Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Chino, has introduced contentious legislation that could conceivably mean DUI convictions for unimpaired drivers, according to opponents of the bill.
The bill aims to make it a crime for drivers to operate a vehicle with any level of marijuana in their blood or urine.
But unlike the relatively quick burnoff rate of alcohol from one's system, advocates say marijuana compounds, or cannabinoids, can remain detectable in the body after the last use of the substance for up to 30 days. This difference is at the center of the controversy.
"For one thing, I think the cases would be thrown out of court because you can't prove the person was intoxicated, because they could have used 30 days before then," said Christopher Kenner of Rancho Cucamonga, who takes medicinal marijuana to relieve pain from pancreatitis.
In explaining her reasoning behind the the legislation, Torres cites National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data reporting that 30 percent of all drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes in California in 2010 tested positive for legal and or illegal drugs.
Torres said enacting the bill would help with data collection efforts on whether driving under the influence of marijuana contributes to fatal crashes.
"One of the problems we faced as we continue to research this issue is that data specifically related to marijuana is not being collected," Torres said. "That's something we're looking at in this process."
The bill is getting fierce opposition from marijuana legalization groups, such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
The effect of Torres's bill, said Dale Gieringer, director of NORML in California, would essentially be to criminalize every pot user in California who drives.
"If they want to make a lot more criminals, this is a great crime creator," Gieringer said. "We'll have a lot more criminals in California who haven't done anything. If you made an alcohol analogy for this bill, it would be searching for people's garbage and finding an empty beer bottle and automatically assuming they were DUI. We'll just assume you're driving under the influence."
Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML expects to testify against the bill at the Assembly Public Safety Committee soon.
"It's discriminatory, in that it would lower the burden of proof that is necessary for a state to gain a DUI conviction by setting a standard divorced from demonstrable impairment," Armentano said.
Stephen Downing, former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and a member of LEAP, calls the legislation "cruel" and "tyrannical." He said the group is gathering signatures from its law enforcement membership for a letter outlining its objections to the bill that will be sent to Torres soon.
It is currently illegal to drive under the influence of any drug or alcohol. Downing said officers are trained to make that determination through observation and constitutional policing methods that include probable cause to stop, detain, test and arrest those under the influence.
Torres said she intends that the bill not impact those that utilize marijuana medicinally. She admits the bill language is "not perfect" and there is room for amendment.
"We still can't ignore the fact that driving under the influence is a growing problem that we need to address," she said. She added, "I think it's in everyone's best interest, that whatever solution we come up with, it's something that will benefit our community as a whole."