Metrics of Mary Jane Motoring

Research in a shabby lab at John R. and Mack addresses questions about cannabis and driving and takes me back to my wayward youth
Illustration by Joe Ficorelli

The old road meandered a few miles beyond the city to Rush Hill. At the crest of a river bluff, the lane turned right and traced the ridge. The surge came in, staying left, and vaulting blind onto a narrow steep lane — dangerous for our carload of stoners but as profound as the crescendo in A Day in the Life.

Wow, man, what a rush! It was good enough reason to pass around another joint. Inhale more of the cannabis that made us so alert, perceptive, and no doubt sharpened the reflexes of our driver, Kevin. That is, unless the glowing ember fell off the joint’s end. Then all four of us were probing around on the floor. More than preserving our own lives, we worried about burning a hole in the plush carpet of our Chevrolet Vega.

That was 45 years ago. People drove stoned before us. But we, the Class of 1973, have continued ever since. (They also skied stoned. Remember those bumper stickers?) I also know people who are always stoned. They smoke the first joint of the day while walking the dog or before yoga, and go about their jobs as graphic designers, teachers, auto body technicians, auto show models, journalists, restaurant workers, programmers, and stay-at-home moms. Even when it was illegal, cannabis has been integrated into our lives for decades.

Around the time I turned 30, I stopped even the sporadic use of cannabis. Years went by. In Easter of 2002, with my wife away visiting her sister, I bummed a joint. My neighbor worked in a Monroe County plant making gas tanks for pickups. “You never heard of anybody smoking too much pot and beating up his wife,” he said. “We just drive slower.” I filed away that bon mot during an especially pleasant afternoon’s toil in the garden accompanied by the loudest songbirds ever.

In November, Michigan voted to become the 10th state to approve the use of recreational cannabis. While medical cannabis avails in 23 others. One wonders how many drivers at any given moment have used the substance? How do they manage to go fender-to-fender with the Volvo driver on Vyvanse, the vodka-swilling Opel yokel, or the Nokia-user ringing up for takeout? The thing is, cannabis stayed underground for so long, and little is known about it’s everyday application. Admit using it, you got fired, kicked off the team. You ended up in court, endured the aspersions of the in-laws, and barely evaded rehab. Now times have changed.

In Detroit, scientists are addressing the dearth of knowledge. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Randy Commissaris and Kawthar Alali were in their lab, a two-car space on the corner of Wayne State University’s medical campus, putting subjects through exercises. Commissaris, associate professor in the department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Alali, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia, installed volunteers behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Impala on loan from Doreen Head, director of the school’s occupational therapy program. Pointing at a large screen for fixed-base simulation of real-world driving, the Impala, outfitted with Drive Safety hardware and sensors, translated driver inputs through an interacive program called HyperDrive, which looks like a rather docile video game. The researchers measured performance of a control: a young male whose blood was first drawn and assessed to assure no trace of THC. And the performance of a medical cannabis user: another young male — the pair were numbers nine and 10 so far in the study — who had consumed the substance within the hour (his cannabis-free baseline was previously established). Each subject spent an hour in the Impala.

“What we do is compare the driving performance of those two subjects,” Commissaris says. “One of the biggest potential risks is the challenge of dealing with a surprise situation.” The virtual road is a divided highway, three lanes in each direction. “It’s a boring road, to be honest,” Commissaris adds. Proceeding in the middle lane at 55 miles per hour, the driver encounters a stalled car 40 meters ahead. “It sort of magically appears in the road.” The object of this test is to record the number of successful avoidance maneuvers and the reaction times.

I also know people who are always stoned. They smoke the day’s first joint while walking the dog or before yoga, and go about their jobs as graphic designers, teachers, auto body technicians, auto show models, journalists, restaurant workers, programmers, and stay-at-home moms. Even when it was illegal, cannabis has been integrated into our lives for decades.

Testing will continue into the winter before enough data exist for Alali to write her Master’s thesis. “It’s too early,” she says, sounding optimistic. “By January, maybe, or February I will have something.”

With no early results in hand, we should note the absence of professional racing drivers from the earlier list of stoned workers. The fallacy may be that many cannabis users believe they’re comprehensively enhanced. “We’ve talked with subjects before who have made the assertion that they’re better drivers when they’re stoned,” Commissaris says. “I think there’s not any empirical evidence to support that.”

Let’s go back to July 4, 1973. As my buzzed friends and I left the fireworks show, driving on a divided road with two lanes in each direction, my Ford Falcon’s headlights illuminated a lawn chair. It was the Commissaris-Alali Obstacle Drill to the beat of Steely Dan. Should I ease over to the left lane or swerve right to the paved shoulder? The car from the last stoplight, the dark-green ’67 Dart like Uncle Sam’s — what a frugal soul Uncle Sam was! — might be in my blind spot. Speaking of blind, are bats afraid of fireworks? Say, were any Cokes left in the ice chest? At the last instant I slalomed right and basked in exclamations of praise from the backseat. The menacing lawn chair had survived us in order to be run over by the Oldsmobile behind.

It would seem intuitive that cannabis and conveyances don’t mix. Still, for daily users or dabblers like me, it was easy to get away with because of the lack of roadside detection capability (unless the suspect asked the officer for a Twinkie). Yet, we’re at this impasse where the federal government hasn’t determined a leafy plant’s effects on traffic.

“The scope of the marijuana-impaired driving problem in this country cannot be clearly specified at this time,” reported the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Congress in July 2017. While alcohol impairment has fallen dramatically since the first National Roadside Survey in 1973, instances of cannabis detection appear to have increased. Surveys found traces of THC in 12.6 percent of drivers in 2013-2014, up from 8.6 percent in 2007. The NHTSA report cites evidence of impaired psychomotor skills, cognitive functions, lane-tracking, and divided attention but concedes “its role in contributing to the occurrence of crashes remains less clear.” It was also found that stoned drivers take less risks than sober drivers which could even out the effects.

After voters approved Proposal 1 on Nov. 6, the Michigan State Police issued a statement saying the agency would consult with the Attorney General’s office to determine the change’s impact on department policies and procedures. Driving under the influence of cannabis remains illegal, the statement reminded. Last June the MSP released crash data on the five-year trend (2013 to 2017) of drivers testing positive for cannabinoid drugs. This showed a 217-percent rise in yearly crashes, from 78 to 169, and a 167-percent surfeit in fatalities from 86 to 144. Wayne, Kalamazoo, Kent, and Oakland Counties led in number of drug-involved crashes. Drivers from 16 to 20 years old accounted for 16.7 percent of these statewide. The greatest number of crashes occurred in afternoon and evening hours. In fatalities among occupants of passenger cars, SUVs, and vans, nearly 52 percent of victims wore seatbelts.

The 2017 cannabis-positive fatality count included one snowmobiler, two ATV riders, and 16 motorcyclists, eight without seatbelts. As an 18-year-old, I rode my new motorcycle home after a party, one I’d attended just to show off the blue-and-gold marvel (no one cared). The psychotropically vivid colors of the stoplights, the general sense of fun, have always stayed in mind. All these years later I still ride motorcycles, including track sessions on manufacturers’ press previews. But throwing a leg over the saddle after consuming cannabis is inconceivable. Instead of thinking about braking from 145 mph on the front straight for the 110-degree Turn One (Monteblanco Circuit, Huelva Province, Spain) I’d be making mental notes for my next story, planning a hike in Capitol Reef National Park, and trying to remember the theme of the 130th Rose Parade presented by Honda. Oh, yes, it’s “The Melody of Life.” Chaka Khan is grand marshal!

“We’ve talked with subjects before Who have made the assertion that they’re better drivers when they’re stoned. I think there’s not any empirical evidence to support that.”
— Randy Commissaris, Associate professor in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

Of the two predominant cannabis subspecies, sativa is said to yield a creative and alert high while indica is better for pain relief, relaxation, and sleeping. Powersports pursuits require all the awareness one can muster; being myopically lucid or a tad drowsy could get me tossed over the handlebars.

Then another question arises: What about the dosage? Here we get Commissaris at his most professorial. “I would certainly agree that there’s an inconsistency in THC content in cannabis products currently. One of the things that will happen, particularly in edibles, is that it will become much more standardized and accurately measured.” He foresees product labeling that tells not only the number of servings but also how many milligrams of THC is in each. “That will be a very different situation from the current black market. There will be a great degree of standardization, especially for the edible products. The smokable products, it’s still going to be quite variable, because even if you know what the THC concentration is, people makes their joints of different sizes.”

It leaves Commissaris with a final reflection about how much is too much and how recent is too recent? “That’s a really important question — establishing a cutoff level for THC and driving, much the way alcohol has a 0.08 cutoff. It would be very helpful for police and for the public in general. I think it’s safe to say we’re trying to contribute to that discussion.”

Here, my inner car guy asserts himself with an idea to refine and perhaps expedite the research. What if General Motors provided a Corvette to replace Doreen Head’s Impala? Nope, Commissaris would rather have the cash equivalent.

Here’s what we know for sure. NHTSA reveals that, in 2016, there were 3,450 people killed and about 391,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Automakers have incorporated infotainment features like smartphone mirroring and voice recognition, but people still, of course, use hand-held devices, send texts, and check their social media feeds. And distraction has been a factor at least since the first Motorola radio was installed in dashboards in 1930. Chrysler’s outlandish Highway Hi-Fi system of the late-1950s put a record player in the glove box. And who didn’t drop eyes from the road when the cigarette lighter was ready?

Then there’s alcohol impairment; even though drunk-driving fatalities have diminished by one-third over the last three decades, more than 10,000 people die every year. Education and vigilance only go so far in reducing the cost to individuals and society. But technology may be helping. Ride-hailing seems to be contributing to a decrease in DUI arrests. The inescapable facts are that people like to get loaded, but they also cherish mobility (although fewer young people are bothering to get driver’s licenses).

This spring, Kawthar Alali will be awaiting approval from the Saudi Arabian government to continue her research in a doctoral program. By the time she finishes her dissertation, the phenomenon of ride-hailing will still be going strong and fully autonomous vehicles will be closer to perfection. But people seem to be growing more and more hapless. I recall the distrust that surrounded the first electronic calculators of the early 1970s. Civilization seems to be doing OK though long division is quaintness itself.

The advance of society is predictable. A housing subdivision long ago engulfed Rush Hill, and youthful thrill-seekers stray father afield. The Chevrolet Cruise AV, the first fully autonomous car, which will be available in 2019, is a kind of spiritual successor to the Chevy Vega driven so resolutely by my stoner friend Kevin. May it fare better than the poor Vega. Another funny thing and hardly a surprise is that I searched for traces of Kevin and found that, within the past two years, police in northeastern Colorado had picked him up for trespassing. I wonder if he asked for Twinkies.