Local bar, Monday, 8:20 p.m.
Amanda: "You know, I'm pretty drunk. The DA could prose-crute me right now."
Matthew: "I'll puke if I finish this beer."
Ralph: "You're a wimp. But maybe that's what we get for drinking Coors Light."
Amanda: "We're in this together, Matthew. You cannot let a girl drink you under the table."
Matthew: "I'd rather do that than vomit."
Ralph: "Don't worry, you're over the limit anyway."
Many of us wonder. We drink, we drive, we wonder.
When are we over the edge? How many really is too many?
Then we see District Attorney John Newsome pounding down a slew of cool ones, captured on super-duper-secret hidden camera on KOAA Channels 5/30. We also hear he was driving his nice, county-owned vehicle, during and after his escapade.
He wasn't caught by police, and wasn't tested. He also says he wasn't even impaired.
But how would we really know, unless we tried to follow the DA's example?
That idea had bounced around our office, without gaining serious traction. But then, last Friday, former assistant DA Dan May announced that he would try petitioning onto the Republican primary ballot against Newsome. May decided to enter the race, he said, only when "a lot of" people urged him to do so following Newsome's apology and his refusal to back away from the contention that he was fine to drive.
This story wouldn't be going away any time soon. So our idea was back on the table again.
Our mission was to find out how the same amount of beer (134 ounces), consumed in the same amount of time (about five hours), would affect three people of varying body types (as described on the accompanying chart). Not just our blood-alcohol content, but simply how we felt. For instance, would we see ourselves as capable of normal work since Newsome had gone back to the office between ounces 70 and 71?
We knew we couldn't exactly replicate Newsome's circumstances. We had no idea when and how much he had eaten that day, and certainly there always will be some differences depending on body weight, metabolism, etc. Also, though a reliable source had advised us that New-some's a Coors Light man, we couldn't be 100 percent sure that he had been riding the Silver Bullet that weeknight.
But we would control what we could. Most importantly, we would try to stay as close as possible to the times and amounts that Channels 5/30 recorded in observing the DA on that evening, which included Newsome's "break" after the first 70 ounces of beer. We also would be tested by a credible source.
Bridge to Awareness Counseling Center Inc. turned out to be perfect, because it gives dozens of breathalyzer tests every day to people following court-ordered programs after DUI or related convictions. Also, its office is at 129 W. Costilla St., so we wouldn't have problems getting there from a nearby bar. We would follow Bridge executive director Stephen Darr's advice that we be driven to his office, instead of walking, to avoid metabolizing too much of the alcohol.
A final note: While not regular binge drinkers, Matthew Schniper, Amanda Lundgren and I certainly couldn't be considered amateurs, either.
Downtown, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
The three of us stay with the script, save for subbing in a couple microbrews at the beginning. We slam down the first 70 ounces, almost a six-pack, in 90 minutes. To that point, it's like a regular happy hour. We're having a good time, the bar isn't very busy, nobody's guzzling, and we're relaxed. As we reach our halftime, Amanda says she's "really buzzed" and Matt admits he "wouldn't want to drive, even now."
We hit the 70-ounce mark and stop, and hop in the car for a ride to Bridge to Awareness.
Matt and Amanda blow exactly the same, .076. Already impaired, almost DUI level. Between their blows, I come out at .038, still safe to drive. But I'm definitely a little loose.
After the tests, we have more than an hour until the next drinking stretch.
"I definitely couldn't hold a meeting right now," Amanda says. "And I shouldn't be operating a county vehicle."
Downtown, 6 to 8:20 p.m.
Back at the bar, we order some food, eat leisurely, then resume drinking. We've got four more 16-ounce drafts within another 90 minutes. Even after a light meal, these are deadly.
"The problem is the fullness, far beyond the impairability," Matthew says early in our final stretch run. (Pleading impending vomit, he'll call it quits about 10 ounces short of 134 ounces.)
"Yeah, I'm pretty drunk, but mostly just full," Amanda adds. "Beer is too filling." (She, however, gets it done.)
As the last remnants of a cloudless sunset outline the mountains, the three of us make our second trip to Bridge to Awareness.
We are inebriated, at varying levels.
Matt has blown .105, and Amanda registers a .114, confirming they are in no condition to drive. My reading is "only" .052, which means I still could be arrested for being impaired (that threshold is .050, and you'd get a DUI at 0.08).
So, if a 275-pound guy can't drive legally after 134 ounces in five hours, guess what? Our DA, who surely doesn't weigh more than 190, can't either. In fact, a program at intox.com says that a 190-pound male, drinking 11 beers in five hours, would normally have a blood-alcohol level of .127. That would be well into DUI territory, even allowing for ample margin of error.
A completely sober co-worker takes us home.
Tuesday, 9 a.m.
Amanda doesn't have to work today. Matthew and I drag ourselves into the office. We feel like roadkill. (Matthew paraphrases celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain: "I feel like a family of apes has crapped in my head.") We have much work to do, and hours to go before we sleep.
So this is what it's like, slurping down the equivalent of 11 beers, waking up and returning to the real world.
After all this, we also wonder something different: What's it like the next day for John Newsome? And how many will he have tonight?
Lessons learned at Bridge
Yes, some clients were outraged about a TV news story showing District Attorney John Newsome drive after gulping down more than a gallon of beer in about five hours.
Some clients thought it indicated a double standard in the criminal justice system, that the powerful can do what they want without legal consequence.
But Stephen Darr, executive director of the nonprofit Bridge to Awareness Counseling Center Inc., says the KOAA report was, above all, a teachable moment.
Students in a 12-hour alcohol education class he was leading considered the effects of 134 ounces of beer consumed over five hours on a typical 180-pound man. Darr says such a person would be "well over the legal limit."
"They figured he was around a 0.12 or 0.13," Darr says. (The DUI threshold is 0.08.)
That amount of alcohol could take 10 hours to clear from a person's system, Darr says.
Darr and his wife run three substance-abuse clinics in southern Colorado, including a branch in downtown Colorado Springs. Altogether, they serve about 1,700 clients who are mainly ordered into counseling and education through DUI convictions. Many are prosecuted by attorneys in Newsome's office, Darr says, and are often angry and resentful that they got caught.
"I try to bring it down to personal responsibility," Darr says.
Many people talk about safe amounts they can drink and still function normally, but Darr says he "preaches total abstinence when it comes to drinking and driving."
Suppose an officer pulls you over and smells alcohol, he suggests. The officer will make you do roadside sobriety tests, which are virtually impossible to pass. No officer wants to take a chance that you'll drive off and crash later, he suggests: "They'll keep going until you fail one."
Then, most people are guaranteed a trip to the police station and a breath test, at the very least. Those who fail also get booked and fingerprinted.
Darr notes he long ago stopped drinking. It would be an unwise activity given his own position guiding people through their struggles with alcohol and drugs, and one that could have big consequences.
"If I got a DUI," he says, scanning an office piled high with paperwork, "this would be gone."