January 31, 2010
Apocalypse Soon?An article written by two experts on climate and atmospheric science in the January print edition of Scientific American revisited the idea of Nuclear Winter by warning that even a “limited” exchange between two recent nuclear powers like India and Pakistan has the potential of reducing the global food supply enough to threaten a sixth of the world’s humans with starvation. I was suitably impressed after reading it, primarily because I’d already given considerable thought to the same issue; however, I was completely unprepared for (and disappointed by) the vacuous comments following the article in the on-line edition. If they are representative of the current readership of Scientific American, our species may in even more trouble than I'd feared.
January 28, 2010
History and the BrainWe humans are not only the most recently evolved mammals, we are also the most dependent on our brains for survival; not that there aren’t several other critical attributes; upright posture, for example. Recent fossil discoveries have provided evidence that considerable primate evolution must have preceded the eventual migration– first of Neanderthals, and later of our own ancestors- out of Africa.
In many respects, the realization that we had evolved began with Charles Lyell, and other geologists, whose writings were well known to Darwin and without which, his critical observations could not have taken root. Indeed, so important has been the impact of Science on human behavior that, In many respects, the whole span of human history predating the Industrial Revolution can be seen as but a prelude to the present day, one in which record numbers of humans are locked in a struggle for mastery of the planet with weapons inventories that are deadlier than ever; made more so because a substantial fraction of one camp is so willing to commit suicide to deliver them.
Not only has the past been prologue, its cognitive errors and false assumptions have shaped the present in ways that were not- and probably could not could not have been- anticipated by our ancestors. Only recently have we acquired satisfactory descriptive terms for the responsible cognitive phenomena. Because they might not be understood as intended, I'll use capitals and italics: Cognitive Dissonance is a mental quirk allowing the simultaneous embrace of mutually contradictory ideas. Denial is our all-too-common refusal to recognize when a dangerous degree of Cognitive Dissonance has developed. Finally, Path Dependence postulates that to the degree any system undergoes directional change, substantial alteration becomes increasingly difficult. Thus the more profound a logical mistake and the longer it was believed within an organization (or body politic), the less likely its amicable correction.
The final realization needed for an understanding of the modern human dilemma is that our brains had been set up long ago for it by the separate evolution of the emotional and cognitive centers residing within each of us. However, It wasn’t until Science gave us the ability to reproduce to a dangerous degree while still continuing to compete in the same old ways that the situation became truly desperate.
For those still cherishing the myth of an all powerful creator, whatever happens becomes His Will, and thus nothing to get too excited about.
January 24, 2010
Collective Lunacy; as reflected by two recent judicial exercisesI must admit that even though I was perceptive enough to warn about a new curia after the Roberts Court first tipped its hand in the Bong Hits for Jesus case, I was also blindsided by the audacity of the “free speech” monstrosity just concocted by what is emerging as the fascist gang of five on our highest court. While all three branches of the government devised so hopefully by our sainted founders in 1787 have been hopelessly corrupted over two-plus centuries of national existence, the dubious honor of being the most grotesquely inappropriate should probably go to the Supreme Court, precisely because it usually receives the least attention; a circumstance that only highlights its clinkers and failures. Think Dred Scott and Plessey, followed by its failure to deal with the consequences of either for nearly a century after the Civil War. Hardly a vindication of Jefferson’s famous 1776 rhetoric, which can now be seen as just as hypocritical as his personal failings.
Typical of global media inattention to the foibles and anomalies of our species is the current lack of American interest in what is undoubtedly our Supreme Court’s most glaring current anomaly: its recent radical alteration in composition. Not only have those changes been both radical and swift, the idea that they wouldn't necessarily impact its decisions would be laughable were its implications not so tragic.
As if to prove every cloud has a silver lining, the recent unanimous Kelly decision by the California Supremes struck down the numerical plant limits slipped into SB 420 by the police lobby at the last minute; however true to its craven refusal to take on drug war lunacy, the Court left considerable wiggle room for local prosecutors to argue over “reasonable” limits.
What's more liable to prove an effective restraint on wasteful state prosecutions is a lack of tax revenues attending the "financial crisis" we are still reluctant to call a Depression.
Prozac anyone? Or would you prefer pot?
January 23, 2010
Delayed Corrections of Past Errors; how humans became a smart species with a grim futureOne of human cognition's most neglected areas is our tendency to overlook a relatively simple concept: most progress in human knowledge can be seen as new information (partially) correcting widely believed errors of the past, some of which had achieved great credibility. The best known example may be when Galileo’s observations through a primitive telescope corrected the then-accepted notion of a geocentric universe. For me, the most important part of that story is the one most often omitted: that the orthodoxy that induced Urban VIII to punish Galileo for heresy still dominates human affairs; even as the existence of our species is threatened by its stubborn preference for myth over the more plausible explanations of empirical science.
There are many reasons why; one is that our highly evolved brains can't keep pace with our rapidly evolving culture. In Darwinian terms, our need to compete still trumps our ability to cooperate for our own good; thus “success” becomes vanquishing contrary ideas, even when it means preferring the siren songs of a Hitler, a Pope, or an Ayatollah over hard-headed (but uncertain) scientific reality, a process greatly enhanced by scientific ignorance. Is there any better explanation for the gutting of that most sacrosanct of all Constitutional Amendments by a gaggle of Catholic jurists added to the court by Republican presidents intent on reversing Roe v Wade?
Another reason is our well-demonstrated preference for denial; a tendency facilitated by our relatively brief life-span compared to the almost impossible-to-grasp concepts of infinity with which modern cosmologists must wrestle. In that context, it’s easy to understand why our concepts of the "future" are so truncated.
As I’ve often been moved to explain in the past, these existential warnings were not on my radar in 2001; they are a natural consequence of having to understand how the American federal bureaucracy could have been led so far astray from a more readily understandable explanation of the juvenile pot use that caught our national attention in the Sixties. That realization eventually led to others: competition, greed, and denial play critical roles in most human interactions. In fact, without them, today’s huge, technology-dependent global economy could not have evolved into an engine capable of sustaining, however imperfectly, a human population of between six and seven billion.
A key interjection at this point is that the failure of Communism demonstrated the importance of consumer rewards in balancing the drudgery and repression intrinsic to planned economies; however Capitalism has its own problems. One is that population growth has been a continuing requirement for “success.” In other words, is prosperity even possible in a shrinking economy? We have yet to find out.
At the same time, the most troubling problem facing the world's economy may be its dependence, since the Industrial Revolution began, on population growth and competition, both of which were also greatly facilitated by scientific technology. Unfortunately, the most recent scientific discoveries now suggest that exploitation of the Earth’s resources may have been overdone to a point that forces us to conserve and recycle more efficiently even as we must also consider replacing major energy sources; all without any assurance that they could be accomplished soon enough or, as importantly, that political stability could be maintained during whatever interval proves necessary.
Given current levels of global strife, the track record of international decision making, and currently favored methods for conflict resolution, the smart money would have to bet against "success."
January 20, 2010
Suspicions ConfirmedToday’s NYT carries two stories that, to an uncanny degree, confirm two growing suspicions about our species: the first is that we are more easily misled than we realize; the second is that there are far too many of us for our own good.
The first such item concerned Medical Marijuana; in its brief first paragraph, its author added two and two and proudly came up with five: “there is no good scientific evidence that legalizing marijuana’s use provides any benefits over current therapies.” In the course of the article, there's even more; two short paragraphs later he states, “Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply and for which the government requires a special scientific review.” (Duh!)
The rest of the article compounds that fuzzy logic by zeroing in on the argument currently favored by marijuana opponents: that because it must be smoked, it simply can’t be "medicine."
Actually, “smoking” is a form of drug delivery that is both very complex and efficient; there's already abundant evidence that smoking herbal cannabis (“marijuana”) over prolonged intervals is safer than previously supposed; perhaps even safer than not smoking at all.
Harris further contradicts himself by describing Marinol a federally sponsored “edible” that results in significantly different effects than either smoking or ingestion of the still-illegal oral preparations sold in "dispensaries."
Finally; with respect to Mr. Harris’s misleading article, the failure of both federal experts and their counterparts in Academia to even notice such obvious discrepancies is powerful evidence that our clever species is so driven by greed and fear that it is easily intimidated by brazen fascists.
That’s my seque into the second Times article, documenting the not-so-surprising victory of a Massachusetts version of Joe the Plumber over the lackluster candidate for what was assumed to be a safe seat. There are so many familiar historical parallels, ranging from Hitler in 1933 to Dubya in 2000, that recounting even the best-known would be boring.
Color me discouraged; more on the key differences between eating and smoking pot as tme permits...
January 17, 2010
Questions Raised by Two Books Worth ReadingIn April 2008, I reviewed Douglas Valentine’s Strength of the Wolf, a well researched study of Harry Anslinger’s FBN, as revealed through a host of interviews with veterans of that agency, many of whom had transferred to the CIA between Anslinger’s Kennedy-endorsed elevation to the UN as its first High Commissioner of Narcotics in i962, and his unrepentant departure from public life in 1970.
Once piqued, Valentine’s interest in the FBN generated a second book, the Strength of the Pack, in which he takes a closer and more contemporary look at the evolution of American drug policy since 1968, the same year Richard Nixon alertly convinced America’s clueless “moral majority” to choose him over the luckless Hubert Humphrey. It was an election close enough to rival the only two occasions when naked power politics and the archaic Electoral College system combined to thrust the Presidential candidate with the fewest popular votes into the White House.
The immediate price of Rutherford B. Hayes 1886 "victory" was abrupt termination of Reconstruction and eventual imposition of segregation (through Jim Crow). The most obvious costs to date of the Bush versus Gore fiasco in 2000 have been two ruinous wars, a badly fractured global economy, and eight years of inactivity on climate change.
Although Valentine seems to harbor some belief that an "honest" drug war could “keep drugs off the street,” he is under no illusions that either the CIA or the DEA, as the FBN's successor agency, has ever fought it honestly. Far from it; he understands the two have had a common interest in using America's drug policy as smokescreen for their bureaucratic power plays; also that both have found it essential to employ narco traffickers as informants, a practice that inevitably leads to granting "drug criminals" a degree of immunity. What he also makes clear is that the Cold War gave the CIA an upper hand over other federal agencies following World War Two, an advantage it has not yet been forced to surrender.
Less clear to me is whether he understands the essential dishonesty of a national drug policy that has been systematically betraying everything America claims to stand for since 1914.
Another worthwhile book, somewhat older in terms of its publication date, but displaying a deeper understanding of the essential fecklessness of America's drug policy, is Drug Warriors and their Prey, by Richard Lawrence Miller. Like Valentine and other non-academic historians who have been more forthright in criticism of popular ideas than their brethren in Academia, Miller has had to achieve a degree of commercial success in order to march to his own drummer.
Also like Valentine, Miller seems have discovered drug policy through interest in a related phenomenon: in his case, it was Hitler's lightning takeover of German political power in the Thirties by taking advantage of that nation's underdeveloped legal system. Of considerable interest to me is that an endorsement of Miller's logic, similar to that offered by gun lobbyists, has yet to be offered on behalf of either Blacks or drug users, both of whom seem to be playing designated roles as scapegoats in modern society.
Segue to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Haiti which is growing worse by the hour and was also eminently predictable a week ago: from the ineptitude of those claiming to be "in charge," and the desperation of humans trapped in a pestilential hell-hole in which the dangers of starvation and disease are increasing by the day.
Will the watching world tumble to what's at stake here? Or will it (as usual) just avert its eyes and focus on more trivial issues?
January 14, 2010
Haitian Agony: a Reproach and a WarningIt’s difficult to understand how anyone could remain unaffected by the grisly details of the human tragedy now being recorded on the world’s television screens. Haiti is the western half of the island where Columbus landed in 1492 and promptly claimed for Spain as Hispaniola. It was also the first place in the Americas where African slaves were brought to replace the original inhabitants after a near-depopulation suffered under Spanish rule.
Over the next three centuries, Spanish, French, and British colonial interests vied with Caribbean pirates for control of the western half of the island (Saint-Dominique) then ruled by France. Shortly after the revolutionary government of France granted a disputed degree of freedom to “mulattos” (some of whom had fought against the British during the American Revolution), the first, and only successful, slave rebellion in the new world began in 1791 and ended with creation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804
That successful rebellion had far-reaching consequences; one of which was French loss of interest in the New World and the Louisiana Purchase which, in turn, led to Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Together, they lent great impetus to westward expansion of the United States towards its “Manifest Destiny,” the capstone of which was our war with Mexico over Texas.
At the same time, the Haitian revolution served as both a grim warning to those dedicated to preserving American chattel slavery and a major reason for their refusal to consider any moderation in its practice. Although Lincoln insisted in his first Inaugural that the Civil War was only to preserve the Union, it became more apparent in his second that he saw slavery was the real issue. Ironically, a disgruntled Southern loyalist, upon hearing that speech, was moved to take action soon afterward.
That history is the main reason I regard our long-continued neglect of Haiti a disgrace and its current misery a dire warning of what might happen if we continue to ignore the emotional basis of human behavior and fail to realize that denial and repression aren’t sustainable as answers to the grave problems humanity now faces.
January 13, 2010
Another “Victory” over Mexican Drug Cartels?Hours ago, the Mexican government announced its fourth “victory” over the dreaded drug cartels in recent weeks: the arrest, in the Baja California city of La Paz, of Teodoro García Simental, an upper echelon cartel leader with a particularly grisly reputation for beheading cartel enemies; even dissolving some of them in acid.
Given that the real reason for the violence is the enormous popularity of marijuana north of the border, I’m still left with one question: how long will it take for Americans to wake up to the fact that whether it’s cocaine from Colombia or marijuana from Mexico, the driving force behind drug violence in both countries is the stubborn insistence of Yanqui policy makers that a policy of prohibition can be made to work?
January 12, 2010
Good News, Bad News, and an Interesting Future ConfrontationThe good news is that New Jersey appears about to become the fourteenth state with a medical marijuana law; the bad news is that its sponsors have promised it will be restrictive enough to avoid the “excesses” of California’s Proposition 215, all of which begs a few questions: do they really think they would have succeeded if 215 had been rejected by California voters? Haven’t 12 other states around the nation been passing similar laws at the rate of about one a year since 1996? What is it about “momentum” that they don’t understand? How does one put toothpaste back in the tube?
Just how Jersey’s restrictive law will evolve under a hostile governor will be interesting. The match-up will be between the market for a safe, effective anxiolytic drug with a well-established, albeit illegal, infrastructure; one that grows by appealing to troubled adolescents in an age of anxiety. It will be opposed by clueless bureaucrats, still relying on the powers of arrest and prosecution in an era of diminishing tax revenues.
My money is on the safe therapeutic agent.
January 11, 2010
Worse than I ExpectedYesterday I mentioned the National Geographic Channel's Border Wars documentary and expressed some hope for a realistic look at two of our modern follies: trying to seal our Mexican border against poor people and drugs. Judging from the "preliminary" episode, which will apparently air again tonight, right before the "first" episode (!) the series will be another uncomprehending, and incomprehensible, exercise in patriotic puffery.
Rather than trying to supply some context by explaining how the "wars" began and have evolved, the script thrusts us right into battle as we ride along with intrepid Border Patrol Agents in high tech vehicles and Blackhawk helicopters playing cat and mouse games with desperate smugglers and coyotes attempting to deliver drugs and pathetically poor aliens across the Arizona border.
There's no doubting the sincerity of the agents' emotions or that the dangers they face are real; however, we get no perspective from their decperately poor quarry. The truth is that all are being filmed for our entertainment; mere pawns in the money and power games now dominating human existence. The series looks like it will end up as just another tawdry example of "Reality TV."
There is no mention of the fact that back in the Fifties, we had tried to address the illegal immigrant problem with a Bracero (guest worker) program, or that, by the time the program was discontinued in 1964, American teens had yet to discover the anxiolytic appeal of "marijuana," thus there was hardly any demand for "pot" North of the Border.
Forty-five years later, the current plight of our species becomes a bit more understandable; but only to those who remember the past.
January 10, 2010
Drug War Lies Exposed by Applicant Initiation Patterns:1Schedule One was created by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to designate certain drugs considered so far beyond the pale that mere possession of a detectable amount without special government permission became grounds for arrest. That the criteria for listing those agents are ridiculously unscientific can be inferred simply from reading them; that they would not be applied fairly can be inferred from the fact that the CSA gives ultimate authority over the list to a Cabinet officer who must be a lawyer: the US Attorney General.
It also goes without saying that the CSA was written at the behest of the only US President (also a lawyer) forced to resign because of his own dishonesty even before the bureaucratic enforcement mechanism for what amounted to an entirely new policy had been created. Indeed, one of Nixon's last Executive Orders created the DEA, which can be considered the successor of Harry Anslinger's infamous FBN.
Not that I have a problem with lawyers per se, my problem is with them practicing Medicine, a profession in which they were not trained, but tend automatically to assume their lack of depth and clinical experience can be made up for by a quick top-down study. Nor do I have a problem with relatively honest plaintiff's attorneys; my own experience has convinced me that diligent physicians who communicate with their patients have much less to fear from tort (malpractice) attorneys than from federal bureaucrats possessing both the power of arrest and the ability to hide their errors and misdeeds.
In fact, if one traces modern US drug policy back to its origins in the 1914 Harrison Act, one learns that the only prime mover of that unfortunate legislation who was a physician was Hamilton Wright, a little-known wannabe-bureaucrat in the (TR) Roosevelt Administration who helped set it in motion and whose 1917 obituary can be read here. An interesting footnote to Wright's truncated career, noted in the obituary: his one claim to fame as a researcher had been to mistakenly identify a vitamin deficiency as an infection.
Once in place, validated by the Holmes-Brandeis Court and rooted in fear of the (still-undefined) phenomenon of "addiction," the false central theses of Harrison have remained under the control of judges, legislators, and police bureaucrats who have consistently used their greater political clout to cow Medicine into complicit silence in much the same way temporal and religious authorities have used similar power to control. access to the benefits of Science from the time of Galileo and Newton onward.
By the way, the false central idea of US drug policy is not that certain drugs ("of abuse") are dangerous and potentially harmful; it's that those harms are best defined by medically ignorant functionaries and mitigated ("controlled") by prohibition laws that inevitably create lucrative criminal markets.
By a fortunate coincidence, my early questioning of cannabis applicants asked about their initiations of several "drugs of abuse." The aggregated answers, which do show that chronic pot users tried more than their share is offset by data showing that as pot smoking became an established practice, its practitioners have been progressively less likely to try heroin or use more dangerous drugs repetitively. In other words, the devil is in the details; as usual. A graphic lesson in the futility of prohibition as policy will air tonight on the National Geographic Channel; I'm curious to see how far it will go in actually verbalizing the folly of prohibition, but I'm not expecting miracles.
January 07, 2010
How Two Losing Wars Might EndTwo discrete drug wars are being waged along our border with Mexico; one, the futile American “war” on drugs, is relatively bloodless, but it’s the underlying cause of the other, which is setting new records for bloodshed: the one involving rival Mexican cartels and hapless Mexican government forces over control of the increasingly lucrative smuggling corridors through which low grade Mexican weed is delivered to our still-growing domestic market. Improbable as it might have seemed at the height of the crack epidemic in the Eighties, weed now leads all other illegal drugs in return on investment. If there’s a better measure of drug war futility, I have yet to hear of it.
Another failing American war, the one on terror, almost completely displaced both Mexico and pot from the front pages over the Holidays, but at least one detailed analysis cited drug war futility and its links to both Mexican violence and America’s hunger for marijuana. Somewhat ironically, it appeared in the conservative Wall Street Journal, and although it didn’t cite the medical benefits of pot, now being reduced by its illegality, it did give an accurate description of how profits from illegal markets encourage violence and lure disposable low-level players into violent distribution networks (just like Prohibition in Capone's Chicago).
Lest anyone think “legalization” of any illegal drug will happen overnight, the only legislative body on Earth with the power to do that is the Congress of the United States; on the other hand, 2011 will mark the first year of pot-smoking baby boomers' Medicare eligibility. If there are as many of them as I suspect, Congress should finally start getting the message. It also makes it likely that "marijuana" will be the first "drug of abuse" to be legalized; not because it is "soft," but because it is an effective palliative medication for so many of its users.
Who knows? Another benefit of legal pot might even be a reduced Medicare budget as pot smoking geezers gain access to cheaper and more effective medicines than the ones offered by the Big Pharma cartel.
January 03, 2010
A Change in DrectionThe global drug war’s failure is a phenomenon that can be explained either in starkly simple terms or in the complex detail favored by historians. The simple explanation is that lessons that should have been learned from the failure of America’s Prohibition Amendment between 1920 and 1933 have yet to be applied to the world’s massively failing drug war.
Why that is so still eludes me. That it’s a form of denial has long been clear, but what is most troubling is that once one is alerted to how commonly the same mechanism has been, and is being used to avoid dealing with other unpleasant global realities, the danger posed to our species simply can’t be avoided. But it is. I have now concluded my best option is to resume the narrative of pot prohibition’s failure, but in greater detail and longer installments appropriate to its historical complexity. What follows here is the brief overview.
In 1920, America unwittingly launched two apparently separate prohibition policies, each of which was bound to end in failure, but ironically, the lessons of the first still haven’t been applied to the second; indeed, official rhetoric holds that drug prohibition remains an essential national and global policy. The reasons for that denial, and some way around it, would seem to be of great importance to the entire species, for they clearly relate to the function of our defining organ, the brain.
The next entry, which may be some time coming, will try to deal with some of the complexities that have been hiding the truth about cannabis and its (unsuccessful) prohibition from both the public at large and those who should be most interested.