Shocking news from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "Marijuana & Alcohol Combined Increase Impairment." The stunning revelation--finally dispelling the collegiate myth that a beer and a joint cancel each other out--comes from an NHTSA-backed study conducted by the Institute for Human Psychopharmacology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

The study is "the second of a series of studies . . . to assess the separate and combined effects of marijuana and alcohol on driving," a June NHTSA newsletter says. The three studies will cost a total $620,000, and that's "money well spent," NHTSA spokesman Timothy Hurd said yesterday.

And why was the Netherlands selected? The official word is because that university has the equipment and experience to conduct such a test under real conditions. Or could it be that Dutch laws on dope are more amenable to this form of research than U.S. laws?

"Eighteen subjects between the ages of 20 and 28" participated, the newsletter said. "Each participant was dosed [not doused] with marijuana alone, alcohol alone, a combination of marijuana and alcohol," the newsletter said, or given a placebo.

"On a given test evening after dark," we are told, the drivers smoked some weed, drank some booze--or placebos--and "then waited 30 minutes to begin driving tests."

But this is not one of those "simulated" studies. These wasted characters "drove each of the two 25-mile-long tests on real roads with real traffic" [emphasis added] at speeds over 60 mph in order to test control, braking and general reactions.

Not to worry. They were "accompanied by a driving instructor with separate dual controls." Talk about bravery.

The conclusion, which boomers may have suspected all along, was that while alcohol at a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, which had been the traditional legal limit in many states, is far worse than a bit of weed alone, the combination of the two, even in small amounts, is exceptionally deadly.

So don't do it.

In case you're wondering, the third study is underway and it's unlikely more volunteers are needed.

Go, West

Nothing is worse in a humid Washington summer than a lame duck. Take Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo D. West Jr. A day after White House officials said West had told them he plans to leave the Cabinet, he called the veterans service organizations together yesterday morning to assure them that word of his departure was premature.

"I'm not going anywhere," one aide quoted him as saying. Washington translation: It could be several months before West departs from his Vermont Avenue digs.

VA officials said that West, who never really wanted the VA job but took it because President Clinton insisted he move over from his Army secretaryship, did say he would "consider his options" after the fiscal 2000 budget is in place and plans for the 2001 VA budget have been drafted. Such a delay is troubling, no doubt, to Bobby L. Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents thousands of VA workers and has bitterly warred with West for many months.

Harnage's public advice to West: "Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Quotations of Chairman Tony

Gore 2000 campaign chairman Tony Coelho has by now settled into his new, decidedly downscale, digs in the headquarters on K Street NW. Even if he tried to spiff it up, his new office could never be as sumptuous as the one he had when he was a senior official a couple of years ago at TeleCommunications Inc., the cable TV giant just bought by AT&T.

Big offices are commonplace in Washington, a town of very, very big people. But Coelho's, sources recall with awe, had two extraordinary features. First, Coelho, who was in charge of TCI's high-tech educational and training venture, had an enormous saltwater fish tank and filtration system--with weekly cleaning service--that effectively separated his office from an elegant conference room.

And there was a lovely carpet with famous quotations about education custom-woven into it, so you could gain wisdom by reading them walking in or going out.

Now that's something worth doing in the campaign office. Famous quotations about politics? What could they be? "No controlling legal authority"? Or maybe Vice President Gore's impeachment day offering that Clinton "will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents"?

It's going to be difficult to replicate the old office. Coelho's new one has some cheapo, grayish-purple carpet squares that would be hard to weave anything into, a campaign spokesman said. Probably have to silkscreen.

And the fish tank? Sold when he left the old office.

It's Official . . .

Clinton has nominated veteran intellectual property lawyer Q. Todd Dickinson to be assistant secretary of commerce and commissioner of patents and trademarks. Dickinson has been deputy assistant secretary and deputy commissioner at the department, and has been acting patent and trademark czar since Jan. 1, after Bruce A. Lehman left.