Driving High: L.A. Reporters Take Weed And The Wheel For Science

The jury's out on how much smoking marijuana impairs driving.
The jury's out on how much smoking marijuana impairs driving.
David McNew/Getty Images

California law enforcement officials observe reporters who've smoked marijuana behind the wheel, fretting over whether accidents will increase if the state approves an initiative to legalize marijuana.

If the city attorney asks you to smoke marijuana and perform a series of driving tests, do you refuse?

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and KABC radio host Peter Tilden sure didn't.

As California prepares to vote on a ballot initiative that would legalize medical marijuana next month, Lopez tells All Things Considered Host Robert Siegel that he had to "take a hit here for science."

As Lopez tells it in his column today, he was asked by Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich to "help determine whether, and how, marijuana impairs driving."

In light of the likely passage of the ballot initiative, Trutanich and law enforcement officials in California are pretty concerned about whether driving high is as bad as driving drunk.

Since Lopez had a prescription for medical marijuana for a bad back, obtained hilariously but legally from a gynecologist, he agreed. (We've noted before how easy it is to get a prescription in California.)

As part of the experience, Lopez and Tilden then were put through the paces in a car of weaving around traffic cones, parking, and following traffic signals. Then they were asked to smoke marijuana and do it again.

Lopez's buds were called "Train Wreck," which may have explained the rationale for having an emergency crew standing at the ready.

Lopez had trouble at the traffic light, and says if he was a cop, he would have pulled himself over.

To be sure, the science on marijuana impaired driving is hazy. An oft-cited Department of Transportation study in 1999 concludes that both alcohol and marijuana impair driving abilities, particularly at higher doses. An older DOT study shows minimal effect from marijuana, although users thought they were impaired.

A 2004 document published by the National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration says marijuana can impair driving.

But a study published earlier this year in the Journal for Psychoactive Drugs suggests pot has little effect on driving abilities.

Lopez tells Siegel he was "prone to do silly things" after smoking the pot. When he first got in the care, he hit the gas hard and aiming in the direction of the police officers gathered to observe him. "And then I blew the horn," Lopez says, laughing.

He adds that he didn't feel as impaired as he might have been after a few drinks.

Hear more of Lopez's first-hand account later today on All Things Considered. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit