SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Rep. Steve Waldrip, as promised, has introduced a measure aimed at beefing up the potential penalties faced by those convicted of driving after using marijuana.
The measure, motivated by deadly car crashes in Utah and Weber counties, received a 10-0 favorable recommendation on Wednesday from the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. Now House Bill 350 will go to the full Utah House for consideration.
“This is a start. The challenge with marijuana is it doesn’t act like alcohol and other drugs,” said Waldrip, a Republican from Eden. That is, measuring use and impairment among marijuana users isn’t as advanced or definitive as with alcohol use.
As is, driving with a measurable amount of a controlled substance in your body — a typical charge against those charged with driving while high on marijuana — is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail.
Waldrip’s proposal would increase the severity of the offense to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, if the offender is involved in an accident stemming from negligent driving that kills someone or causes “serious bodily injury.” It would also elevate the offense, regardless of the other circumstances, to a third-degree felony on a third conviction.
The potential penalty is “enhanced now whereas before it wasn’t,” Waldrip said, and brings the punishment more in line with sanctions for parallel offenses committed while under the influence of alcohol. “Steps it up from a misdemeanor to a felony.”
The controlled-substance offense would become a class A misdemeanor if the offender causes an accident due to negligent driving that results in a less-severe injury or if the offender has a minor in his or her vehicle.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, a Democrat from Sandy, is also pushing HB 350. As a prosecutor in Murray, he is witness to instances of drugged driving that lead to fatalities and he sees the measure as a means to make Utah roads safer.
Indeed, Waldrip pursued HB 350 in part because of two fatal crashes involving drivers who authorities say had tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in their system, one in Weber County and one in Utah County. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana.
In the Weber County crash, Krystal Sly was convicted of a misdemeanor count of driving with a measurable amount of a controlled substance in her body, THC, stemming from a Nov. 21, 2018, crash that killed Brittany Zoller. Zoller was walking across U.S. 89 in Harrisville at the time and Sly, who wasn’t deemed to be negligent though she had THC in her system, was fined $680 and received a suspended six-month jail sentence.
In the Utah County case, Kali Hardman was deemed to have been driving negligently when involved in a July 22, 2018, crash near Birdseye that killed Baylor Stout of West Jordan. She was convicted of driving negligently and causing a death, a third-degree felony, while another charge was dismissed of possession of a controlled substance, though investigators said Hardman had THC in her system.
HB 350 differentiates between the presence of “active THC” in the system of offenders, which can cause impairment, versus “inactive metabolites,” which don’t cause impairment. Still, crafting legislation can be complicated, in part because of the limited study of marijuana’s effects relative to alcohol and the challenges in pinpointing impairment caused by pot use, according to Waldrip.
“It’s incredibly complicated,” he said.
Even so, he thinks penalties related to driving on drugs should be on par with the tougher, parallel penalties for drunk driving. He and Stoddard are pushing for a closer look over the summer at the state’s laws governing drug and alcohol use and misuse with an eye to ironing out inconsistencies between penalties that vary depending on the drug involved in a particular offense.