10mg THC infused root beer carbonated soda from NectarBee. The Green Solution also carries the dealcoholized, Belgian-style white ale cannabis beer Grainwave from Ceria Brewing Co., which was co founded by Blue Moon creator Keith Villa.

“We have a lot of folks that come in for our topicals and that’s like muscle balm, nerve salve,” Lopez said. “Folks that are using these lotions to relieve pain in their body.”

The Green Solution does not sell individual CBD products.

“However, we do have some products that are like a five-to-one CBD versus THC,” Lopez said. “The best effects that you have with CBD is actually when you also have THC in there. It’s so low, the THC, that you don’t feel it but it helps adhere to your body.”

Lopez said The Green Solution was looking forward to expanding its reach to the Western Slope and getting to know Glenwood Springs, specifically.

“Within any city that we come into we really get to know the regulations, the local government and really make sure that we are contributing to the community as well,” Lopez said.

In addition to the Glenwood Springs location, The Green Solution plans on opening a location in Aspen, too at 106 S Mill Street at a future date.


How high is too high? Colorado struggles to test marijuana impairment for drivers

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In 2014, when recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, Matt Karzen, an assistant district attorney in Routt County at the time, noticed a lot of criminal cases coming to his office involving drivers arrested on suspicion of driving stoned. 

It was the first time such cases had gone through local justice system under the laxer laws, and he was not sure how they would play out in court. So, his office brought a case in front of a jury as a sort of litmus test for convicting high drivers.  

The case involved a man pulled over in Steamboat Springs for having a dirty windshield. It started as a routine traffic stop for driving with obstructed vision, but law enforcement officials noticed the man behaving strangely. Resulting tests showed he did not have alcohol in his system, but he was over the legal limit for marijuana. 

When jurors reviewed body camera footage and reports from law enforcement, they weren’t convinced the tests proved beyond a reasonable doubt the man was impaired.  

“The guy was acquitted in about five minutes,” Karzen said. 

As marijuana becomes more widely used across the state, much uncertainty remains about how the drug impairs the body and at what point someone becomes too high to drive. A lack of clarity and research has made it difficult for law enforcement officials to test for marijuana impairment during traffic stops and for the courts to convict people accused of driving high. 

According to current state law, people can be prosecuted for driving under the influence if their blood contains more than 5 nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the cannabinoid in marijuana that causes its coveted psychoactive effects.

But marijuana users, particularly those who partake regularly for medicinal purposes, worry they would test over the legal limit, even when they are not impaired. 

Trends in marijuana use


A recent report from the New York Times investigated the legacy of the last five years of legal marijuana in the state and found, more than anything, the drug has become a more commonly accepted part of life for Coloradoans. 

About twice as many residents smoke marijuana compared to the rest of Americans.

During a June session of the Steamboat Springs Police Department’s Citizens Academy, which teaches the public about the work of local law enforcement, officers said they have spoken with many people who think it is OK to drive stoned. This worried officer Lisa Wilson, who does not want a lower perceived risk to cause accidents.

As she explained, “If you feel different, you drive different.”

According to a 2018 study from the Colorado Department of Transportation, the number of highway deaths involving drivers with marijuana in their system has nearly doubled since legalization, with 75 deaths in 2014 and 139 in 2017. 

But, the number of drivers involved in a fatal crash who tested over the legal limit for marijuana — that 5-nanogram threshold — has decreased sharply in recent years. In 2017, 35 drivers in such accidents were over the legal limit, down from 52 in 2016.

As the study advises, “The presence of a cannabinoid does not necessarily indicate recent use of marijuana or impairment.”

Cannabinoids have a stubborn way of sticking around in people’s fat cells, meaning someone could test positive for the drug, even over the legal limit, days or weeks after they smoked. This is especially true for frequent users.

“People can be heavily saturated with THC in their system and not be under the influence,” Karzen said.

Concerns among marijuana users


Larisa Bolivar admits to using marijuana almost every day. The executive director of the Cannabis Consumer Coalition, based in Denver, Bolivar has been an advocate for the drug long before it became legal. 

The Washington Post, in a 2014 article, called her “one of the city’s most well-known proponents of decriminalizing marijuana nationally.” In 2004, she visited Steamboat to advocate for a cancer patient who was facing charges for using medical marijuana, which was legal at the time. 

Fifteen years later, she is seeing a similar, enforcement-heavy approach to nabbing people suspected of driving high, despite a lack of certainty for testing impairment. 

As Bolivar explained, many marijuana users, especially those consuming it daily and at higher doses for pain management or other medicinal purposes, will have large amounts of THC in their blood but not feel or act impaired. 

“I haven’t consumed (marijuana) today, but I can guarantee you I have more than 5 nanograms in my system,” she said. 

As someone who drives on a regular basis, Bolivar is always concerned she could be cited for a DUI even if she does not feel or act impaired.  

“That is a very scary thought, and it’s totally unfair,” she said. 

Sobriety tests for marijuana

Drug recognition experts use this form to determine if someone is under the influence of substances other than alcohol. Source: Drug recognition expert seven-day instruction course.
Hugh Carey / hcarey@summitdaily.com

Local law enforcement officials tend to agree with people like Bolivar, arguing the current science on marijuana impairment often does not reflect reality. Nor do they see it as a new issue.

“This challenge has been around as long as cannabis has been consumed,” Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen said of measuring a person’s intoxication.

As he explained, field sobriety tests for alcohol have been researched and standardized over decades. Dating back to 1977, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has honed the tests to such an extent that recent studies report accuracy of 91% to 94%.

“We have a lot of experience with drunk drivers,” Christensen said. “We know what that person looks like, and you can smell it.”

Much less researched and certain are sobriety tests for marijuana. Law enforcement officials usually employ two methods to test for any kind of drug impairment. One way is to ask the driver to undergo a blood test to determine if they are over the 5-nanogram limit. 

Some agencies also have drug recognition experts who have been trained to evaluate a driver for substance impairment. Several local troopers with Colorado State Patrol have the certification and are able to assist other law enforcement officials with roadside sobriety tests specific to drugs. Many of the criteria for impairment seem similar to alcohol, such as the one-leg-stand test. 

Other considerations, such as redness in the eyes, could be the result of other, non-drug related conditions, like allergies or irritation.

“There is no go-to tool that is considered reliable across the board to determine if someone is impaired by marijuana,” Karzen said. “Right now, we’re just stuck with body camera footage and an officer’s assessment.”

Most such cases result in a plea deal, according to Karzen. Drivers usually plead guilty to driving while ability impaired, or DWAI, which is a traffic infraction — not a crime. It typically results in a fine and the revoked driving privileges for 90 days, a laxer sentence than for DUI offenses. 

In many instances, people suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana also have an illegal amount of alcohol in their system, according to Karzen. If that is the case, prosecutors typically pursue a DUI conviction solely for alcohol because jurors feel better-versed at recognizing when someone is drunk.

Need for new tests and laws


What all of this points to is a need for more accurate measures of marijuana impairment, something state lawmakers are trying to accomplish through legislation. 

One bill proposed during the 2019 Legislation Session would have thrown out the 5-nanogram threshold and given law enforcement full discretion in determining impairment through field sobriety as well as blood tests. 

It faced strong backlash before lawmakers postponed it indefinitely in February. 

Complicating the issue is the fact that marijuana is still federally illegal, so conducting accurate, legal research on how the drug affects the body has proven difficult. 

With no changes for the foreseeable future, Karzen has been advising prosecutors in his office to be prudent in pursuing DUI convictions for marijuana, and to limit convictions to cases in which people showed obvious signs of impairment.

 “I’m very uncomfortable proceeding with a criminal prosecution on impaired driving based only on the 5-nanogram limit,” he said. 

For an example, he alluded to a scene in the cult classic, “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke,” in which the two, red-eyed stoners get pulled over after smoking a joint the size of a salami.

Karzen chuckled at using such a reference, but those clear indications — poor driving, memory loss, marijuana smoke billowing from the windows — “those are what our prosecutors look for,” he said. 

Christensen’s officers have a similar policy.

“If drivers don’t demonstrate any signs of impairment, we don’t take any action,” he said.

Regardless of the lack of clarity on marijuana impairment, people still have an obligation to drive sober.

“There is no excuse to drive impaired in any way,” Christensen said. 

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo