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He's a Train Wreck behind the wheel

In the name of science, the columnist smokes, giggles and drives. Watch out at traffic lights.

October 20, 2010|Steve Lopez

The man in the uniform had a question for me. "How do you feel?" CHP Sgt. David Nelms asked. His interest in my health was probably prompted by the fact that I was at that moment toking a joint stuffed with a bud called Train Wreck.

Pretty good, I said, already buzzed enough to wonder if this was really happening.

In my youth, I spent more than a few evenings hoping the police weren't keeping close tabs on my activities. So it felt a bit strange last week to have a group of cops paw my marijuana stash and then ask me to get high.

"There you go, Cheech," said KABC radio host Peter Tilden, a fellow volunteer. Tilden was smoking something called Blockhead, which I presume is a standard choice among talk show hosts.

As reported in my first installment of the Cannabis Chronicles on Sunday, I had been asked by Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich to help determine whether, and how, marijuana impairs driving. He recruited more than two dozen police officers from various Southern California agencies and the CHP to bear witness and study the differences between driving while high and driving while drunk.

"Probably nowhere in America is what we're doing today occurring," Trutanich's chief of investigation, Gary Schram, announced after I arrived at the LAPD training center in Granada Hills.

I think that was probably true.

I was invited to participate in part because I had been cleared to use medical marijuana legally last year by a gynecologist who said he knew nothing about back trouble but believed cannabis might just be the best cure for my pain. I'm not really a smoker, though, so I was concerned that I might get knocked on my heels and skew the results.

But Trutanich and many cops believe that if Proposition 19 passes next month and marijuana is as legal as potato chips and nearly as cheap, more new users will be driving under the influence, so the experiment would be worthwhile. Trutanich also noted that users often have no clue as to the potency of the grass they buy, and it varies wildly. Some of it can even make you feel like you've been in, let's say, a train wreck.

"OK," said Trutanich, "let's go."

Before I sampled the meds, the cops wanted to get a baseline on how I drove unimpaired, so I got behind the wheel of a marked CHP cruiser and was put through a series of tests involving a slalom course and various tight parking maneuvers.

For the trickiest part of the test, I drove toward a three-lane fork in the road, with a green traffic light above each lane. At the last second, two of the lights turned red and I had to swerve into the green lane. I pulled it off just fine, but in jerking the car, my bag of dope slid onto the floor.

Next, Tilden and I were escorted to a bluff at the edge of the training center where we could light up without risking a contact high for the assembled peace officers.

Two brave representatives of the CHP accompanied us, Nelms and officer J. Leffert. Well, here we go, I thought, lighting a stick of Train Wreck with the cops looking on. From the bluff, I could see "Nooch" Trutanich and company assembled in the distance, with an L.A. Fire Department paramedic unit waiting in case something went horribly wrong.

A few hits later, I suggested to Tilden that we roll a vehicle, come out holding our necks, sue everyone and retire, but that was the dope talking. Tilden had forgotten his rolling papers, so I gave him my Bob Marley wrappers and Officer Leffert expertly rolled a fat one for him.

"What are you, Rastafarian?" Tilden asked the officer. "Look at the size of that blunt."

One of us, after several strong hits on a second joint, was now giggling like a high school sophomore, and it wasn't Tilden or the cops. I believe Train Wreck may be from the sativa rather than indica species of pot. Sativa is said to give you a spacey surge instead of a drowsy body buzz. This could explain why, when I saw southern division CHP commander Kevin Gordon approaching to see if we were ripped yet, I stood on one foot for him, as if taking a sobriety test while puffing away and laughing like a hyena.

"Are you having fun?" asked Nelms, the drug recognition expert.

What, is that a crime, officer?

When we were driven back down the hill and I slid into an unmarked Crown Vic for my driving test, I couldn't resist the urge to play a little prank. I revved the engine, shifted into forward and jerked forward in the direction of the gathering, honking the horn like a lunatic as Trutanich and the others prepared to scatter.

But despite behaving like a doofus, I thought I could drive pretty well. For several minutes I concentrated on slaloming, parking and then finally the dreaded traffic signal.

It didn't seem to me that I was as impaired as I would have been after a few beers or glasses of wine or if I was one of the morons who drive while texting and yakking on cellphones.

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