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'We're All Learning This Together': Colorado State Troopers On Dealing With Recreational Marijuana

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The marijuana debate will soon reignite at the Minnesota State Capitol.

WCCO just traveled to Colorado, where it's been legal for years. We put driving while high to the test on a closed course outside Denver. Volunteers smoked marijuana under the watch of safety and medical professionals. Some drivers struggled to avoid traffic cones.

WCCO's Jennifer Mayerle spoke with state troopers in Colorado about what they face on the roads.

People living and working in Colorado know there are drivers who choose to use marijuana and get behind the wheel. According to a state agency, 30 percent of marijuana users think driving while high is safe.

"With marijuana I don't get so wasted that I am impaired to drive," Julie Romey said.

It's concerning to people who share the road.

"I do, I do worry about other drivers on the road," Kedrick Harry said.

Also concerned are Colorado state troopers.

"Is driving the biggest issue with marijuana?" Mayerle asked.

"For Colorado it is," Master Trooper Gary Cutler said.

"It happens all the time and I think it happens moreso than you would see in alcohol," Cutler said.

Cutler said they used to look for alcohol and other impairments mainly on nights, weekends and holidays, but things have changed.

"You can have pot all the time. This could be in the morning, this could be afternoon, this could be anytime. Not that we weren't looking for it, but just so we're remembering in our heads that this is out there a lot more available than it used to be," Cutler said.

Whether marijuana or alcohol, troopers are looking for drivers that stand out.

"If you have someone that's weaving, going too slow, impeding traffic, speeding, following too closely," Cutler said.

There's no reliable roadside test like a breathalyzer, yet. Troopers can conduct a field sobriety test and ask drivers to do a blood test to check their THC level. Colorado's legal limit is 5 nanograms. And the state has what's called Drug Recognition Experts.

"We come in. It's basically to try to determine where that impairment came from," Cpl. Ivan Alvarado said.

There are many different ways to consume marijuana: edibles, oils, vaping, and smoking. As such, the smell may not always be a clue.

"We look at the eyes, we look at the pulse. We look at blood pressure," Alvarado said.

A driver can refuse the tests, risking loss of license. In order to make an arrest, troopers combine observed impairment with the THC level. That goes for people using recreational or medicinal marijuana.

"Can I articulate why I stopped them? Can I articulate what I saw they were doing that made me believe they were impaired," Cutler said.

Driving while high has proved fatal in Colorado.

Lives changed in 2014 when a high school student was struck and killed by a high teenager. Three years later, a mother and her 3-year-old son lost their lives. The driver had marijuana in his system and failed to stop.

There are statistics on fatalities and crashes. But troopers admit the early stats don't provide a clear picture. If drivers are using alcohol and marijuana, it's easier to charge alcohol. So marijuana impairment isn't always making its way into a report. And they say there are still challenges.

"It comes down to driving again," Cutler said. "We were starting to get a hang on alcohol, well now there are some that never tried marijuana and they're trying it now and they're getting themselves in trouble, just like people did when they drank too much."

State agencies have launched campaigns about safe and sober driving, but say there's still a ways to go.

"Is it dangerous to have this out there and still be learning about it on our roads?" Mayerle asked.

"I think anything you do if you don't know everything it's going to be a learning curve for you. So it can be dangerous and we're all learning this together," Cutler said.

Colorado's governor told WCCO: "In Colorado, voters made the choice to legalize marijuana. There's still work to be done, but we're in a much better place than we were before legalization. Coloradans understand that this industry is helping grow Colorado's economy by creating jobs and generating valuable revenue that is going towards preventing youth consumption, protecting public health and safety and investing in public school construction. Although, I would like Colorado to continue to attract Minnesotans who help keep the revenue flowing from this industry in our state, I wish Minnesotans and Gov. Walz the best of luck in trying to keep up with Colorado's lead and our thriving cannabis and hemp industry."

Wednesday at 6: WCCO takes a look at the marijuana pipeline from the grow house to the store and customers.

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