Evan Klein

Taco Bell, Marijuana, And Motorcycles—Riding While High

Getting stoned and riding for science

T

he tacos are a godsend. Also the rubbery chicken quesadilla and the scuzzy bean burrito and the half-gallon of Mountain Dew, even though the latter was flat and the color of radioactive urine. There was even good in the Taco Bell hot-sauce packets, which come in five flavors, all of which smell like old chemical plant and shoe. Unless you are as stoned as a billy goat. Then your brain operates mostly in exclamation points. That Dew is transcendent! The sauce is a flavor cannon! The tacos are Ferran Adriá on a good night, Thomas Keller before the hype, Alain Ducasse cooking from his private stock of mushy tortillas and yellow cheese food! The world becomes sodium and sense, and then you fall back in your chair and unzip your Aerostich and meditate on the glory of the universe. Or at least, I did. We got stoned for this story. So stoned that I briefly forgot how to put on a helmet. Then we rode a tiny Honda, in a controlled environment, in the pursuit of knowledge. None of it turned out like you’d think.

When it comes to marijuana, America is in a strange place. On a federal level, the drug is illegal. It has been since 1970, when the government classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance—high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use. Which would be the end of the story, except that America’s lawmaking structure allows for states to disagree. Medical use of cannabis has been voted legal in 29 states and two territories, plus the District of Columbia. Recreationally, the drug is legal in nine states and decriminalized in another 13.

The nation appears to be trending in one direction. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 percent of U.S. adults believe marijuana should be illegal. In that same year, the legal-pot industry took in nearly $9 billion in sales.

Sam Smith and Zach Bowman on Honda CRF50
Contributing Editor Sam Smith chases Zach Bowman on a Honda CRF50.Evan Klein

How Does Pot Change Your Riding Brain?

Everyone knows the basics: The world gets weird and slow. Stuff that felt pretty good while sober now feels spectacular. Life becomes tremendously funny. And you have long, in-depth conversations with your cat.

The specifics are where it gets interesting. A 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, Marijuana-Impaired Driving: A Report to Congress, summed up road behavior among stoned drivers. Marijuana, it said, can cause slowed reaction time and issues with road tracking, in addition to problems with target recognition, attention maintenance, route planning, decision making, and risk taking.

If that’s the quality of the stoned experience—what changes with your body and mind—then the quantity—how much you get stoned—is the big question. The primary psychoactive substance in marijuana is a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, produced when one of the plant’s flowers is smoked. THC monkeys with cannabinoids, receptors in our bodies that are responsible for fine-tuning communication between neurons.

"When it comes to Marijuana, America is in a strange place."

When you smoke, THC moves from your lungs, through the blood, directly to the brain and neurons, producing the primary “hit” of a high. Part of the chemical then travels through the bloodstream to your liver, where it is metabolized. That metabolization produces a crucial byproduct called 11-hydroxy-THC—like the THC that initially entered the brain, but far more potent. (Fun fact: Marijuana edibles get shunted directly to the liver by the digestive system, no brain detour. This is partly why edibles can feel absurdly strong.)

Wait—It's Not Like Having A Beer Or Two?

Like alcohol, marijuana alters perception and motor control. And it’s tempting to draw parallels between the two, not least because alcohol is a known quantity. Alcohol-impaired driving has been researched for more than 60 years; alcohol is also the only mind-altering drug legal for public consumption on a global scale.

Marijuana, however, produces less-consistent results from person to person—the two drugs just work differently.

left/right maneuver
Contributing Editor Zach Bowman fails the left/right maneuver as Editor Chris Cantle looks on.Evan Klein

“It can’t be equated with alcohol across the board,” says Dr. Reggie Gaudino. Gaudino oversees research and development for Steep Hill Labs, a California company that provides analytical services for the medical and recreational marijuana industries. In addition to holding a doctorate in molecular genetics and biochemistry, he’s a former WERA racer.

The problem is partly one of processing. The NHTSA report notes that, with alcohol, quantity of intake is directly related to impairment—the more you drink, the more drunk you get. Not so with pot.

“The question becomes, how does [intake] translate to impairment?” Gaudino says. “That’s a factor that’s never been studied. Everybody’s different. It’s even more different than alcohol. That level is different in every person, depending on how many cannabinoid receptors you have in your system. What might knock one person on his ass, another might do five or 10 times that and you wouldn’t even know he was stoned.” Which explains why some championship dirt and pavement riders have admitted, off the record, to racing while high—and they didn’t go slow.

Even getting the stuff out of you is different. The body removes alcohol from the bloodstream at a constant rate; no matter how much you drink, your liver scrubs you up at about the same speed. Marijuana is removed at an exponential rate, with elimination happening faster during times of higher blood concentration.

The NHTSA report also notes that drivers dosed with marijuana generally demonstrate safer habits than those on alcohol: lower average speeds, more time driving below the speed limit, and increased following distance. Which brings us to…

Is This Safe? Why Don't We Talk More About It?

Motorcyclist doesn’t endorse riding while under the influence of anything. Stay sober on the bike. You’re more likely to ride safely, perform at your peak, and stay alive. If it helps, the official position of the California Highway Patrol, according to its spokesman, officer Chris Boldonado, is as follows:

“Marijuana is a substance that alters significantly your ­judgment, motor coordination, and reaction time. That and operating a motor vehicle is not a good mix.”

Taco Bell
Taco Bell has never tasted so good.Evan Klein

That said, the question isn’t as simple as it sounds. Nor does abstinence advocacy change the fact that some people are simply going to get high as hell and climb on a motorbike. The bigger problem is that the discussion lacks objective data. For one thing, there is almost no clinical research on marijuana safety, and that’s not soon likely to change. Pot’s status as a Schedule I drug means that its research is tightly controlled; human trials are not currently permitted in America. (Appeals have been made to get the drug removed from Schedule I for decades. Don’t hold your breath on that.)

Second, accident data for stoned driving doesn’t really exist. It’s currently all but impossible to measure pot intoxication following a traffic incident. Blood-THC content can only be determined in a lab, through testing of bodily fluids, and even then, the results are of dubious use. A body’s peak THC levels do not correlate to peak intoxication; according to NHTSA, peak impairment happens 90 minutes after smoking, but THC levels drop rapidly after smoking stops. (Blood THC generally drops to around 80 to 90 percent of its peak level within 30 minutes of the last dose received.)

“There’s zero scientific evidence that you can test for a presence of THC that’s linked to a level of impairment,” Gaudino says.

Boldonado told Motorcyclist that it’s “too soon to tell” if pot’s newfound legality has increased the state’s DUI count; he noted that CHP officers will conduct a roadside sobriety test if they think you’re intoxicated by anything. If that test gives reason, a CHP employee trained in drug recognition will then examine you further, at a station, and make a call. Many states treat THC level as permissible inference of impairment.

Finally, NHTSA says there are no evidence-based methods to differentiate cause of impairment between alcohol and marijuana. It calls using THC levels as a metric for impairment “artificial.” And in 2012, the administration concluded a two-year traffic study in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The study encompassed more than 3,000 drivers involved in crashes and 6,000 control drivers who were not. The study found no statistically significant additional risk of crashing for drivers with marijuana in their system at the time of an accident.

getting high
Getting high. For science.Evan Klein

What Does It Feel Like?

Back to getting stoned and going riding: Lacking the resources to do a complex examination of the subject, we put together a small experiment. We went to the 0.625-mile kart track at Willow Springs Raceway, outside Los Angeles, with a well-used 3 hp, 50cc Honda CRF 50 and one douchey-looking vape pen. Contributing editor Zach Bowman and I smoked our weight in two different types of marijuana concentrates, for almost five hours. Every 30 minutes, we each did two laps around the track from a dead stop.

Bowman, less experienced with marijuana, tried a relatively mild strain of sativa. ("A lot of people go to work on this stuff," the guy at the pot shop told me.) I live in Seattle, where pot has been legal since 2012; being somewhat more familiar with the drug, I ordered up a sativa-indica hybrid that the shop clerk told me would "get weird but be functional." The bike was generously loaned by the M1GP American Mini Motorcycle Road Racing Association. Its head honcho, Young Lee, quickly got us up to speed on the kart track, acting as an impartial judge to soberly take lap times and stand by to pull the plug, in case the going got unsafe.

God, it was weird.

You can’t call what we did science, because it contained a hundred different uncontrolled variables. Our course included one full lap with a last-minute left/right maneuver gate at the start/finish line, followed by a second full lap, with times for the complete exercise. We rode one session sober, where Bowman turned a 2:43.80, and I managed a 2:40.67. After our first dose, both of us added nearly five seconds to our lap.

Honda CRF50
With no kickstart and no starter, the Honda CRF50s need a push-start.Evan Klein

It was hilarious. Then it was even better, and I was laughing at my own knees. I felt like a god. At the top of third gear, the wind found its way into my shirt and sang fun little songs at my nipples, but it didn’t take long for the riding to feel like work. After our second dose, Bowman’s time slid to 2:54.85, and mine stumbled to 2:48.59. Bowman also managed to completely fail the left/right maneuver, locking up the rear tire and shooting through on the wrong side of our flagger with a wide-eyed wail. “I’m target fixating,” he said. “It’s like my eyes don’t want to let go of whatever they’re stuck on. Cones, flags, apexes. Whatever.”

As the day wore on, we got more stoned, and the riding grew less entertaining. I vividly remember deciding that traffic would have been terrifying. I realized that the thing I love best about motorcycles is exactly the opposite of what I enjoy about marijuana. It illustrated another dramatic difference between alcohol and pot: The weed left us with no desire to ride anything but a couch. Dose three saw our slowest lap times of the day. Bowman trotted around the course with a 2:55. I puttered around in a glacial 3:03, taking the time to murder a cone and fail the left/right maneuver myself. It wasn’t unlike riding while sleep deprived, your mind moving like molasses, the gaps between the right decision and the proper action wide and impossible.

Chris Cantle, this magazine’s editor, offered to run to Taco Bell for lunch, and this is where things got surprising. We continued our experiment after we ate with a full five more doses, but our times didn’t get worse. They improved, eventually stabilizing with Bowman turning consistent 2:49s. I hung out in the 2:55 range with a fastest-while-stoned time of 2:50. Still six and 10 seconds off our sober times, respectively, but we both aced our avoidance test for the rest of the day—another interesting data set, and another dissimilarity with alcohol. After five hours of drinking, I’d be a train without a conductor.

All of it was surprising. And educational. Amazingly, neither of us crashed. The whole experience felt neither dangerous nor safe—mostly just stupid.

We’ve done this before. In 1987, Motorcyclist ran a similar experiment with alcohol, dumping an ill-advised amount of malt liquor into experienced riders to find out just how badly drinking impairs your ability to operate a bike. The results were predictable. Ours were not, which only underscores the desperate need for more study. I’d volunteer to do it again. Never on the street, though. Not where I could be a danger to myself or others. Preferably in a Taco Bell parking lot.