AUGUSTA, Maine — Voting 7-4, a Maine legislative panel Thursday rejected a bill to set a blood-level limit that could have been used as evidence to convict a person for driving under the influence of marijuana.
The vote split largely along party lines, with Democrats voting against the proposed standard and Republicans voting for it.
The bill will move to the full Legislature, where lawmakers in the House and Senate will decide whether to accept the committee’s vote to reject the measure or side with supporters of the bill and adopt it.
Under the proposal, a new blood-level limit of 5 nanograms of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — would be used as part of the evidence to convict a driver of operating under the influence, similar to the state’s 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level used for drunken-driving convictions.
Thursday’s vote is the culmination of months of testimony from prosecutors, defense attorneys and advocates of medical marijuana users.
Opponents of the change argued that the 5-nanogram standard for marijuana is not backed up by solid science. They also said that while many agreed those impaired by a mind-altering drug should not be operating motor vehicles on Maine roads, they questioned the fairness of convicting individuals based on inconclusive science.
Supporters of the bill wanted some baseline for determining impairment for those who drive while under the influence of marijuana. They also supported components of the bill that would make the use of hand-held breath tests for alcohol more available to law enforcement in Maine.
The bill included components that would have required blood testing to determine which drugs, if any, are involved in fatal crashes in Maine. The state tests for the presence of alcohol in most fatal or near-fatal crashes.
But the parts of the bill that would have given a prosecutor the ability to point to a THC nanogram level as proof an operator was impaired created wide-ranging anxiety for defense attorneys and civil rights advocates.
Others said the cost of targeting only marijuana users without an overall strategy to reduce impaired driving for all mind-altering substances, including opioids such as heroin and other drugs such as stimulants, seemed like a misuse of public funds.
Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, said the change also could sweep up medical marijuana users in a dragnet of which they were not the intended targets.
“Every dollar that we spend on pulling people into the criminal justice system is one less dollar we have for preventing and treating actual drug issues that our state is facing,” Warren said. “I think we worked really hard for this, but I just don’t think it’s ready for prime time.”
At least three other states, Colorado, Montana and Washington, have set blood-level nanogram standards for THC ranging from 5 to 15 nanograms per deciliter of blood.
The final committee vote on the bill is likely to change to 7-6, because two lawmakers who were absent Thursday are likely to join the minority in supporting the switch.
Despite the vote Thursday, Maine still has a tough law on operating under the influence, and police and prosecutors can charge those who are driving impaired by legal or illegal mind-altering substances.
“We could take out the section on nanograms entirely and leave it to the good sense, the training of the police to gather information, gather facts and determine whether or not to charge somebody with driving under the influence of drugs,” Rep. James Davitt, D-Hampden, said. “They do it anyway. If we take out the nanograms, what we have left is a bill that says you should not operate while under the influence of alcohol or drugs — and we’ve already got that.”
Prosecutors who spoke in favor of the change said the state was on its way to having the ability to test blood for a variety of drugs beyond alcohol and setting limits and standards would give them one more tool in a case against an impaired driver.