It was a hazardous experiment. But two university students in Miami decided to try it one evening in the late sixties.
One of the students, an occasional user, smoked marijuana and then got behind the wheel of a car. The other student sat beside him in front. A tape recorder lay between them and the driver, Arnold, talked as he drove. Sometimes his friend, Richard, made an observation.
The talk went like this:
ARNOLD: I am presently now stoned from what I consider were two to two and a half good joints of marijuana. I just noticed that I forgot to turn my lights on and I was backing up. I am now pulling out. Richard, please keep the tape recorder running. I'm very serious about that. Going now?
RICHARD: Yeah, tape recorder's working.
ARNOLD': I'm very worried at this time, especially that the tape may not work. I would not like the total opportunity to be a failure.
I now feel my head vibrating in between two or three different people. I forgot to look one way when I rounded that corner. I went into third gear very, very poorly, possibly the worst I've done in my entire life.
I am coming to a stop sign, and for some reason I feel maybe I won't be able to stop. It's difficult to force my foot down to the floor on the brake. It seems as though both my feet are riding on cushions, the cushions between my feet and the brake pedal.
I am going to make a right turn. . . . Very worried because cars in both directions. I have the radio on because I enjoy the radio playing. Cars keep giving me signals to turn off my high beam, which I have done. I feel as though I'm being wafted, and I'm only going twenty miles an hour. Isn't that a great word, "wafted"? Being "wafted."
I feel as though I'm rising high in my seat. The lane seems quite wide enough but the car cannot go fast enough, and it appears miles to the next stop. I seem to have different—I seem to sway back and forth across the road. Richard, am I swaying or driving badly? Will you describe my driving?
RICHARD: Right now you're staying close to the center of the road.
You're shifting slightly towards the center and you keep correcting.
ARNOLD: Yeah, it's sort of as though I take too long to correct—isn'tit?
ARNOLD: I'm going too slow.
RICHARD: Definitely don't have a proper control of the vehicle.
ARNOLD: It seems exactly right when you say that. I will now bring myself down, and it's really not difficult to keep myself down [sober]. A car in my rear has its brights on and it's almost blinding me.
RICHARD: Even though Arnold believes he is down, he's still swaying quite a bit and has not increased speed to any great—he's still going be- tween twenty and twenty-five.
Take a left.
ARNOLD: I know. I know I take a left. Don't worry about my direction. My car seems to be swaying into the lane. You can really get it driving, as people have said previously.
The light change is absolutely beautiful.
RICHARD: Took him four to five seconds to realize the light had changed to green.
ARNOLD: Are you kidding.
RICHARD: No. . . . How long do you think you've been driving, Arnie?
ARNOLD: Oh, about fifteen minutes.
RICHARD: You've been driving two minutes.
ARNOLD: Oh, God, two.
RICHARD: Wait till you get on the expressway.
ARNOLD: Is that timed to my watch, by the way?
ARNOLD: Oh, great, if that's what it's going to be like. Fantastic. Richard is down, by the way. I want to remind you all.
RICHARD: I haven't taken anything except something to clear
ARNOLD: Very poor perception of the car passing on the right. RICHARD: You want to go south now on Ninety-five.
ARNOLD: Yup. Very poor perception—nearly ran into that car, Richard, whether you know it or not.
RICHARD: I know.
ARNOLD: I'm amazed that they don't pick up more stoned drivers. I worry about being in the correct gear, more than usual. I'm very frightened of cars passing me. I just did a totally mechanical action. I don't know why I did it. I just feel as if I could lift my foot off the brake and just go screaming around the world.
Oh—watch that dog!
RICHARD: That was a rag in the middle of the road.
ARNOLD: Wow! [Laughing. Singing along with radio in snatches.] RICHARD: We're now going on to One ninety-five, heading south, the Miami Gardens Drive.
ARNOLD: Well, a great place to go, but I feel I cannot handle this curve much longer, 'cause I feel like I'm going around the edge of a teacup, and I hate going around the edge of a teacup in a car. It's like I'm going to roll right off. It's like I'm way up on top of the world. I'm really frightened up here—I'm so very high. [Singing with radio again. ] Oh, it's like going straight down.
RICHARD: Arnie's only traveling forty, whereas most other traffic is traveling sixty.
ARNOLD: You know something: it was like going straight downhill. [The road was actually flat.] Like you know something? I don't know where the last four seconds went to. From the time I came off the hill to here, I do not know where that time has gone to. Like all of a sudden I was in the middle of
RICHARD: How far ahead of you do you think the car is in front of you?
ARNOLD: I can't drive, Richard. I'm going off the road. I can't drive. RICHARD: Okay. How far ahead do you think it is? Arnie is going off the road now slowly, and I'll resume driving for him.
ARNOLD: Let me explain something. I was upside down driving and it's happening again. I've got to say something: I cannot possibly drive now, no matter what anyone does to me, because I am driving on my head. You know, driving is not good when you are upside down, folk, and us. I have to get off the road. My God! What was happening? I'm a little too high.
RICHARD: Do you want me to drive?
ARNOLD: No. Wait a second. Let me hold on. I've got to breathe. I mean, I want to drive some more, Richard. Like I really can't. Like wow! I really can't drive whatsoever. I was driving on my head. Like I just didn't know what was happening. You know, I overload. I just remember, overload. I was driving along and all of a sudden I was absolutely upside down and I was falling off the front of the car, and I really didn't know what to do.
RICHARD: Here comes a state trooper.
ARNOLD: Amazing. [Laughing.]
RICHARD: Yeah, here he comes.
[At this point, they pull to the side of the expressway. A patrolman approaches. They get out of the car and tell him they have just arrived in town, the driver was tired, and they stopped to change places. The car has an out-of-state license plate. "Okay," says the patrolman, and he goes on his way.]
ARNOLD: Like we were just approached by a highway patrolman and he stopped us—and like I can't drive whatsoever. And if I continue to drive, I'm going to kill both of us.
It's amazing. I was driving and—Richard, don't overshift—and virtually upside down, and I didn't know what to do, and it was like—oh-. It was just—it was disastrous.
Have you ever been in Funland Park? You probably never have been, but if you ever get there, there's this ride like a dive-bomber, and when you're in it—oh, Richard, stop the car. I think he did something to it. I think the car's broken, folk. I bet the fan belt.
RICHARD: If we go off the expressway again, that highway patrol is going to bug us again.
ARNOLD: Okay. Just take it very slowly. If that's the fan belt, it could ruin my car. I bet my fan fell off.
(End of tape.)
The marijuana brought hallucinations, distortions, distractions, and difficulty in braking—but no staggering, no breath odor, and no slurred speech.
"Now if this had been somebody with a three-tenths alcohol, that officer could have spotted it," commented Dr. Joseph H. Davis, medical examiner of Dade County, Florida. "But here's a kid who's 'upside down' and the officer can't even tell when he's 'upside down.'
"This is one of the big dangers of this stuff on the highway. So if it comes to carte blanche legalization-commercialization and we turn this loose on the highways, we're wiped out."
In a tape recording of a similar test, made a bit later in the same city, three young men ride in a car after all of them took marijuana. All are high. The driver finds it hard controlling the car. It overruns a lawn and a passenger decides to get out of the car while it moves along the highway. The other two, stuffed with "grass," think this a big joke and laugh uproariously as the occupant is starting to open the door. (Fortunately he never makes it out.)
Questionnaires from Klein, Davis, and Blackbourne (1971) asked Florida college and university students to rate themselves on driving ability under the influence of marijuana. Most of 156 former, infrequent, or weekly users indicated that the drug worsened their ability—specifically to judge time, distance, and speed; to respond to an emergency; and to control a motor vehicle. Of 100 who smoked more often than weekly, only a minority felt that marijuana hurt any of those abilities, except that 54 found it harder to judge time. Those heaviest users had been stopped by police a lot more often than the others (who in turn were stopped much more often than a comparison group of 247 nonusers) but police did not necessarily arrest those they had pulled over. Said one user, "Well, I was stoned and a cop stopped me because there were three people in the front seat of my sports car. . . . He didn't know that I was stoned. He was dumb because I was really wrecked."2
While dagga (cannabis) intoxication seemed to make time pass more slowly for 77 percent of 150 drivers and nondrivers polled in South Africa, 73 percent of those responding (about three-fourths of the 150 re-
sponded to this question) felt that the drug made them drive slower. In view of the first answer, Morley, Logie, and Bensusan (1973) discounted the second, because "what to the subject may seem a snail's pace could just as easily be a dangerously high speed." Only two-fifths of the respondents indicated that dagga worsened their motoring.3
A stoned driver's assertion that a drug doesn't hinder his driving, or even helps it, need no more be taken at face value than a drunk's insistence that he can drive superbly even though he cannot walk a straight line.
The man who made the following statement was a twenty-eight-yearold physician.
"I often drive my automobile when I'm high on marijuana and never have had any actual problems doing so. But I do have some purely subjective difficulty, which perhaps you'll understand. My reflexes and perception seem to be okay, but I have problems like this: I'll come to a stop light and have a moment of panic because I can't remember whether or not I've just put my foot on the brake. Of course, when I look down, it's there, but in the second or two afterwards I can't remember having done it. In a similar way, I can't recall whether I've passed a turn I want to take or even whether I've made the turn."4
He thinks he never has any real driving problems, yet he cannot even remember whether he pressed the brakes or made a turn.
Those we interviewed split evenly on whether marijuana hindered or actually helped driving. Either way, no past or present user refused to drive because of marijuana intoxication.
Among 246 driver-licensed college students in Canada, most drinkers and the majority of marijuana smokers admitted having driven while intoxicated. Three times as many drove when under the influence of alcohol as drove when high on marijuana. They were surveyed by Smart of the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto (1974), who calculated three times as many alcohol-driving occasions as marijuana-driving occasions in one year. Each group admitted getting into a few accidents while intoxicated, and the accident rate for each group was the same. 5
Advocates of the legalization of marijuana and those opposing it agree on one proposition: A driver under the influence of marijuana should not be allowed to drive. There is a "legitimate public interest in prohibiting such conduct," a California group promoting legalization said in campaign literature.6
"Influence," however, is open to differing interpretations. For one thing, how long does it last?
A research group (University of Michigan Institute for Social Research) interviewed 3,731 seniors in 131 high schools throughout the country. About half indicated that they had used cannabis in the past twelve months. They were asked: "When you take marijuana or hashish, how long do you usually stay high?" Approximately 47 percent of these users replied that they stayed high for one to two hours; 39 percent, three to six hours; and 5 percent, seven to twenty-four hours. At the extremes, about 8 percent indicated they usually did not get high, while 0.6 percent told the pollsters that they remained high more than 24 hours! 7
The hallucinations of the "upside down" driver came immediately after smoking marijuana. But sometimes the hallucinations are delayed.
Here is an experience described by a patient during psychiatric treatment for anxiety and depression. A youth of nineteen, he had no history of psychosis. He said he had used marijuana and hashish for about a year, two or three times a week. He had tried other drugs but had taken none for a week before this experience. At about 11:30 on a clear night, he was driving with a girl friend:
"And then I saw the teacup on the road. . . . It was a real teacup, a cup and saucer. It was pink and it had blue flowers on it. I had seen a picture of one like it when I was a little kid, in a book I used to have. . . . It was on the road right in front of me and there were about six people in it. . . . They were just sitting there, riding down the road. . . . It was going real slow and we were going real fast. . . . We were right behind it and I was going to crash into it. . . . I went off the road. . . .
"When I went off the road it wasn't there anymore, so I go back on the road again. . . . I was going about sixty-five, maybe, and after that I didn't go any faster than thirty or forty, 'cause like I was afraid to, 'cause like I didn't know, like these big black bars kept on being in front of the car and they would just like lift up into the air and there were all these different flashing lights and everything. . . . Just all these things were there that I knew weren't there really. . . .
"I thought I would never get home, thought for sure I would get in some kind of accident. . . . And then there were like airplanes swooping down at the car and all kinds of stuff like that. . . . Like these things, like there was nothing there at all I could have misconstrued as a teacup. It was just empty space."
The case was reported by a Philadelphia doctor, who also reported comparable experiences of two other young male patients, each of whom had taken marijuana or hashish nearly every day for two years. Each had taken other drugs, including occasional LSD, and the doctor suspected that the LSD was responsible for the illusions. But cannabis was the last drug each had taken, maybe eight to ten hours before the incident.
One of them, aged twenty-two, said, "I was driving down the street, turning, making a left. . . . Suddenly, zing, it's like there was a car in front of me. . . . I saw headlights, like for a flash, and like I slammed on the brakes and almost went over the curb, and then I realized it wasn't anything."
The story of the other young man, aged twenty, was similar, although the doctor thought he had experienced a prolonged afterimage rather than a hallucination: "I made a right-hand turn, and the car behind me made a turn, and I always look in the rear-view mirror to see if the car was there, and I looked back onto the road. . . . There was a car dead in front of me, and I jammed on my brakes and there was nothing there. . . . Oh, that happens a lot."8
It has been shown that the "flashback"—a sudden return of the drug reaction many hours, days, or weeks after the taking of the drug—can occur in some users of marijuana alone. There is also some evidence that marijuana may trigger "acid flashbacks" in some people who have already taken LSD.
William Pollin, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has called it an "alarming danger" that some of the deterioration in perception or performance resulting from marijuana may persist after the user no longer feels high. Hours after the feeling of intoxication has gone, one's ability to drive or fly may remain impaired, although the cannabis taker does not realize it when entering a car or a cockpit.
Dr. Pollin, in Senate testimony, also said: "Because the ages of peak marijuana use coincide with those of peak driving accident rates, and such accidents are the principal cause of death and injury in adolescents and young adults, the impact of marijuana on driving is an important public health issue. There is good evidence that marijuana use, at typical social levels, impairs driving ability. Studies . . . tend to show significant performance and perceptual deficits related to being high.. . ." He added that the bulk of marijuana users questioned admitted driving sometimes while stoned and that marijuana use in combination with alcohol was quite common, magnifying the risk of accidents.9 (Two Canadian studies were sources for his estimation. )10
If it's true that the majority of adult users with cars drive while high, it would be paradoxical if the majority of them considered it detrimental to do so. Yet that opinion is what hundreds in that category expressed when polled in different parts of the United States.
Of 588 adults (eighteen and over) who had tried marijuana 100 or more times, 61 percent believed that "getting really high on marijuana would cause a person to drive less well." And 51 percent of the 588 believed it because "it happened to me." Less experienced users were more likely to hold that view of marijuana's effect on driving, not so often on the basis of firsthand experience but more often because "it happened to someone I know."
Among 730 adults who had used marijuana three to ninety-nine times, 76 percent felt that getting "really high" (taking more than "one or two puffs") shortly before driving would cause one to drive worse than he usually does. For 42 percent of the 730, the belief stemmed from firsthand experience.
Of 317 adults who had tried marijuana once or twice, 85 percent believed it worsened driving-20 percent from personal experience.
Among the total of 4,099 adults polled, 2,464 had never taken marijuana and 84 percent of them held that view.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted this ninth annual national survey on drug abuse in 1979.'1
One result of decriminalization may have been to put more intoxicated drivers on the roads. Figures from the California Department of Justice (furnished at our request) suggest this.
Effective in January, 1976, California reduced penalties for possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor handled by a citation. That year the number of arrests throughout the state for driving under the influence of drugs jumped 48 percent from the previous year. (In 1975 the number had risen only 8 percent from the year before.) Meanwhile, arrests in California for "drunken driving" rose only 7 percent in 1976. (In 1975 they had risen 11 percent.) The drugged-driving totals remained elevated in the years following. (See table 2.)
Sharpening the picture is a similar California statistic broken down into adults (eighteen and older) and juveniles. In the six months following decriminalization (January through June, 1976) arrests for driving under the influence of drugs rose about 46 percent for adults and 71 percent for juveniles, compared with the first half of the previous year.12
We consider alcohol a greater overall problem on the road than marijuana—but only because so many more people drink alcoholic beverages than smoke marijuana. An official estimate of adult Americans placed the ratio of drinkers to marijuana smokers at seven to one.
Even among young adults through the age of twenty-five, alcohol won in popularity by more than two to one. Of course many combine the two intoxicants, but when arrests or accidents result, police are likely to report only the "drunken driving."
In some ways, driving under marijuana's influence is a more ticklish problem. It is harder to detect. The effects of cannabis are subtle, complex, and less popularly known. Its lethal possibilities are too little appreciated, even by those who understand what it means to operate a car while drunk.
A 1979 report to the president by the Strategy Council on Drug Abuse estimated that of 30.6 million Americans eighteen to twenty-five, 21 million drank alcohol while 8.3 million used marijuana or hashish.
Among 117.3 million Americans twenty-six and over, 63.4 million drank alcohol while 3.8 million used marijuana or hashish—a ratio of about 17 to 1.1'