Balko: A half-baked story in Colorado

By Radley Balko

The Washington Post

In January, Keith Kilbey crashed his car into a couple of police cars north of Denver. They were blocking the entrance to a highway exit ramp, and their lights were flashing at the time Kilbey hit them. Shortly after the accident, a Colorado State Patrol spokesman said that Kilbey was high on pot and that he had been charged with driving under the influence of drugs. “This time we were fortunate,” warned a corporal, “but many officers across the nation are not so lucky.”

In the state where recreational marijuana had just become legal, Kilbey became the poster boy for the dangers of driving while stoned. And with good reason. A sky-high driver who couldn’t even see the bright flashing lights of a couple of parked police cruisers confirmed all the predictions from law enforcement about the highway carnage Colorado would see after legalization.

The Denver Post ran the headline “Colorado State Patrol says stoned driver crashed into 2 patrol vehicles” and included a stock photo of a bag of joints. Many other news outlets made the same connection, while Denver’s alternative weekly Westword quoted police sources extensively about how Kilbey’s wreck illustrated the dangers of driving while stoned.

About a month after the crash, though, the Denver Post’s John Ingold noted in a more nuanced piece that neither Kilbey’s official summons nor the incident report made any mention of pot.

On Thursday, Kilbey accepted a plea bargain. The Denver Post’s headline on the news story: “Drunk, stoned driver takes plea deal after car crash in Adams County.”

Wait, he was drunk? This wasn’t mentioned in any of the previous stories about the crash.

Kilbey’s blood-alcohol concentration was more than three times the legal limit, a level at which people typically experience severely impaired motor function, loss of consciousness and memory blackout.

He also had pot in his system, about twice the state’s legal limit. But tests for pot impairment are a lot less precise, and pot has a much less pronounced effect on motorists than does alcohol. Alcohol consumption was by far the more likely cause of his impairment on the night of the wreck.

Isn’t it curious that, shortly after marijuana use became legal, the Colorado State Police would play up the possibility that Kilbey was high but make no mention that he was also drunk?