A wild ride for civil liberties

Published on: May 16th, 2012

It’s been a long, strange couple of days on the liberty and freedom beat.

Down at the state Capitol, the mixed messages were that the Republicans will stoop to any level of political trickery to ensure that same-sex couples can’t enjoy the legal protections of civil unions but that there’s not as much will to impose an arbitrary and unfair threshold on blood-THC levels on motorists who smoke marijuana. On the local front, there was a bit more of a decisive victory in which a judge determined that people charged with violating Boulder’s camping ordinance—i.e., sleeping while homeless—have a right to a jury trial, just as every other American charged with a crime.

Let’s recap, from victory for common sense to failure:

Earlier this year, in response to both the Occupy Boulder movement and the city’s ongoing attempts to thwart at least the visible aspect of homelessness, Boulder reduced the penalties for public camping while also eliminating defendants’ ability to demand a jury trial. Ostensibly, this was to reduce congestion at the courthouse, which saw a number of allegedly illegal campers demanding their right to be tried before a jury of their peers. This week, a municipal court judge ruled that those who are accused of violating the no-camping ordinance do in fact have a right to a jury trial. Chalk one up in the victory column.

Another victory, although somewhat qualified, is the failure of the state legislature to pass a bill setting a blood-THC limit for determining if motorists are too stoned to drive. The threshold under consideration was 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, the same threshold that was decisively shown to be too low by none other than Westword’s dispensary reviewer, the pseudonymous William Breathes. When the same bill was being debated last year, Breathes—who suffers from Crohn’s-like symptoms and uses medical marijuana regularly—abstained from smoking and visited his doctor. The doctor certified that he was completely unimpaired and capable of driving a car. But his blood tests showed that he had three times the amount of THC in his blood to be considered too stoned to drive. The argument, in short, is that THC is nothing like alcohol in that it can remain in one’s bloodstream long after the effects have worn off. Opponents of the bill argued that marijuana users, particularly patients, were being set up to have their licenses revoked due to an arbitrary blood-THC limit. The bill failed only because one Senator who was expected to vote in favor didn’t show up to break the 17-17 tie. Something similar is sure to be introduced in the future.

Finally, in the “shameful disgrace” category is the handling by House Speaker Frank McNulty of a civil union bill supported by enough Republicans that it was expected to pass. McNulty did all he could to ensure it never came up for a vote, however. Before the end of the regular session, he and other likeminded Republicans used stalling tactics, a long recess and other shenanigans to ensure the bill wasn’t heard before the midnight deadline on the eve of the session’s last day. Scuttling the bill this way also scuttled several others stacked up behind it, including the THC bill. This maneuver led Gov. John Hickenlooper to call a special session, during which McNulty assigned the bill to a committee it could never pass out of, ensuring that it was killed for good. What’s worse is that McNulty then went on the attack, trying to blame the cost of a special session (some $23,000 per day) on Hickenlooper, trying to tie him to President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. This is a failure on every front and even some Republicans who are opposed to civil unions—as well as some of their deep-pocketed financial supporters—are reportedly angry that the bill was barred from debate.

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