April 30, 2008
What is “Human Nature?” And how did we get into this mess? (Personal)
The burning questions with which we humans have been grappling since different clusters of our ancestors hit independently on writing are: what does it mean to be human and why are we here? Recent studies of various “higher” mammals, most notably primates, elephants, and certain marine mammals may have cast doubt on whether humans are the only species with a language function, but that we are the only ones to record our abstract thoughts in writing now seems well established. Certainly we are the only species to use literacy to effectively manipulate the global environment.
Yet for all that cognitive prowess, we have recently been kept as busy with problems that seem to have resulted from our scientific triumphs as we are adding more triumphs. We are also shockingly far from consensus about how to manage the problems. In fact, a case can be made that despite our unprecedented ability to communicate, we are furthest from agreement at the very time global cooperation is most urgently needed.
What, you may ask, does this line of thinking have to do with pot use? The connection is really quite basic, although it requires a willingness to think further outside the box than most are willing to venture. For all our cognitive abilities, we humans are also highly evolved mammals with similar survival and emotional needs. We may now have reached a point in our cultural evolution (itself enabled only by our cognitive abilities) where it’s possible to analyze how we got here. But, ironically, because analytic ability for its own sake is rarely welcomed within established human hierarchies, correct analyses are usually dismissed as nonsense or heresy long before they are taken seriously.
Even then, the ones that are finally acknowledged and responded to are usually watered down at first. A convenient example, one very much in the news, is how America has dealt with slavery, a national tragedy produced by the implicit repudiation of its stirring revolutionary manifesto by those who wrote its Constitution a mere eleven years later.
In fact, it may be precisely because acceptance by whatever group we aspire to be part of is such a dominant human need that individual inductive (bottom up) reasoning is usually discouraged by human societies. In other words, a highly unlikely, but reassuringly omniscient, anthropoid “god” is still our preferred source of truth. Until we are able to shed the millstone of religion from our cognition, our ability to think ourselves into trouble may continue to overwhelm our ability to think ourselves out of it.
Do I really need add that the drug war is a nearly perfect example of top-down deductive (religious) logic? That it has survived so long as policy is a disgrace to all who have had a hand in protecting it.
April 29, 2008
How Much Longer Will this Embarrassing Lttle Twerp be Taken Seriously?
As this is written, I'm watching CNN’s usual melange of ads for advertisers mixed in with their own self promoting ads for coming programs mixed with a dollop of “news.” One of the events being awaited is a brief press conference with the nation’s prez who will allegedly report to a beleaguered nation on urgent plans to alleviate our unprecedented housing debacle. Since it’s all interspersed with even more urgent weather news from all over, but in a setting of the unprecedented tornados that struck Virginia overnight, I’m forced to wonder when the polity will finally notice the disastrous record of his administration.
Oh, I see; it’s all been the fault of Congress and will be solved by finding more oil and building more refrineries... unfortunately, I don’t have time to stick around for the usual softball questions and the inevitably fatuous answers.
April 24, 2008
Neuroscience and Drug Policy 1 (Personal)
A measure of the success of humans as a species is that we now number somewhere around six an a half billion individuals and have, collectively, accumulated more knowledge of our universe than ever. Ironically, the dangers now confronting us: economic catastrophe, rapid climate change, epidemic disease, and famine are also quite real to a majority that has yet to include the current US President and many in his political party.
That the list of his potential replacements has now been whittled down to three is of some concern; who they are should be of even more, and the (familiar) direction of political rhetoric as we approach important deadlines does little to inspire confidence.
That we humans are qualitatively different than other species must have been apparent to our shadowy first ancestors, but we will never know for sure because they had yet to discover writing and it would be thousands of years before decipherable messages were left for posterity. They would also have probably been too preoccupied with mere survival to do much abstract thinking. Most of what we know about early humans and their immediate ancestors has come from systematic explorations undertaken in the past three hundred years with the aid of scientific technology. So new is our ability to explore both our own recent past as a species and the more distant past of our planet and galaxy, we are still uncertain of their physical and chronological limits.
All of which makes our brain, the highly evolved organ with which we think, and one once called the most complicated machine in the Universe, the most important determinant of our future as a species. Literally, how we are able to think collectively over the next several years is likely to play a huge role in our future and that of our planet.
The new scientific buzz word for studies of the brain is “neuroscience.” Like many such neologisms, it lumps together some very strange bedfellows. That many neuroscientists are playing an active role in drug policy both accounts for the drift of this entry and marks another subject I hope to return to.
April 23, 2008
Can Amazon’s Kindle influence Drug Policy?
It now seems likely the Kindle or some close relative will soon be pushing Book Publishing in the same direction that file sharing software and less expensive recording technology have already pushed the Music Industry. By breaking up lucrative monopolies at the top of established industries the revolution now known familiarly as IT and first anticipated by Claude Shannon’s Communication Theory is forcing a rapid restructuring of established markets.
With respect to books, the new format, one that should allow rapid and inexpensive (even free) dissemination of copyrighted intellectual content, could revolutionize both how authors are paid and ideas are exchanged. If we look to recent history, we can anticipate that established publishers will fight the diminution of their influence for a while, but will eventually end up competing to to buy up (and control) the new platform to the extent possible. Meanwhile, the challenge to Jeff Bezos and his staff at Amazon will be to develop their new idea as responsibly as possible; hopefully, they will do so in an evolutionary (as opposed to gimmicky) direction.
What my study of pot smokers does is document the existence of a large population of self-identified pot smokers; it’s unique because it provides information that couldn’t have become available until Proposition 215 had passed in California. It’s important because, when followed to a logical conclusion, it is further evidence that our species is at a cross roads: to an uncanny degree, today's headlines confirm that our modern Age of Anxiety coincides with the most important existential challenge humanity has faced since narrowly (and unwittingly) avoiding Nuclear Winter in the October 1962 missile crisis.
Over the next few weeks, I hope to point out that the dense relationship between corporate greed and political irresponsibility that Douglas Cay Johnston has so brilliantly documented in Free Lunch becomes even more understandable when one realizes the degree to which our still-evolving Behavioral Sciences have been co-opted by the imposition of a morality-based, pseudo-scientific policy like Nixon’s Drug War.
April 19, 2008
Are Election Politics (finally) Catching Up with the Drug War? (Personal)
Enough of what’s been happening both at home and abroad since 2001 has paralleled what pot smokers have been (unwittingly) teaching me over the same interval to be downright uncanny. I believe that a major conclusion to be drawn from my study is that human emotions have always played a greater role in our decision making than most of us care to admit. A recent example, one with a particularly interesting twist, was just aired on PBS.
The Weekly Political Wrap is a moderated Friday program in which David Brooks and Mark Shields discuss the week’s politics; yesterday’s program elicited seemingly different opinions from the pundits in which each recalled the outcomes of American Presidential elections since 1968.
I wasn’t surprised by Shields’ annoyance at what he considers the unfair treatment of Obama by Pennsylvania debate moderators. Brooks, whose personality I’ve always found somewhat smarmy and unattractive, justified that impression by opining that the questions directed at Obama were “fair” and that he had "not come off well.” His main conclusion seemed to have been that Obama is being revealed as a (typical) losing Democrat in the mold of Carter, Dukakis, and Kerry.
i was caught a bit off guard by the fury audible in Shields’ response; although ostensibly not directed at Brooks, he clearly saw his double standard. What also gave me some hope for the future of this benighted republic is that Shields was also specific about a couple of sacred cows: super patriot Dick Cheney’s five (count them five) requests for draft deferment in the Sixties, and his citation of an issue fairly close to the drug war: the high incidence of PTSD among Iraq returnees for which the VA has no plan.
What Shields’ anger suggested to me is that our brighter pundits have not missed as much as I feared; they have simply not spoken out because of the usual concerns about being politically incorrect. Thus Shields’ incomplete melt-down may really be a sign of hope that when things get bad enough, the hypocrisy required to sustain our drug war might finally be discarded by enough people to make a difference.
Although not often credited, it's quite obvious that the Great Depression played a role in the Repeal the 18th Amendment.
OTOH, if this nation is frightened enough of the idea of a black president to elect John McCain, we could be in even more trouble than I suspected...
April 17, 2008
Intelligent Opposition Requires Accurate Knowledge (Personal)
It's axiomatic in Medicine that if one’s diagnosis is wrong, one’s treatment is unlikely to be successful. Proposition 215 provided the first-ever chance for unbiased clinical studies of the impact of the drug war on admitted drug users; however “reform” (in company with most other elements of society) has been so slow to grasp the implications of that statement as to suggest denial may be so basic and prevalent a human behavioral characteristic as to have its own serious implications.
In any event, in the twelfth year since 215 passed, reform is still without a coherent strategy for obtaining the rights won by the initiative for the policy victims reform claims to represent. On a larger scale, we humans are also still in massive denial about climate change, and "overpopulation" is a word not used very often.
Closer to home: the opportunistic guerrilla war being waged against patients by California law enforcement; there’s still no mechanism for tabulating, tracking, and assisting at the trials being generated by (usually outrageous) patient arrests.
I’ve now been a witness in such trials at both state and federal levels and the difference was profound. In federal court, a judge backing the policy easily prevented the jury from hearing relevant medical testimony. In state court, the rules would permit knowledgeable defense lawyers and physician experts to educate both judge and jury. The catch is that the relevant information has to be effectively presented. Before that can happen, it has to be known, understood, and believed.
April 15, 2008
Lessons from State Court (Personal)
Although originally intended to better define “medical” use of cannabis, both the ad-hoc study of applicants I began in 2001 and the blog I started in 2005 to describe it have continued evolving as new information has been acquired. The first requirement of the study was deciding what questions to ask of those requesting medical status; the second was how best to record the data. The blog was motivated by the unexpected response to my attempt to share preliminary findings and solicit suggestions on two e-mail discussion lists (one state and one national) I’d become involved shortly after joining the drug policy “reform” movement in 1995. It was a shock to discover that many presumed colleagues held very different opinions. Some were militantly opposed to any discussion and let me know it either publicly or in private; the majority just refused all attempts at discussion, a pattern of denial entirely consistent with the way pressing world problems like war in the Middle East and rapid climate change are (not) being dealt with at the moment.
Meanwhile, my unique access to applicants (essentially granted patient status by the new law) was providing me with direct evidence that the opinions being aired on the lists were, to be charitable, simplistic and seriously mistaken. In a nutshell, patient histories were providing powerful evidence that American drug policy is not only as deeply rooted in error as most had suspected, but actually worse than realized. To a degree few had imagined, cannabis has remained popular because it’s been safe and effective self-medication for many of the conditions government sponsored research blames it for aggravating.
Such apparent heresy becomes understandable with the realization that Psychiatry and Psychology have embraced a system of classification in which symptoms and behavioral tendencies are considered diseases and assumed to require specific treatment by one (or more) of the of the new psychotropic agents produced by an increasingly profitable Pharmaceutical Industry. One obvious result has been recent spectacular increases in the frequency with which various mood and behavioral “disorders” are being diagnosed.
Demographic information supplied by applicants also clearly shows that today’s huge illegal marijuana market began when the first Baby Boomers began trying pot in the early Sixties and has grown steadily ever since; primarily because each new cohort of adolescents has been trying (initiating) marijuana in defiance of advice to the contrary from both the drug war bureaucracy and their ideological opponents in NORML.
That both the federal government and “reform” have continued to ignore data supplied by a population of illegal drug users is now abundantly clear. I certainly understand why the federal government is unlikely to call attention to a study that directly challenges key policy assumptions, but it strikes me as absurd is that NORML and other reform organizations still cling to notions of “recreational” use.
My courtroom experience last last week demonstrated the impact of that denial so vividly that over the next few days, I hope to illustrate its cost and suggest some practical steps to reverse the deteriorating legal situation that’s been developed in California since the Raich decision was handed down in June of 2005.
April 13, 2008
Questions Never Asked and Dots Still Requiring Connection (Historical)
An original intention of this blog was to connect historical dots between today’s huge pot market and the little-known Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. In that context, one might reasonably assume that if the illegal product a national policy intended to dissuade “kids” from even trying, had already been the country's most valuable crop for several years, any discussion of that embarrassing development would be difficult to avoid, especially in the nation claiming to lead the world in "free speech."
But one would be very wrong; the relevant questions are not asked, either by, or of, the very professionals who should be wrestling with them. Instead, the policy is fiercely defended by a scientifically ignorant drug czar as absolutely essential to the national welfare. Nor is his claim that without the drug war our drug problems would be worse even questioned; especially by wonks at the handful of prestigious institutions offering advanced degrees in “Public Policy.”
In fact, drug policy academics have shown so little interest in Harry Anslinger that not a single scholarly biography has ever appeared. For those with short memories, Harry was the bureaucrat for whom the FBN was created in 1930 and which he ruled with an iron fist until departing abruptly in 1962. During that interval he played a dominant role in protecting and shaping the policy that would quickly become Nixon’s drug war without any meaningful review of its (racist and stupid) basic assumptions. Anslinger was also the driving force behind the 1937 MTA, and authored of the 1961 Single Convention Treaty (now the UN's basis for global drug prohibition).
Given those dubious accomplishments, the absence of a definitive biography can only be understood as an avoidance of embarrassment: just enough of his unsavory history is known to make it impossible to construct a bio that wouldn't cast enormous doubt on drug war legitimacy. Clearly, no one wants to risk that; what academics would risk bringing down federal displeasure on either himself or his institution? That’s why a recent study of the FBN; one providing a detailed, but necessarily oblique, look at Anslinger through the unguarded recollections of ex-FBN agents is worth reading by anyone with a serious interest in drug policy (a predictably small market).
While The Strength of the Wolf (Douglas Valentine, Verso, 2004) can't deliver on its subtitle’s claim to be “The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs,” it is, nevertheless, a rare, solidly researched, and historically helpful study of an era that remains shrouded in imposed ignorance. Ironically, it was Valentine's own (understandable) ignorance of American drug policy history that induced him to shift his intended focus from the early CIA to the FBN during an era of great historical importance: the immediate aftermath of World War Two. In his Introduction, Valentine explains the switch: early in his research, he learned that a number of mid-level FBN agents had sought lateral transfers to other federal agencies to preserve their pensions. Several had gone to the CIA, a hated former rival in its early days, but the one favored to prosper during the early Cold War. Generally loyal to Anslinger, neither the ex-agents nor Valentine ever question the wisdom of prohibiting drugs, but their accounts, as collected and assembled by a competent investigative reporter, provide a riveting picture of what was essentially a rogue agency that repeatedly broke the law by conducting grotesque experiments in a search for the (non-existent) drug that would allow "mind control" to become a key Cold War weapon. In that connection, Valentine's descriptions of the antics of George H. White are particularly telling.
Time doesn't permit a detailed account of Valentine's main contribution: clarifying key interactions between FBN, FBI, and CIA in the aftermath of World War Two. The bottom line is that our whole government became so obsessed with opposing Communism that it engaged in tactics that were little different than their opponents. The game was then as now: all about "winning," with little concern for long term consequences to either planet or species.
The picture of Anslinger that emerges is one of an insecure mediocrity whose greatest skill was bureaucratic infighting and greatest concern was the protection of his bureau. The main emphasis within the FBN was on “making cases” (gaining key convictions) despite the limited budgets and scarce manpower necessitated by the Great Depression. After World War Two, as it gradually became clear that "narcotics" enforcement would play second fiddle to the CIA's mission, it seems that FBN agents eventually accepted that need, even as they chafed at having to honor it. Ironically, Nixon's drug war, declared after Anslinger's departure and shortly before his death in 1975, would lead to creation of the DEA, the FBN's most obvious successor agency,
Once one realizes the degree to which protection of its mindless policy, always a driving force behind America's drug prohibition bureaucracy, has contaminated the entire federal government, the political sanctity of the drug war becomes readily understandable. The same is true of "reform," which has allowed itself to be cast in the role of (unwitting) defender of the "drug menace," in the government's prohibition myth.
Ironically, it’s quite likely that when a very sick old Anslinger died in 1975, he had no more idea of where the drug war he'd helped create was headed than Nixon. The same goes for an already-senile Gipper who had dusted it off after Nixon's disgrace at the urging of his spouse to “just say no.” Then came Poppa Bush who invaded Panama to arrest its president for drug trafficking on behalf of his CIA, and Bill Clinton may have never inhaled, but he did appoint Barry McCaffrey drug czar and accepted a bribe for pardoning a notorious drug criminal on his way out the door.
That brings us to the present incumbent, whose administration has set new records for incompetence and dishonesty in its zeal to prove he is more forceful than daddy. The really sad part is that this admittedly inflammatory rant is far more accurate than the alternative, and more widely believed, scenarios because it's based on actual data from drug users. Even worse, that data has been readily available in California to anyone willing to ask the right questions for the past seven years.
Thus several big dots are still there to be connected.