I-Team: Nevada law raises questions in marijuana debate - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Nevada law raises questions in marijuana debate

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Joe Sorenson Joe Sorenson
Attorney John Watkins Attorney John Watkins
Attorney Ellen Bezian Attorney Ellen Bezian

LAS VEGAS – Around 9,000 medical marijuana cards have been issued by the state, and thousands more are expected to be issued as marijuana dispensaries come on line in the months ahead.

Public attitudes about pot have made an abrupt turnaround in Nevada and across the country, but one thing that hasn't changed is Nevada's strict DUI standards. Anyone who has a card or expects to get one should know about the risk.

Basically, you can have a medical marijuana card or you can drive a car, but you probably can't do both, not legally anyway. If you smoke weed every day, or even a few times a week, it is pretty much a certainty that you are way over the legal limit for THC or marijuana metabolites in your system. That limit, some say, has nothing whatsoever to do with whether someone is a safe driver.

“He told me he smelled marijuana in the car. I told him, ‘yeah, I have a little bag in my pocket.’ He pulled me out of the car, gave me the sobriety test, walk the line, touch your nose, look up for 30 seconds. I passed all of that and then he said ‘nope, your eyes tell me you're high,’ so he took me down to the station, arrested me,” said Joe Sorenson, who was cited for DUI.

He was pulled over because an officer thought his window tinting was too dark. When he first obtained his medical marijuana card a few years ago, he was advised by the state to wait at least three hours from the time he smoked until he drove a car.

“I hadn't smoked in five or six hours, and I was 300 times over the legal limit,” Sorenson said.

Medical marijuana has finally arrived in Nevada. The state has issued about 9,000 cards to patients and more are coming, but DUI laws have not changed with public attitudes.

“It's the one aberration in current Nevada law, where you are taking a legally prescribed drug, and you are driving accurately but a cop stops you, they test your blood, and you are arrested for a DUI,” said Tick Segerblom, an attorney and Nevada state senator.

He says the law needs to be changed to reflect a new reality about pot. Traces of marijuana can stay in a person's system for weeks, at levels exceeding Nevada's legal limit of 2 nanograms in the blood. Anyone with a medical marijuana card who smokes is going to be well over that level, pretty much all the time.

At his trial, Sorenson’s attorney questioned the arresting officer.

“My attorney asked him how many marijuana patients have you pulled over. He didn't know the number, but he said a lot. And she asked him if anybody had passed his marijuana sobriety and he said no one had ever passed,” said Sorenson.

“They know this gray area exists and they can get 100 percent conviction rate, because they can,” said Adam Sternberg, who runs a non-profit consulting firm that helps people obtain marijuana cards.

He says he sees DUI cases every day in which the drivers were not impaired but were still convicted. Patients who smoke it every day or even every week can't possibly meet the 2 nanogram standard.

“A lot of people are medical patients and have to build up a systemic level in their system to get the effect they need, so it would take months for myself to come down off these levels to pass their test,” Sternberg said.

What it means is that you can have a marijuana card or a driver’s license but not both because there is no way a card holder can meet the 2 nanogram level.

“We are aware that those levels are arbitrary and meaningless. They have nothing to do with protecting those of us who drive the streets,” said Ellen Bezian, an attorney.

“We need to change the nanogram level because it's not going to work,” attorney John Watkins added.

Both attorneys have down this road before. Fourteen years ago, their best known client Jessica Williams smoked a joint at Valley of Fire, then later drove back to town, fell asleep, and killed six teens who were picking up trash in the middle of the freeway.

The police and the jury agreed she was not impaired but she was sentenced to as many as 48 years in prison. It is where she remains today.

“I don’t want to stand up for myself and I'd really just rather not be alive,” Jessica Williams told the I-Team in Feb. 2008.

Watkins and Bezian said the scientific evidence shows there is no relationship between Nevada's nanogram standard and impairment while driving. A person who smokes pot can be perfectly straight the following day but still fail the test by a wide margin.

“It's almost negligible. How do you measure that? And this is why we are incarcerating people?” Bezian said.

“The reason she should be out and never should have been in there to begin with is that she wasn't in violation of the law. She wasn't impaired on the marijuana plant, so she should not have went there in the first place,” Watkins said.

Sternberg says most marijuana patients medicate themselves prior to meals or before going to bed because it eases pain, and they don’t medicate while driving, but what about card holders like Sorenson? If he wants to get to work, he would need to get someone else to take him.

“All they have to do is a blood test and you're gonna fail,” Sorenson said.

Segerblom says instead of an arbitrary level, why not make sobriety tests mean something?

“Because people get a tolerance to it. That's just what is in your system and is not relative to what makes you function, but you can test someone physically. You can look in their eyes. You can walk the line. You can talk to them. Then if they are slurring or are impaired, then you can arrest them. But that ought to be the standard and police are trained for that,” he said.

Senator Segerblom says if a driver can pass a field sobriety test, that should be enough. He says, police officers undergo rigorous training about how to identify impaired drivers.

Metro Police officials say their job is to enforce the law as written. A driver who is over the legal limit is -- in th eyes of the law -- a threat to the safety of others and that police will do what is needed to keep such drivers off the roads.

States which have recently decriminalized marijuana use have seen a spike in the number of stoned drivers  involved in accidents.

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