Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Under the Influence-Intoxication Is Toxic

Last month, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote about his recent encounter with zip, schnitzel, prune, dooby, chillums, funk, spliff, boo, snop, cheo, ganja, gunja, gunney gange, gash, gasper, griff. As long as we are on the G's, he wrote that the experience made him giggle. You are with me on this, right? He was like blowing a stick, going loco, with a goof butt, hitting the hay, howling with hooch, sparking it up, getting on with gunga. Oh dear, here we are, back on the G's. Gracious. In case I wasn't clear, Lopez was smoking reefers, weed you know, marijuana cigarettes.

And guess what? Lopez got to do it with law enforcement officers present, including the Los Angeles City Attorney. It was all part of an experiment to determine how the presence of marijuana in one's body affects driving ability. This information is particularly relevant should proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana, pass. Suffice it to say that after several 'hits," Lopez's driving skills were impaired. He also was "laughing like a hyena." When an officer asked him if he was having fun, he replied, "What, is that a crime, officer?" That reminds me of Max Beerbohm's line, "Nobody ever died of laughter." But one could die when crossing the street in front of a driver under the influence of cannabis. Marijuana can you think of any other word that has so many synonyms… other than sex?

Some law breakers get a thrill committing an illegal act. But committing a crime with impunity, with the approval of the police, is like riding your bike on the wrong side of the street when it is closed to traffic, confessing one's sins in the confession booth without a priest, being contemptuous in court before the judge takes the bench.

At one time, possession of marijuana was perceived in some quarters as a serious offense. I recall years ago, when my date and I dropped into a party shortly after I had been appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, I wasn’t sure, but there seemed to be a pungent odor in the room. I received congratulations and a few high fives, but there was an obvious tension in the air. I got the feeling they couldn’t wait until we left. My date cautioned me not to breathe too deeply. She feared I might be arrested for driving under the influence. Later, an unidentified source informed me that the party “took off’ when we left. That experience taught me to be vigilant about where I went and the company I kept. Because I occasionally played the piano at jazz gigs, I made it a practice to search all the musicians’ pockets before the gig. If more than one player took a drag on a cigarette at the break, I assumed it was not because they were out of cigarette money. I was out of there. They were left to finish the set as a facsimile of the Gerry Mulligan “pianoless” quartet.

Judges are paranoid about being on the wrong side of the law. It can happen inadvertently. When judges commit an offense, even a minor one, like jaywalking, people take notice. Even among my unconventional, anti-authority friends, there is a look of disapproval when on occasion I have jaywalked. I am supposed to set an example. My columns about my notorious speeding tickets on Pacific Coast Highway have drawn considerable attention. Readers seem amused and satisfied to know I got what I deserved, a solid eight hours of traffic school.

When I became the Supervising Judge of the Los Angeles Traffic Court in 1975, I also became obnoxiously self-righteous about traffic safety. I was a cautious (euphemism for “pain in the ass”) driver. I didn’t get speeding tickets until some 25 years later. I made complete stops at stop signs, even when the streets were deserted. No need to speculate why I was out when the streets were deserted. And I can assure you that my unblemished driving record had nothing to do with my acquaintance with so many traffic officers in Los Angeles.

I will have you know it was, and probably still is, the largest traffic court in the world. It was heady being the so-called head or leader of the largest something in the world. Judge Burt Pines was then the Los Angeles City Attorney. He and I had a friendly disagreement about punishment for first time DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) offenders. He wanted all first-time offenders to be sentenced to jail for a few days. I opted for a less draconian approach, a compelled educational program for first-time offenders with low to moderate breathalyzer readings.

The press seemed to favor my approach. I wonder why? After work I joined some reporters (that’s what they called them in those days) for some drinks at a local hangout in downtown Los Angeles. After a couple of martinis, one pointed his wet finger at me, and said something like, “You know what? You… you’re… right. That’s what you are… right.”

And then one day the court sanctioned a weekend meeting on traffic safety with ASAP–the Alcohol Safety Action Project. I still remember the acronym. Judges, city attorneys, public defenders and police personnel attended an intensive, concentrated program on alcohol abuse. At the end of the conference, we had a party. We were instructed, OK, to be more honest, invited, to drink as much as we could, and then blow into the breathalyzer test machine set up in the middle of the room. Like Steve Lopez, I could get smashed in the presence of law enforcement officers.

I have never been much of a drinker. To prove it, I used bourbon and Seven to get my BA (blood alcohol) reading to ascend. It is hard to believe, but in those days, 0.15 was considered a low reading. A defendant with a lower reading usually could plead guilty to a reduced reckless driving charge. Who knows how many drinks I had, but according to the experts, it was not that many. After about four or five drinks, I blew into the breathalyzer and registered a measly 0.11. The experts said I was on the way up to a 0.16 or maybe a 0.17. Luckily, I left the party before that occurred. When I reached my presumed 0.17, I couldn't have been a passenger, let alone a driver. That was when the toilet and I had an extended rendezvous. I recall the intricate design of the bathroom tile and thought, not bad for a hotel. Ever since then, I admire bathroom floor tile standing up.

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