Colorado’s poster boy for ‘stoned driving’ was drunk off his gourd

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

In the state where recreational pot 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 CSP posted the incident on its Facebook page, and commenters responded by linking the incident to Amendment 64, the measure that legalized marijuana.

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. Denver’s alt weekly, the Westword, quoted extensively from police sources about how Kilbey’s wreck illustrated the dangers of driving while stoned. Denver’s Fox 31 reported: “Man charged with driving while stoned after hitting CSP vehicles.” The headline from Denver’s ABC7 was “Suspected stoned driver hits 2 Colorado State Patrol vehicles investigating a crash on I-76 ramp,” and for emphasis added on another line, “Driver suspected of being on drugs.” Colorado 9News asked, “Is weekend wreck a sign of ‘high’ times in Colorado?” then tied the wreck to an earlier fatal accident in which the driver was high on meth and heroin. From (ironically enough) the conservative news outlet the Blaze: “Man Allegedly High on Marijuana Made a Big Mistake on a Colorado Interstate.” Colorado’s 9News ran the story “Driver who hit 2 state troopers’ cars was high on pot” with an accompanying video that interspersed images of pot plants and an anonymous guy exhaling pot smoke with footage from inside of a car. And the CBS affiliate and Denver proclaimed, “Troopers Say Man Who Crashed Into Patrol Car Was Stoned.”

In a more nuanced piece published about a months after the crash, the Denver Post’s John Ingold noted that neither Kilbey’s official summons nor the incident report made any mention of pot.

This week, Keith Kilbey accepted a plea bargain. Here’s the headline from the Denver Post:

Drunk, stoned driver takes plea deal after car crash in Adams County

Wait, Kilbey was drunk? Neither drunk nor alcohol appeared in any of those previous stories.

In fact, Kilbey had a blood-alcohol concentration of .268, more than three times the legal limit. The current legal limit is .08. People with Kilbey’s BAC typically experience severely impaired motor function, loss of consciousness and memory blackout. Kilbey 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 itself has a much less pronounced effect on motorists than alcohol. (Scroll down to see the graph and link to the corresponding study under the section headed “Drugged driving is a concern, but it’s overblown” in this piece from Vox.) Kilbey’s alcohol consumption was by far the more likely cause of his impairment on the night of his wreck.

It’s hard to put too much blame on the media who bit on the Colorado State Patrol’s efforts to make Kilbey the face of pot-impaired driving. They weren’t at the scene, after all. And the CSP kept Kilbey’s toxicology reports quiet. But perhaps a little reflection is now in order. It’s hard to imagine that with a .268 BAC, Keith Kilbey didn’t reek of alcohol. Unless he’s a seasoned alcoholic, he was also likely falling-down drunk. Did they not give him a breath test at the scene? Isn’t it at least a little bit curious that shortly after Amendment 64 took effect, CSP would play up the possibility that he was high but make no mention that he was drunk?

Despite an abundance of data to the contrary, reputable media outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Times are still running stories claiming that pot legalization has unleashed a wave of crime, drugged driving and stoned psychopaths. The stories are primarily based on anecdotes from law enforcement officials and avowed pot opponents. Perhaps it’s time to start looking at those anecdotes with a bit more skepticism.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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