Sunday, September 19, 2010

In the Spirit of Mr. Swift and Mr. Yutang

I once read an article in Slate suggesting that one of the most unmentioned and considerable benefits of legalizing marijuana one that the legalization movement’s more boisterous and vocal supporters might be reluctant to cite themselves would be the subsequent drafting and implementation of traffic laws pertaining specifically to driving under the influence of THC.

We have a very thorough and detailed set of regulations regarding drinking and driving in place precisely because alcohol is a legal drug. When you have a populace whose adult members are free to consume a depressant that induces dizziness, impairs judgment, and severely inhibits coordination, it becomes an imperative of public safety that legislative steps are taken to dissuade and punish people for operating motor vehicles under the influence of said depressant. Thus, we have unambiguous laws establishing a threshold on what constitutes “drunk driving” and equip law enforcement officers with the tools and methods for determining whether motorists fall within that threshold.

Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, no such regulations for driving under the influence of THC exist. The laws and circumstances vary from state to state, but for the most part, if a United States police officer pulls you over and suspects from your bleary eyes and suppressed smirk that you might be driving stoned, there is very little he can do unless he finds drugs on your person or in your vehicle, compels you to admit to having abused an illegal euphoriant, or fails you on a field sobriety test (which is unlikely, provided he is not particularly vindictive and you are not naturally uncoordinated). Unless you were violating some other traffic law when he pulled you over (and unless he has a personal vendetta against you and/or a lot of time on his hands), all he can do is give you a warning and send you on your way.

If marijuana were legalized, our lawmakers would immediately draft a set of laws governing precisely what constitutes “stoned driving.” Some enterprising chemists would devise and effective on-the-spot test for recent cannabis use (the new laws would create an urgent incentive for them to do so) that would soon become as commonplace as the breathalyzer device. If a motorist were suspected of getting behind the wheel stoned, he would be tested on the spot and subjected to the appropriate penalties should the results turn out positive.

This would be unfortunate. Marijuana is one of the best and most pleasurable drugs, and few of its pleasures can match that of driving under its influence.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not advocate smoking and driving under every circumstance. It is certainly possible to be too stoned to drive; getting behind the wheel after puffing on a joint and getting behind the wheel after taking gravity bong rips are two entirely different situations. The contrast is as stark as that between having a glass of wine and a glass of whiskey. Moreover, I do not advocate nor recommend smoking and driving in an urban or suburban setting. Such environments present the motorist with a perpetual slew of challenges: traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, frequent turns, frequent stops, crowded roadways, and so on. The motorist, by getting behind the wheel, tacitly acknowledges that he is responsible for perceiving and reacting appropriately to these obstacles, and that great penalties (including public and personal shame) will be assessed should he fail to do so. He should be aware that although his state of mind may change, his responsibility does not.

An experienced pot smoker knows that, contrary to popular belief, he is capable of performing just about any task while stoned as well as he can sober. It only takes a much more focused effort to do so. The intelligent and responsible smoker also understands that this effort, coupled with the effects of the drug, will cause him a considerable amount of stress he might have easily foregone by choosing not to surreptitiously smoke a joint during rush hour on Main Street, USA or in downtown Manhattan. Therefore, smoking and driving in such settings is against the better interests of the smoker’s pleasure at best and of public safety at worst. The savvy smoker would be well-advised to abstain for the time.

Highway driving is another matter entirely. Despite the higher speeds (and increased risk of fatality should something go awry), operating a motor vehicle on the Interstate only demands about three of the motorist:

1.) Keeping his foot on the gas pedal and his car in the lane.

2.) Maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of him.

3.) Keeping his eyes on the road and remaining conscious.

Driving on the highway consists mostly of sitting in one place and staring straight ahead for several hours. Marijuana is a drug that makes doing precisely this a source of great pleasure for the user, and does not inhibit his capacity to perform any of the aforementioned three tasks.

Not only is the highway pot smoker having a better time, but very likely safer than the sober driver. We will turn later to scientific findings of the impact of THC on driving performance, but for now, let us rely on observation and common sense.

Imagine yourself on the Garden State Parkway. A Corvette tears past at 90 miles an hour, weaving through traffic and cutting off other vehicles. Its driver can be glimpsed sucking down his Starbucks latte and shouting into a Bluetooth at his secretary, stock broker, or bond officer. He is clearly not stoned. He is stone-cold sober, and he is a danger to himself and everyone with whom he shares the road.

The pot smoker, on the other hand, is more likely to be in the vehicle that never leaves the far right lane and coasts along at 10 mph below the speed limit. He will maintain a safe distance from the car in front of him, because accelerating and changing lanes is a bother to him, and he does not wish to draw attention to himself by tailgating. He feels compelled to check his mirrors every thirty to ninety seconds (perhaps owing to the mild paranoia associated with THC). The highway motorist on pot is unhurried, cautious, and mindful of his surroundings, and, because of his relaxed state, patient and considerate towards other drivers. Would that every motorist in America demonstrated such safe and responsible behavior on our highways.

But what if some unexpected disaster occurs? Imagine a truck flipping over or a drunk driver crossing the divider and hurtling into oncoming traffic. Will the stoned driver not be at a disadvantage?

I am inclined to believe he is not. For one thing, he will likely be driving at a much slower speed than his clear-headed counterparts, which already puts him in far less danger. He will also be somewhat more vigilant – under the influence of THC, details become more vivid, and even the slightest change in one’s surroundings becomes a potential cause for alarm. At any rate, there is no reason why a stoned driver’s reaction to a sudden hazard should differ from that of a sober driver.

The results of a recent study on THC’s effects upon driving arrive at a similar conclusion:

During the study, some subjects were given actual marijuana cigarettes, and some were given a placebo, with neither the investigator nor the subject knowing which they had smoked. Another administrator kept track of who was given which type of cigarette.

The marijuana was supplied by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the University of
Mississippi, the only legal source of the drug in the U.S.

Subjects drove a high-tech simulator that was very realistic, said Beth Anderson, an investigator in the study. "It was an actual car with parts replaced by computers."

Participants then drove down a simulated country road for 15 minutes, first in an "uneventful" simulation, and then in collision-avoidance and distracted-driving simulations, the study states.

In the collision-avoidance portion, drivers reacted to simulated events such as another driver entering an intersection illegally, a changing traffic light, and a dog running into the road.

The researchers found no signifcant difference between the study groups in the collision-avoidance tests.

During the distracted-driving segment, participants solved "mental math" problems while driving, Anderson said. Subjects answered aloud simple math problems that were provided by a recording.

Speed and steering variability, as well as the number of errors made in the math portion of the test, were used to determine how impaired subjects were, according to Anderson.

"The study didn't find a lot of impairment," Anderson said. "[Subjects] slowed down. It looked like they were trying to compensate. Compensation would only take you so far."

Beth Anderson, an investigator in this study, apparently suffers from cognitive dissonance as she reports these findings. (They likely were not what she expected or wanted them to be.)

For instance, researchers noted that in the distracted-driving tests, "participants under the influence of marijuana failed to benefit from prior [driving] experience … as evidenced by a decrease in speed and a failure to show expected practice effects."

"The results do not imply that it is safe to drive under the influence of marijuana, especially because we know people aren't just smoking marijuana," Anderson said. "They do it while drinking. They do this when others are in the car, listening to music, talking on cellphones or texting. These behaviors distract drivers and are even more dangerous when someone has been using marijuana."

The study suggests that the greatest danger of driving under the influence of THC is an increased susceptibility to distraction. This is true, and it is why smoking and driving on a busy street in a city or town is not recommended. But one would be hard pressed to find anything very distracting on the Jersey Turnpike or the stretch of Route 80 between Omaha and Salt Lake City. Roads such as these can cause great stress to a motorist for their lack of distractions. Or they may simply put the motorist in a state of profound boredom and boredom leads to inattentiveness, and inattentiveness leads to accidents.

Anderson’s second reservation is an irrelevant and intentionally misleading argument. “We know people aren’t just smoking marijuana,” she says. Do we? What if they are just smoking marijuana?

If a person is willing to get behind the wheel on alcohol or painkillers, or take their eyes off the road for thirty seconds in order to send a text message or update their Facebook status, marijuana should be the least of anyone’s worries. These people are idiots. A puff on a joint might make one silly, but it does not make him stupid. That would be a pre-existing condition.

I suppose I have nothing left to say on this topic for now. It is Sunday afternoon, and I am going to start a fire under the power lines and read about Socrates.

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