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Taking a hit in the name of science

Does pot impair drivers more than alcohol—or just make them mellow in traffic?Columnist puts it to the test.

October 16, 2010|Steve Lopez

The man on the other end of the phone wanted me to go to a dispensary and buy three-sixteenths of an ounce of high-grade dope and another three-sixteenths of an ounce of medium-grade.

My wife overheard part of the conversation, and when I hung up she had a question.

"Who was that?" she asked.

"The city attorney," I said.

Before I explain, let's review some history.

As some of you may recall, I went to a Glendale doctor about a year ago seeking relief from lower back pain, and, of course, to have a first-hand look at the blossoming medicinal marijuana industry. Now I'm not saying it was strange for a doctor to have an office with no medical equipment in it, but I did take note of that fact. And when I described the pain, the doctor waved me off, saying he knew nothing about back problems.

"I'm a gynecologist," he said, and then he wrote me a recommendation making it legal for me to buy medicinal marijuana. The fee for my visit was $150.

Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who led the recent crackdown on an explosion of local marijuana dispensaries, was very much aware of my legal status as an honorary Rastafarian. And one day, several months ago, he called to see if I'd be willing to make a sacrifice in the public interest.

With Proposition 19 on the ballot, which would legalize marijuana in the state, Trutanich was worried. There wasn't much data, he said, about the effects of marijuana on driving impairment. Recently, there'd been news of a study that suggested driving under the influence of alcohol is more dangerous than driving while high. Trutanich wanted to conduct his own research.

Do you like where this is going?

I know I did.

Would I be willing, Trutanich asked, to go to the police training center with him, smoke some reefer, and see how I did behind the wheel?

Before Trutanich completed a sentence, I interrupted: "I'm in."

"Everybody in my office thinks this is a crazy idea," said Trutanich. His staff was concerned about the legal and public relations liabilities.

"What do you think?" Trutanich asked.

"There are leaders, and there are followers," I said, advising Trutanich to trust his instincts and to ignore those of lesser courage and creativity.

"I'm really curious about it," he said. "Whatever we find out, fine, either way it goes. But I'd like to know more."

It is in the public interest, I said. Hey, I'd be willing to take a hit for the team.

To be honest, I'm not a pot smoker except on rare occasions (have you ever experienced the agony of lower back pain)? The only time I've smoked in recent years is with my sister, a cancer patient who has found that marijuana helps with the pain. I do believe there's a legitimate medicinal benefit for many people, just as I believe that potheads far and wide found quacks who would give them permission slips to get zonked.

Trutanich, by the way, opposes Proposition 19, as does much of law enforcement. I've taken the other side, arguing that people will continue smoking marijuana whether it's legal or not, so why not tax and regulate it, deal a blow to drug gangs and put the millions now spent on interdiction and prosecution to better use.

But I've wavered a bit as election day approaches, swayed by arguments that commercializing pot would violate federal law and invite litigation. It would also lead to patchwork policies at the local level, it would lower the price of weed dramatically and therefore create more widespread use, and it might lure illicit out-of-state dealers into the California market.

Would more people in California drive while high if Proposition 19 passes? Probably, and when you add that to the problem of drunk drivers and the legions of distracted drivers on cellphones and BlackBerrys , it seemed worth finding out how much a man can smoke before becoming a menace on the highway.

Several weeks went by, though, before I heard back from Trutanich. Our experiment was on hold, he said, while he tried to iron out legal concerns and talk law enforcement agencies into cooperating.

I had almost given up hope when Trutanich called a couple of weeks ago to say we were good to go ganja. He'd arranged for the CHP to administer sobriety tests, before and after, and guide me through an obstacle course at the LAPD training center in Granada Hills. The CHP was just as eager as he was to find out how I and another guinea pig — radio talk show host Peter Tilden of KABC-AM (790) — handled ourselves after puffing the magic dragon.

"We'll provide the marijuana," Trutanich said, but then he called back to say his staff determined the city attorney's office couldn't legally pull that off, so I, as a person with legitimate medical need, would have to pick up some product. Several times, late in the evening and on weekends, Trutanich called me at home to go over the details.

At the appointed time on the morning of Oct. 11, Trutanich's communications deputy, former L.A. County Sheriff's Cmdr. John Franklin, picked me up at my house to drive me to Granada Hills, where Trutanich and the police would be waiting.

"You got the stuff?" Franklin asked.

I reached into my backpack to make sure.

Yep, I said. Three-sixteenths of an ounce of Skywalker, and the same amount of something called Train Wreck. That's got to be good stuff, right?

Tune in Wednesday, and I'll let you know.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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