Driving While Stoned; Starr in Limbo

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:27

    Then I moved to the West Coast and bought a used Volkswagen convertible for $500, but I still didn't learn to drive. I could operate the glove compartment, and that was it. I had planned to take driving lessons, but there were always other priorities. I lived with a couple of friends from the Merry Pranksters, Hassler and Poopsie, and they drove me places. Poopsie told Ken Kesey that I was very dependent.

    "Yeah," Kesey replied, "but he knows a lot of independent people."

    My job in cars has been to check the street signs and roll the joints, so that the driver can keep both hands on the steering wheel?except, of course, when shifting a gear or tuning the radio or taking a toke. This is not exactly a Gallup Poll, but in my own decades of experience as a professional passenger, I have always felt safer driving with a stoner than with a boozer.

    A friend who has been in both camps makes this comparison: "I would drive while swigging away on a bottle of gin, getting drunker and drunker, having less and less control over the car, and marveling at my own deteriorating state. But I had no problem controlling the car when I smoked marijuana. What I really loved was to ride my motorcycle down Lexington Ave. at 3 in the morning, and time all the lights."

    It's always reassuring, though, to have such personal observations underscored by official research.

    In Australia, in October 1998, the largest study ever done linking road accidents with drugs and alcohol found that drivers with cannabis in their blood were no more at risk than those who were drug-free. Indeed, the findings by a pharmacology team from the University of Adelaide and Transport SA showed that drivers who had smoked marijuana were marginally less likely to have an accident than those who were drug-free.

    A spokesperson for the study, Dr. Jason White, said that the difference was not enough to be statistically significant, but could be explained by anecdotal evidence that marijuana smokers were more cautious and drove more slowly because of altered time perception. The study of 2500 accidents, which matched the blood-alcohol levels of injured drivers with details from police reports, found that drug-free drivers caused the accidents in 53.5 percent of cases; injured drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration of more than .05 percent were culpable in nearly 90 percent of the accidents that they were involved in. Drivers with cannabis in their blood were less likely to cause an accident, with a culpability rate of 50.6 percent. The study has policy implications for those who argue that drug detection should be a new focus for road safety. Dr. White said that the study showed the importance of concentrating efforts on alcohol rather than other drugs.

    In March 1999, a study at the University of Toronto found that people who smoke moderate amounts of marijuana are not much more dangerous behind the wheel than completely sober drivers, concluding that the hazards of smoking marijuana had been overrated, and that those who smoke pot and drive should not be demonized. Canadian researcher Alison Smiley compared several studies that looked into how serious the impairment was from marijuana compared to alcohol, which clearly affects driving ability.

    "Both substances impair performance," she stated. "However, the more cautious behavior of subjects who received marijuana decreases the drug's impact on performance. Their behavior is more appropriate to their impairment, whereas subjects who received alcohol tend to drive in a more risky manner."

    She pointed out that earlier studies into the effects of marijuana on driving ability gave volunteers "fairly hefty doses" and put them behind the wheel immediately afterward. Reporting her findings in Health Effects of Cannabis, published by Toronto's Center for Addiction and Mental Health, she said that such studies may have exaggerated the effects of the drug.

    "There's an assumption," she wrote, "that because marijuana is illegal, it must increase the risk of an accident. We should try to just stick to the facts."

    In October 1996, President Clinton, in his weekly radio address, urged stronger measures to reduce teenage drug use and driving under the influence of drugs. That same day, he asked the director of National Drug Control Policy and the secretary of Transportation to present recommendations within 90 days that would meet those goals. The President specifically requested that they consider drug-testing for minors applying for drivers' licenses. Their recommendations called for a federally funded, $16 million, two-year demonstration program to devise and test "essential core elements of pre-driver licensure drug-testing"?which, the task force felt, would send an important message to American youth that drugs and driving don't mix.

    "If states were to develop drug-testing programs for young people prior to their obtaining a drivers license," they warned, "states should be sensitive to upholding constitutional standards under the Fourth Amendment ('reasonable search' in the procurement of the individual's blood, breath, urine or other specimen), and under the equal protection clause and the due process clause...

    "First-time driver's license applicants under 18 must be tested. The states may choose to test others as well. For example, states could test all first-time applicants, regardless of age (this would increase costs only slightly, since most first-time applicants are teenagers, and it would reduce litigation risks based on charges of age discrimination.)"

    So now I may never be able to get a driver's license?even if I first learn how to drive?just because the government wants to avoid a lawsuit over age discrimination from some teenage pot smoker who can't get a driver's license. Is this creeping fascism or what? On the other hand, I'll remain?inadvertently?ecologically ahead of my time.

    Paul Krassner's latest books are Impolite Interviews (Seven Stories Press) and Pot Stories for the Soul (High Times Books). His new CD is Sex, Drugs and the Antichrist (Artemis Records).

    Starr in Limbo by Byron York Not that anybody cares any more, but it's been two years this month since David Kendall, President Clinton's personal attorney, stood in front of reporters gathered outside his law office and accused Kenneth Starr of massive, illegal leaks of evidence in the Monica Lewinsky investigation. "These leaks make a mockery of the traditional rules of grand jury secrecy," Kendall told the press. "They often appear to be a cynical attempt to pressure and intimidate witnesses, to deceive the public, and to smear people involved in the investigation." In a statement that gave Clinton defenders the talking points they would use for the next six months, Kendall said the independent counsel's staff was simply "out of control."

    Kendall handed out a list of two dozen news reports that he said were based on illegal leaks by Starr's office. The most spectacular was a story in The New York Times detailing the President's "We were never alone, right?" witness-coaching session with his secretary, Betty Currie?a conversation that later became a critical piece of evidence in Starr's obstruction of justice case against Clinton. With cameras rolling, Kendall loudly proclaimed the report to be false; it was, of course, true, but we didn't learn that for several more months.

    No matter. The press ran with Kendall's accusations, and the White House was only too willing to fan the flames. "People who have larger purposes are deliberately misleading the American people by providing incorrect information," said chief flack Mike McCurry a few days after the story broke. "The score on leaks has been a whole lot of lies and not very much fact," added fellow spinner Paul Begala. And while his men trashed Starr, the President himself stayed above it all. "I'm honoring the rules of the investigation," Clinton explained with a marvelously straight face, "and if someone else is leaking, unlawfully, out of the grand jury proceeding, that is a different story."

    Starr denied that his office was the source of the reports?his letter to Kendall seemed the first time that the independent counsel really got mad and departed from his usual clumsy, take-out-the-garbage public statements. Shortly thereafter, chief judge Norma Holloway Johnson began an investigation to find out who was telling the truth. With that underway, the controversy quieted down a bit?until Steven Brill began hawking the arrival of his new magazine, Brill's Content. His 24,000-word indictment of the Lewinsky press corps?which bashed journalists for reporting, among other things, the obviously ridiculous notion that there was a stained dress containing evidence against the President?made a circumstantial and sometimes hysterical case that Starr was guilty as charged. Even though it was hard to take seriously, the Brill's Content piece gave the White House new ammunition to lob at the independent counsel. "I am overwhelmed by the stink of hypocrisy that hangs heavily over Ken Starr," Clinton disciple Geraldo Rivera announced on CNBC. "His confession in an interview in this new magazine that he and his merry band of prosecutors were leaking faster than the Titanic during the weeks after the Monica Lewinsky story broke flies right in the face of Starr's own public statements."

    But the Brill article touched off more than just a storm on the chat shows; it also appears to have had an effect on Judge Johnson herself. She had reportedly been investigating the situation for months, but it was only after the magazine hit the newsstands that she ruled the leaks did indeed appear to come from Starr's office. Her opinion talked about the "serious and repetitive nature of disclosures to the media," and she ordered Starr's prosecutors to appear at a hearing during which they would be required to prove they were not guilty. Later, after much legal wrangling between Kendall and the independent counsel's office, the judge appointed a "special master," meaning an outside investigator, to conduct the probe and report to her.

    What has happened since then? It's hard to tell. One of the few clues we have is a related case that began in January 1999, after Kendall made a new complaint?this one about a Times report that Starr believed his office had the authority to indict a sitting president. In that case, Johnson reportedly ruled against Starr again, but was later overturned by a federal appeals court, which not only exonerated Starr's office but said that Johnson's definition of grand jury secrecy was too broad. Has there been a similar ruling?or any ruling at all?on the two dozen leaks originally alleged by Kendall? Nobody, at least nobody outside the small circle of those involved, knows the answer.

    It seems hard to believe the inquiry is not yet finished. The questions involved are so narrow?this is not the Microsoft trial, or even the Whitewater investigation?that it could have been wrapped up in a few months at most. There were only so many staffers in Starr's office, in Kendall's office, in the judge's office and anywhere else the information might have originated. Every person involved could have been interrogated and reinterrogated, forced to sign a stack of affidavits, and appealed and reappealed any decision by now. Whatever the case, the investigation remains the best-kept secret in Washington?far more hush-hush than any aspect of the Lewinsky probe itself. And don't even consider asking about it: Judge Johnson's office curtly refuses to comment, as does the independent counsel's office.

    That's too bad. The issue may seem distant now, but it was a matter of enormous public interest during the white-hot season of the Lewinsky scandal. Kendall's accusations and the media's exhaustive talkfest about them?remember Lanny Davis?? tarnished the reputations of Starr's prosecutors and the independent counsel himself. Indeed, for a while, it seemed to be the White House's only defense strategy. For the questions to remain unanswered today is simply outrageous. If anyone on Starr's team was guilty, we should know. If they were not guilty, we should know. And if any of the leaks came from the President's defenders, we should know that, too. And soon.

    Byron York is senior writer for The American Spectator.