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Drug Czarina Is Preparing New Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Drug Czarina was the only one who didn’t have an alcohol- or drug-related criminal record, and she led the group toward the box office to buy their tickets to “28 Days,” a film in which Sandra Bullock plays an alcoholic who tries to outsmart her rehabilitation counselors.

“They did see the reality in trying to pull one over on counselors,” said the Czarina, known formally as Judge Ana Maria Luna. “At least they got a chuckle out of it. Maybe looking at Sandra Bullock in recovery might seem glamorous, but they see it for what it really is.”

Luna is a tapestry of contradictions: a former drug court judge who is dutifully leading the implementation of a new drug law in Los Angeles County that she doesn’t entirely agree with. Under the new law, she points out, she won’t be able to throw violators in jail for a few days--a practice called “flash incarceration"--which she says “usually gets their attention.”

On July 1, Proposition 36 goes into effect, offering first- and second-time, nonviolent drug offenders the option of treatment programs rather than jail cells. For the past few months, Luna has relied on Hollywood’s image-makers to represent the tenacity of addiction. In doing so, she’s become a bridge between the imperfect new legislation and the day-to-day reality.

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“She knows she’s not talking to judges and lawyers, and she’s trying to explain the system we’re trying to make work,” said Michael Tynan, supervising judge of drug court in L.A., who asked her to head L.A. County’s Task Force to Implement Prop. 36. “If you can use pop references, all the better. . . . We need a spokesperson for Prop. 36, and we need people to go out and explain to the community what we’re doing. Courts are too big of a mystery.”

For her part, Luna is crystal clear about the injustices of the system.

“Robert Downey Jr. will always get Cadillac treatment,” she said, referring to the Golden Globe Award-winning actor. “Our folks will never get treatment. If it could happen to him, someone with money and fame, it can happen to people sleeping on mattresses by the 710 Freeway. For the non-addicts--the general population--they recognize (‘The West Wing’ actor) Martin Sheen, they recognize Robert Downey Jr., and Matthew Perry from ‘Friends.’ The problem of addiction is not based on socioeconomics or education. It cuts across everything.”

In forums all over the county, Luna pulls out an arsenal of pop culture references to support her viewpoint. She mentions the Academy Award-winning movie “Traffic,” which focused on Mexican drug organizations and addiction in the United States. She brings up scenes in “Blow,” a sexy-looking film starring Johnny Depp as the main U.S. cocaine trafficker of the 1980s.

And she refers to Downey, Perry and Charlie Sheen, all of whom are admitted addicts who appear on prime-time network television.

None of these men came through her courtroom when she was earning her “Drug Czarina” handle. It began in 1997 when she established drug court in the Southeast Judicial District of L.A.. She was determined to change the culture of drug proceedings by referring to those brought before her as “clients” not “defendants” or “patients.” If they had stayed clean in the face of challenging odds, Luna would walk over to her clients and give them a pat on the back or a bear hug.

“It gets discouraging to see them again and again, but when you see one success, you’ve saved one starfish,” she said in her chambers on a recent morning. “You may not save the whole beach, but you’ve saved one starfish.” During her tenure on the drug bench, Luna wormed $1,000 or $1,500 out of the local bar association each year for a drug court outing, like a beach party, a softball game, and a viewing of “28 Days.” You might have seen her coming across the movie theater parking lot, but you probably wouldn’t have known she was a judge.

Luna has braces, thick brown hair that she wears in a bob and a large, knotty gold-and-diamond wedding ring. She is 42 years old and pregnant. Raised as a Roman Catholic by her mother and Mexican-American father, she converted to Judaism as an adult.

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She understands that things aren’t always what they seem, and she brought that sensibility into drug court when she insisted on going beyond the simple personal history provided in a client’s paperwork.

“If it’s a woman, first-time offender, she’ll look at how a child, the family and a marriage is affected--social pressures that a man might not have to deal with during treatment,” said public defender Anna Armenta-Rigor.

In her own home, Luna and her husband are raising three teenage sons--one from her first marriage and two from his first marriage. She worries about the influence of rap music’s violent lyrics on the young men and about their exposure to alcohol, the substance that drug addicts invariably say was their gateway addiction.

She knows she has only a short time before Prop. 36 goes into effect, so several times a week she closes up her chambers in the late afternoons to spread the word about the new law.

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On a recent evening she headed to Raleigh Studios to talk about Prop. 36 at a symposium co-sponsored by USA Films, the studio that produced “Traffic.” The film’s producer, Ed Zwick, introduced the panel, which debated drug laws for more than an hour. Luna mentioned Martin Sheen, who campaigned against Prop. 36 last year with testimonials about turning in his son Charlie, who stars on ABC’s “Spin City.”

The actor turned in his son only after the younger Sheen violated the terms of his probation and didn’t follow through with treatment.

Martin Sheen believes the threat of jail time scared his son into facing his own addiction. Early the next morning, Luna headed to Pasadena for “AirTalk,” a live call-in show on KPCC-FM (89.3).

A few weeks later Luna appeared on “Cafe California with Cris Franco,” a 30-minute discussion program on L.A.'s only bilingual channel, KWHY-TV Channel 22. One of the other three participants was actor Steven Braun, who played a cocaine cartel middleman in “Traffic.” Clips from the film were used as inspirations for discussion.

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“She cut through it all,” said Franco, the show’s host. “We had interviewed a lot of judges before to see if they could come on the show, but they all backed out, saying they couldn’t express a personal opinion. Instead, she said, ‘I wouldn’t mind at all. We have a super dilemma here, and people misunderstand what’s at stake here. We all share this burden.’ ”


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