The High Road: Driving Experiment Fuels Marijuana Legal Debate

Reporters fail road experiment while high; former top cop says it's still DUI.

August 1, 2010, 9:36 PM

Oct. 25, 2010 — -- After smoking a little pot, Peter Tilden was feeling good behind the wheel of his car and took his time attempting to parallel park. After a few turns of the wheel and some careful, mellowed measuring from the driver's seat, Tilden was happy with the parking job.

The only problem? He had stopped a good 6 feet from the curb.

"It was shocking to me," Tilden said.

But luckily for Tilden -- and for anyone who would be trying to use the lane his parked car was occupying -- the parallel parking test was part of an experiment, conducted by Tilden, a talk radio host for ABC News' Los Angeles station KABC, and another journalist on a closed course with the blessing of the California Highway Patrol to look at the effects of marijuana on drivers.

The experiment, in which the journalists struggled to weave their cars through a course of road cones and sometimes veered wildly, has fueled the ongoing debate over the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes in California as voters prepare to vote on Proposition 19 next week.

"The experiment showed how impaired I was on pot," Tilden said. "It took so much effort for me to drive that course and yes, I thought I did much better than it turned out. I thought I was doing OK, and I was OK adjacent."

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who also ran the course, not only struggled on the slalom course, but when he tried to change lanes, he drove straight for a ditch.

Those against the legalization of recreational pot say the experiment shows that Californians will be less safe on the roads if marijuana is readily accessible to anyone, any time. But those in favor of legalization, including former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing, said the current laws against DUIs -- which include provisions against driving under the influence of drugs in addition to alcohol -- will not change.

"This business about increased use of marijuana or this stunt that they did with the [driving] test, this is nothing new," Downing told "Good Morning America" today.

Former LA Cop: Legalize Pot, Replace Shady Dealers With 'Legitimate Retailers'

Downing said that after marijuana was legalized for use in the Netherlands and Portugal, rates of use did not increase. He said the same of the legalization of medical marijuana use in California, citing a legislative finding.

"The important thing for the mothers of America to understand is what is increasing, and has been increasing for the last 30 years, is the availability of marijuana for 12-year-olds," Downing said. "What legalizing marijuana would do is wipe out the black market and our children, if they want access to drugs, will have to show ID because the people that are going to be in the business will be legitimate retailers. They're going to ask for ID just like they do for alcohol and tobacco."

Downing said that police would treat the DUI stop -- from probable cause from actions like observed swerving to testing for intoxication -- just like they always have.

"Nothing has changed and nothing will change as far as drunk driving is concerned," he said.

Either way, Tilden said he learned a lot from his experience driving high.

"My son got a big lesson that night about 'do not get in the car with somebody who say's they're high,'" he said.