Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- A bill in the Montana House of Representatives would make driving high on THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, a DUI – no matter what kind of THC or how it was produced.  

Under current law, driving under the influence of THC is a criminal offense but the law is murky on driving under the influence of its different variants, like those derived from CBD, the non-intoxicating compound in marijuana or hemp. Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, is the sponsor of House Bill 437

“We are trying to make sure that there's not a loophole in the law where somebody who is driving impaired and driving under the influence of THC -- because it's Delta 10 or 11 or what have you. There is currently this loophole law that says, ‘well, I can't actually get charged with this DUI,’” Zolnikov said.  

There were four proponents of the bill at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, including Cort Jensen, who is the chief attorney for the Montana Department of Agriculture. 

“We think it will help be consistent across both department of Ag, Revenue, Justice and everyone else if we switch away from the classic Farm Bill model, which was Delta-9, to the shenanigans that are going on. Which is basically just call it all THC regardless of the exact chemistry, since they can have mind-altering effects,” Jensen said.  

Variants of THC, commonly referred to as Delta-8 or Delta-10, are produced through the chemical processing of CBD. There are many variations of the substance and new forms are evolving. Variants like Delta-8 are currently sold legally in Montana without any age restrictions after the federal legalization of hemp in 2018. Its effects are largely unstudied and dependent on both dosing and the size of the individual who consumed it.

Lawmakers are also considering other bills concerning the legality of various THC variants like Delta-8. House Bill 373, for example, would criminalize the sale or distribution of THC to minors. 

HB 437 would also decriminalize the use of drug testing strips, which are now classified as paraphernalia in Montana. The bill would allow Montanans to test for any type of drug -- from opioids to date-rape drugs. 

Rebecca de Camara is the Administrator of the Developmental Services Division in the Department of Health and Human Services and testified in favor of the bill. She said expanding Montanans access to drug testing is important. She said fentanyl has been found in ‘imitation’ pills in Montana that are designed to appear similarly or identical to other drugs used recreationally – like adderall or xanax.

“Removing fentanyl test strips from the category of drug paraphernalia and enabling people to possess the strips without being subject to criminal penalties will allow people access to an easy-to-administer, an affordable means to determine if their drugs have been adulterated with fentanyl and to take subsequent steps to reduce their risk of overdose,” de Camara said.  

Fentanyl overdose rates have increased more than 1,100% in Montana since 2017, according to the Department of Justice. Proponents of the bill said legalizing test strips would help Montanans figure out if substances they, or someone they know, take are laced with something else. 

Supporters of the bill said this would be especially important in preventing minors from overdose and preventing Motnanans from unknowingly ingesting date-rape drugs. They also said this could potentially lower the number of accidental overdoses and drug-related deaths in Montana. 

There were no opponents of the bill and the committee did not take immediate action.