The Laws and Penalties of Drugged Driving in Colorado

Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal

Colorado has gained notoriety in recent years as a haven for recreational marijuana users. But the laws governing marijuana are complicated. While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Colorado now permits individuals 21 years or older to possess and consume up to one ounce (or 28 grams) of marijuana or cannabis products containing its active ingredient, THC.

That said, a person in Colorado may not legally consume marijuana “openly and publicly.” This includes while operating a motor vehicle. Jay Tiftickjian, an attorney in Denver, says you should wait at least 12 hours—if not more—to drive after consuming marijuana. “And never keep marijuana in your car,” he adds. “But if you do, keep it in a sealed container in the trunk.”

Driving under the influence of marijuana—or any drug—remains a serious offense under Colorado law. And in many cases, it is easier to get charged with drugged driving than a conventional DUI.

Any Marijuana Use May Lead to “Impaired” Driving

THC or cannabis impairs a person's ability to drive and react to sudden changes in traffic conditions. This can be fatal. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there were 125 marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado during 2016. This represents more than double the number reported in 2013, the year before recreational use was legalized.

Under Colorado law, a driver is presumed legally impaired if he or she has 5 nanograms of active THC in their blood. But THC level is not the sole criteria for establishing a DUI charge. In fact, less than half of the 125 marijuana-related traffic deaths noted above involved drivers who exceeded the 5-nanogram THC limit.

A police officer may arrest someone for DUI if there is any “observed impairment” related to marijuana use. All law enforcement officials receive special training designed to detect any kind of drug-related impairment. Keep in mind, Colorado law prohibits driving under the influence of any drug, legal or otherwise. So even if you are taking medical marijuana under a physician's prescription and supervision, you can still be cited for DUI if a police officer detects any sign of impairment.

“There’s not a whole lot of research on how marijuana impairs people, and the research that’s out there is kind of all over the board,” says Tiftickjian. “A person could potentially be at 5 nanograms or more of THC but not be impaired, according to some research. With alcohol, we have 30 years’ worth of studies that brought us to the numbers we currently have.”

Loss of Driver's Licenses & Possible Jail Time

Colorado is an “implied consent” state. This means that simply by driving on the state's roads, you are presumed to consent to a blood, breath, or similar chemical test if a law enforcement officer has “probable cause” to believe that you are driving under the influence. While you still have the constitutional right to refuse such a test–since the results could incriminate you—the State of Colorado will suspend your driver's license. For a first refusal, this suspension period is one year. This is considered an “administrative” sanction, so your suspension is independent from any criminal charges or penalties that you may face.

As for those criminal penalties, drugged driving is treated the same as any other DUI. If you are a first-time offender, a DUI conviction carries a possible jail term of between 5 days and one year. You will also be fined between $600 and $1,000, and may need to perform up 96 hours of community service. For second and subsequent drugged driving convictions, you must receive at least two years probation and a one-year suspended jail sentence. Consult with a DUI attorney if you're facing such consequences. If you'd like more general information about this area of the law, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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