Highway safety bill challenges civil liberties

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given final approval to a transportation bill that creates a threshold for marijuana intoxication, with critics saying the legislation is not based on science and could lead to the disclosure of private medical information.

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved SB 225, which lowers the threshold for a driver’s alcohol level when combined with marijuana, and paves the way for roadside saliva tests that reveal not just the presence of THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — but other drugs as well.

Under the terms of the bill, a driver would be considered impaired when having a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 when combined with a THC count of 1.5 nanograms.

The current drunken-driving BAC threshold is 0.08.

Prior to Wednesday, the bill called for an intoxication level of 0.05 for alcohol when combined with any measurable amount of marijuana. However, Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, introduced an amendment setting a specific amount of THC, which he said was based on numerous studies equating 1.5 nanograms with intoxication.

At the same time, Till said “it is conceivable” a person could register a THC level of 1.5 nanograms 30 days after use, and long after the intoxication had subsided.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, said he had been worried about the proposal ever since law enforcement officials attempted to attach it to a transportation bill last year.

“There is no science behind levels of drugs that cause impairment,” said Gilbert, noting the sole exception of alcohol, whose intoxication level is grounded in decades of science.

“For other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, there just isn’t the science behind knowing what amount of the drug in your system- even if it can be accurately tested — makes you impaired,” Gilbert continued. “We’re talking about giving police the authority to pull people over, detain them and possibly arrest them based on information that, so far, science tells us isn’t there.”

Gilbert also expressed concern the legislation allows for roadside saliva testing to determine THC levels, noting the technology tests for the presence of all manner of other drugs, including those that do not cause intoxication.

“The drugs you take usually point to conditions that are medical conditions, and medical information is some of the most highly protected and most private information we have, and to have that information being produced by roadside testing machines and held by police, outside of the usual protections held by hospitals and doctors, really concerns us,” Gilbert.

Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, introduced an amendment to prevent roadside saliva tests to be used as evidence, noting the tests will reveal drugs related to everything from depression and high blood pressure to incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

Rachelson’s amendment failed.

“I think the right to privacy stops when you undertake driving on public highways,” said Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. “Any embarrassment that results, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t weigh against the death and disfigurement of others.”

House lawmakers also rejected a proposed amendment that would have lowered the BAC level to 0.05 when combined with any level of any intoxicating drug.

“We have heard the last few years the biggest societal problem we have is the use of opiates,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre City, who offered the amendment. “Why would we want to protect people who are mixing other drugs with alcohol and driving on our roads?”

Coincidentally or not, the vote fell on April 20, which is a day many people celebrate marijuana. At the University of Vermont, hundreds of students gathered to smoke together.

josh.ogorman@timesargus.com

One thought on “Highway safety bill challenges civil liberties

  1. The reason you might not want law enforcement to know you take opiates is because it could stigmatize you. Believe it or not, some of us actually take opiates for pain…I have a chronic condition and take a variety of meds, not just opiates…and I don’t want to have to go thru all kinds of heck just because some state trooper detects opiates while testing for marijuana. I don’t carry all my meds with me every where I go, so how would I prove I have a prescription right there on the side of the road for the hydrocodone I take as prescribed? Am I, a law abiding citizen going to have to go down to the station and have someone bring my meds to the police station, just to prove I am prescribed what I take? Or call my doctor from jail? What if it’s a weekend and doc is not in office? Really guys, do you ever think of real life situations like this?

    See the hassle this causes? Now, as long as I don’t have to do anything about what else they detect in my system, as long as I don’t have marijuana in my saliva, I am cool with it. But the minute the cops harass me about whatever else they detect thru my saliva is the minute I bring suit against the state of Vermont and law enforcement for violating my civil rights.

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