The Laws and Penalties of Drugged Driving in Colorado

Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal

By S.M. Oliva | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on September 14, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Jay Tiftickjian

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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 at Tiftickjian law firm 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 under the influence of drugs at all—remains a serious driving offense under Colorado DUI law. And in many cases, it is easier to get charged with drugged driving than a conventional DUI.

Never keep marijuana in your car. But if you do, keep it in a sealed container in the trunk… 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… With alcohol, we have 30 years’ worth of studies that brought us to the numbers we currently have.

Jay Tiftickjian

What is Marijuana DUI in Colorado?

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 Public Safety’s report on the impacts of marijuana legalization in the state, there were 132 marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado in 2019. 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 they have 5 nanograms of active THC in their blood. This is analogous to the blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit of .08.

But THC level is not the sole criterion for establishing a DUI charge. In fact, less than half of the 132 marijuana-related traffic deaths noted above involved drivers who exceeded the 5-nanogram THC limit.

What Are the Penalties for a Marijuana DUI in Colorado?

Criminal penalties for drugged driving are treated the same as penalties for any other DUI conviction.

If you are a first-time offender, a drugged driving conviction carries a possible jail time of between 5 days and one year. You will also be fined between $600 and $1,000 and may need to perform up to 96 hours of community service.

For subsequent offenses, you must receive at least two years probation and a one-year suspended jail sentence.

Driver’s License Suspension for Refusing a Test

Furthermore, 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 test, breath test, 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 offense, this license suspension period is one year. This is considered an “administrative” sanction, so your suspension is independent of any criminal charges or penalties that you may face.

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 that 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.”

Following a DUI arrest, an individual will be booked with charges. You have the right to an attorney, and criminal defense lawyers generally recommend that you obtain legal representation as soon as possible.

An attorney will understand your state’s DUI laws and defenses, court procedures, and the rules around admissibility of evidence. They’ll also be able to give legal advice regarding potential outcomes given the facts of your case, including plea bargains or the advisability of going to trial.

FAQs for a Colorado DUI Defense Attorney

If you’re facing DUI charges, use the Super Lawyers directory to find an experienced Colorado DUI attorney. Here are some common questions you may want to ask when meeting a lawyer for the first time:

  • Can I refuse a drug test if suspected of marijuana DUI? Generally speaking, you can refuse a test if requested by law enforcement—however, refusal will bring consequences such as a suspended driver’s license.
  • What are the potential defenses against marijuana DUI charge? The best legal defense depends on your specific situation. A common DUI defense is to dispute the results of chemical tests showing intoxication or to argue that such tests are inadmissible. An attorney will be able to advise on your best defenses.
  • How does a marijuana DUI affect my driver’s license? A DUI conviction may result in temporary or long-term loss of driving privileges. Ask a lawyer about your specific charges and consequences on your driver’s license.
  • Can a marijuana DUI conviction be expunged from my record? A DUI conviction will stay on your criminal record indefinitely. There are very few grounds on which to expunge a DUI conviction in Colorado, mostly involving underage drunk driving. If your DUI arrest didn’t end in a conviction, you have more options for expunging your record. It’s best to speak with a criminal defense lawyer with experience in criminal expungements.

If you’d like more general information about this area of the law, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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