Although recreational weed laws have passed in many states — and even more have legalized medical marijuana — the answer to how stoned you can be and still be considered safe to drive remains unclear.
Since alcohol is water-soluble, when someone measures how much alcohol is in one part of your body, it becomes a good indicator of how much alcohol is affecting other parts of your body (e.g., your brain), which makes it easy to tell how impaired you are. But weed is fat-soluble, so it rushes to the fatty parts of our brains, where it can hang out for hours, days, or, in frequent smokers, even weeks. So while some states have established illegal THC levels for drivers, the factors mentioned above, along with a bunch of other chemical stuff, mean a lot of those numbers are arbitrary. Even the AAA thinks so.
Still, if you’re stopped by cops and found to have been driving at a level higher than these arbitrary numbers, you’re gonna get busted for driving while high. Joe, a 26-year-old California native, spent a night in jail for exactly this reason a couple of years ago.
It started as just another lazy evening at my apartment. I got home from work around 5 p.m. and took a couple of bong hits before watching a bunch of episodes of Friends on Netflix. When 9 p.m. rolled around, my friend asked my roommate and me to come over for a little party, so we trekked across town — all the way from Hollywood to a suburb in northeast L.A. As we were nearing the house, my friend called and asked me to bring some firewood.
I doubled back to the grocery store we’d just passed and picked up some Duraflame. Heading out of the parking lot, I realized the lane was right-turn-only when I needed to go left, so I just hit the right and planned to flip around in a strip mall. But as I approached the strip mall, traffic had cleared and it was no longer necessary. I just went for a U-turn instead.
Moments later, I got pulled over for “erratic driving” because I’d hit the U-turn in front of an on-duty cop. The second she approached my window, she asked me why my car stunk of marijuana. I knew I wasn’t high, so I decided to be honest. I ‘fessed up to having hit my bong earlier in the day, assuming any weed smell had to have been coming from my clothes. Since I considered myself completely sober at the time, I didn’t consider this to be a very big admission. I just wanted to save her the trouble of having to root through my car when there wasn’t a single nug of weed inside.
She, however, immediately called in another officer to administer a field sobriety test.
As soon as I heard that was happening, I knew it was going to be a disaster because I’m extremely uncoordinated. I can’t remember all the details, but they had me walk the line and go through other sobriety tests usually associated with alcohol. As predicted, the tests were very hard for me. I was so incredibly nervous, especially given that this was all happening late at night on a curved freeway bridge. They were also very strict about the specificities of the instructions. For example, they told me to put my feet together, and then told me I wasn’t complying because I’d only put my heels together, not my toes. Stuff like that confused me, and they got super interrogative — like, “Why aren’t you putting your feet together when I’ve asked you to?” All I could think to tell them was, “Uh, they are. My toes just aren’t touching.”
At that point, I knew it was a disaster.
The cops kept asking me what time it was, trying to disprove that I’d smoked five hours before. They were sure it had been more recent than that. They both kept asking me, “When did you really smoke?” I just continued to say, “Five hours ago! Five hours ago!”
After a bunch of time spent on field tests, the officer who initially arrested me said, “If we decide you’re unable to drive, and do in fact issue a citation, does your friend have permission to drive your car home for you?” To which I responded, “Okay.”
That’s when she handcuffed me and told me I was under arrest.
Because of the way she’d said “issue a citation,” I thought she was just going to write me a ticket. I definitely didn’t expect to go to jail. I felt like I had incriminated myself by saying my friend could drive my car. She told me I was getting charged with a drug DUI and that I would have to be detained at the station for at least six hours. I was shocked.
When we got to the police station, the first thing they did was draw my blood. That blood draw and the officer’s opinion were the main factors in my case. But there’s no good way to test for weed so it’s really hazy territory. Still, I ended up getting booked and spending the night in jail.
It was at home the next day that I came to terms with how serious the charge was. A DUI can totally fuck up your life. I quickly learned I was facing a $10,000 fine — the same amount of money that drunk drivers get penalized — and felt fucked, since I didn’t have that kind of money. Luckily, the same friend who’d convinced me to drive across town and pick him up firewood also had a personal relationship with a good criminal defense lawyer.
Once my lawyer came on board, all the information about my case was relayed through him, so I didn’t actually see my blood results. But according to my lawyer, my level was less than half of the THC limit that stricter states like Nevada consider illegal. My lawyer called in an expert blood-analysis person to deal with it, and once he talked to them, he said my case was a joke because my levels were so extremely low.
I was relieved, but the results didn’t exactly surprise me. I’d been smoking weed since I was 14 and knew I wasn’t high that night — especially because I’d driven high plenty of times before. I grew up in L.A., so nearly all of my early weed experiences happened in cars. Hot-boxing is basic L.A. shit. As teenagers living at home, my friends and I always smoked our blunts in parked cars and then drove around to eat or party. In those days, I never felt too high to drive, or that my friends’ driving was impaired by the weed. And in terms of cultural messages, I never got the “don’t smoke and drive” talk in the same way I was told not to drink and drive. Likewise, musicians were never shown drinking and driving in their music videos but rappers were always smoking blunts in their cars.
Even though I was privileged to have great legal support, I was still a wreck about what happened and how it could affect my life. I travel a lot for work, and countries like Japan and Canada — where I go frequently — restrict entrance to people convicted with DUIs. I felt like a fuck-up for potentially getting barred from countries I love for taking a couple of bong hits five hours — FIVE HOURS — before I got in the car.
In the end, the charges were dropped, and I didn’t have to pay the $10,000 fine. But things weren’t officially over until two years after my arrest, so I was anxious that whole time, as well as saddled with a restricted license that only allowed me to drive to and from work and for essentials like groceries.
These days, I take no risks when it comes to smoking and driving. When the bong comes out, the car keys go away.
— As told to Tierney Finster