June 30, 2010
Nemesis & ApocalypseMark Kleiman is a professor of pubic policy at UCLA; although we’ve never met face to face, we’ve been aware of each since May, 1996 when a letter I wrote accusing him of “intellectual constipation” was published in the Los Angeles Times. It had been written in response to an Op-Ed authored by Kleiman and psychiatrist Sally Satel on the dangers of methamphetamine, a new drug "menace" then being hyped in terms eerily similar to those used to describe the crack “epidemic” a decade earlier.
I later learned from a mutual acquaintance that Kleiman, then teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School, had been annoyed enough by my characterization to join the drug policy discussion group I’d been participating in as a neophyte, apparently intent on debate. Because communication was slower in 1996, I'd already departed on a European vacation when he began posting. By my return, he had been so rudely treated by list regulars he had resigned.
Our next brush came a year or two later when I sent him a rude e-mail after hearing a rebroadcast of his interview by a Bay Area NPR station. He responded with an expression of extreme annoyance. By then I’d also read Against Excess, his 1992 drug policy treatise and found it both confused and confusing; primarily because it tacitly endorses criminal prohibition as reasonable public policy. For me, what is inexplicable about many obviously intelligent drug prohibition advocates is their inability to recognize that the fate of the 18th Amendment should have conclusively demonstrated that human nature will defeat any attempt to outlaw commerce in a popular commodity or service. Fifteen additional years, eight of which have been spent interviewing criminal market participants, have strengthened that judgment to the point where I see continued UN efforts to sustain a global drug war in today's world as a sign our species is in deep trouble.
Parenthetically, a quick Google search also reveals that Dr. Satel seems have significantly modified a stance that was once very similar to the one Dr. Kleiman still embraces.
Moreover, current human population numbers may be so stressful and difficult to change (because of Path Dependence) that there is no practical alternative to hoping that leaders will recognize and correct them soon; a hope growing more forlorn by the day as crude oil gushes unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico.
Why, one might ask, should we concern ourselves with drug policy at such a time? One answer, applying to most humans with jobs or other projects that sustain them, is that even with an apocalypse approaching, we seem to need something to do. Besides, we’ve been here before, often without knowing it; especially since the dawn of the nuclear age. Indeed, we may have already survived several close calls; to say nothing of hazards we’d been blissfully unaware of for millennia.
For me, Mark Kleiman has come to represent the dilemma that has long puzzled our species: was our creation planned or accidental? It was set in motion so long ago and remains so inaccessible to proof that, short of a biblical Apocalypse, we are unlikely ever to know with certainty.
What makes it more poignant is that the discovery of empirical science five centuries ago might have offered something closer to real choice; had the long-established human institutions of temporal and religious power not contrived to effectively control how Science is used, a phenomenon that has forced us ever deeper into a trap from which escape may already be impossible.
Over the next several weeks, as we await various possible outcomes, I hope to outline why I think drug policy has become both a metaphor and a reason for whatever will happen.
June 27, 2010
McChrystal vs MacArthurAlthough it’s tempting to compare Obama’s firing of Stanley McChrystal with Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur in Korea almost Sixty years ago, it’s considerably more accurate to compare the rookie president’s dilemma to the one we faced in a more recent conflict: our equally ill-advised adventure in Viet Nam in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It was there that we failed to learn a very important lesson, namely that a foreign army attempting to fight a prolonged guerrilla war while also maintaining the “rule of law” in a nation with a different language and culture faces an almost impossible battle. In Viet Nam, we lost a protracted war while substituting aerial bombardment for an army of draftees. In Afghanistan, we are also failing with an all-volunteer army in an otherwise similar context. Also; just as we failed to learn from the French adventure in Viet Nam, we have ignored its Russian variation in Afghanistan. Santayana was right.
I’ve now had a chance to read both the Rolling Stone article that induced President OBama to fire McChrystal and a more recent dispatch from the same author. Both lead to the same conclusion: McChrystal was a bad choice for the mission; once his disrespect for his commanding officer had been made public, Obama had no choice but to fire him. However, the two phenomena are essentially unrelated and it's also unlikely Petraeus will fare any better.
As someone who has wished Obama Well (and still does) I am increasingly distressed by his reliance on shibboleths over informed, rigorous analysis of hard facts. That’s a mistake he's also made vis a vis the drug war.
I hope to go into more detail on the reasons for those opinions in the near future.
June 20, 2010
Fear of the Feds: Still more PC than saneOne of the reasons a public policy as incoherent and unsuccessful as the war on drugs has retained support for so long is fear. In that respect, American drug policy invites a comparison with Nazism, perhaps the most terrifying repression of modern times; also one of the most rapid in terms of gaining total control over an advanced, well-educated polity. Yet, as I learned in two recent casual conversations, just making that comparison opens one up to being called a crack-pot, anti-semitic, or worse; thus demonstrating yet again how reasonable ideas can be misinterpreted by listeners with different points of view.
My first awareness of a serious comparison between Nazism and the drug war came from two books by Richard Lawrence Miller, an American historian who is also Jewish. The first was Nazi Justiz, Miller's analysis of Nazi exploitation Germany’s vulnerable legal system to gain total control of the nation within a few years of taking power. The other was his analysis of how the US drug war bureaucracy has long been using similar techniques to enhance its power.
I recently came across an interesting example of just how pervasive fear of offending the federal drug war has become; when I searched Wikipedia for anxiolytic, a well-understood medical term coined by the makers of Valium in 1962 to advertise their product, I was delivered to an article that was exceptionally complete except for its failure to mention that cannabinoids, especially when inhaled, are powerful anxiolytics.
I consider the anxiolytic properties of "reefer" very important; precisely because they were what led to its sudden popularity with Baby Boom adolescents in the Sixties, a phenomenon drug war supporters have yet to even notice, let alone explain coherently.
The good news was that medical use of cannabis was recognized when a "medical marijuana" initiative was passed in 1996; the bad news is that almost fourteen years after the most populous state in America created an opportunity to study the very population that has been such a source of confusion, their "criminal" behavior is still considered too politically incorrect for "respectable" research.
Instead, that population's needs are being administered by"pot docs" who may soon be rendered redundant by another voter initiative.
June 19, 2010
Joe Califano: Just as stupid as ever; after all these years.Joseph A. Califano, Jr., is a native New Yorker, Harvard educated lawyer, and career bureaucrat who entered federal service in 1961 after a stint in the Navy and soon became a behind-the-scenes power in the Johnson Administration after JFK’s assassination. He later served as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Health Education and Welfare between 1977 and 1979.
Unfortunately, a misguided interest in Medicine has apparently kept him enamored of the false notion that criminal prohibition can be rehabilitated into good public policy, thus he founded the Center for Addiction and Drug Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia) which has since become entrenched as a drug war propaganda machine with a prestigious Ivy League address. While editing a low-budget drug policy newsletter between 1997 and 200I, I became very familiar with an unending stream of CASA “studies” that inevitably found evidence in favor of coerced “treatment” while decrying the money spent on criminal prosecution. In fact, one of the more pleasant consequences of my recent immersion in a study of cannabis users had been not having to deal with the conundrum represented by Mr. Califano and his ilk: are they evil or just stupid?
Sadly, the latest evidence has me leaning more toward evil. Yesterday afternoon, during my return from Oakland after interviews with nine typical victims of cannabis prohibition had left me more convinced than ever of the policy's stupidity, good old clueless NPR provided me with nearly ten minutes of teeth-gnashing evidence of its fecklessness: a report on the latest carnage in Mexico followed by a typical witless endorsement from Joe C.
Now I get it. Like anything human it's not all or none, but a combination of the two: thus anyone who takes Joe Califano seriously must be as evil AND stupid as he is.
June 18, 2010
Continued PosturingWhile the window for an effective plan to deal with the consequences of what CNN has just quietly upgraded from a “spill” to a “disaster” closes a bit more each day, the finger pointing continues. One is forced to wonder: if BP and other large oil companies were guilty (as they certainly were) of collective myopia in failing to anticipate the likelihood of a disastrous deep-water drilling accident, what about all the concerned government agencies and media sources who now seem completely blind to the probability that the simultaneous disruption of several important industries in the Southeastern US will trigger a wave of further business failures, foreclosures, and repossessions within months?
Given the enormity of the potential problem, isn’t it likely that refugees from the Southeast will stress other parts of the country, all struggling to balance state and municipal budgets in the third year of a financial crisis?
Also certain undeniable facts raise another question: most “advanced nations” of the world are struggling to emerge from a credit crisis brought on by their own greed and the overproduction of consumer goods, even as “developing” nations also struggle: to earn enough to afford those same goods and compelling evidence suggests that rapid changes in both climate and sea levels are directly related to their production.
Have we humans finally managed to create a problem without a solution?
June 17, 2010
Complicit DenialA favorite theme of psychologists and psychiatrists committed to the “addiction” model of disease is that denial is an invidious mechanism by which addicts avoid confronting their need for therapy. Such thinking dovetails very neatly with the (false) 20th Century model of coerced treatment that began with the Harrison Act in 1914 and has since gradually evolved into a “war” on drugs with essential help from the US Supreme Court, President Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury, and President Richard Nixon.
A mainstay of drug war thinking is that the only acceptable drugs are those approved by the FDA and prescribed by physicians. Self medication with “drugs of abuse,” especially for mental symptoms, gradually became a crime requiring intervention by the criminal justice system; also a major argument for a prohibition policy (euphemistically labeled Drug Control). Another mainstay of drug war dogma is that the optimal goal of treatment is total abstinence.
My almost nine-year experience taking clinical histories from chronic cannabis (“marijuana”) users seeking to become “medical” under existing law has decisively altered my own beliefs. Rather than seeing pot prohibition as a reasonable policy as I once did (when my children were adolescents), I have become convinced that it's delusional nonsense based on a dangerous denial of obvious reality, one most humans have been brainwashed into believing.
Well beyond that, I also think our human capacity for denial is one of our species' most dangerous characteristics. Perhaps once a useful tool for keeping differences of opinion from generating conflict when our numbers were small, it has become dangerously outmoded; precisely because both our numbers and our capacity for self-generated disasters are now among our greatest hazards.
Ironically, current events, both in the Gulf of Mexico and along our Mexican border provide worrisome examples. On land, it’s the amnesia of both governments for the lessons of Al Capone and Chicago as they vow to "crack down" on cartels fighting to control lucrative smuggling corridors for “bammer” being carried across the desert by expendable human “mules.”
Out at sea, it’s the real-time drama that began over eight weeks ago when an oil rig exploded, an accident apparently neither the Petroleum Industry nor its government “regulators” ever thought possible. Nor did the public,including this observer, even know drilling has been going on for years at depths where ambient pressures limit human activity to robot devices.
Finally, the best evidence for denial is that the first concern I've heard or seen expressed since day one about the enormous risk of economic catastrophe represented by an uncontrolled gusher was last evening.
June 15, 2010
Competitive MismanagementAs the world awaits the outcome of what may soon come to be known as the Costner Experiment, one is forced to wonder how humanity ever found itself in such a predicament and, if the experiment succeeds, will it have learned anything from the experience?
As it turns out, the answer to the first question is now painfully obvious; but the most informed response to the second would have to be, “almost certainly not.” Dealing first with the oil disaster’s root cause, it was concisely articulated to Anderson Cooper by Costner himself in the segment I watched last night: he had approached the petroleum industry with his proposal years ago, but they had not seen any need to invest in technology for cleaning up spills. Given that they have also been drilling at greater and greater depths for years, that attitude, confirmed by their meager investment in safety and clean up, was irresponsibly reckless. The Air Transportation equivalent would have been an assertion that air travel had become so safe that airline crashes were now a thing of the past.
The real time vicarious experience of participation in these unfolding events continues; I had just listened to Congressman Ed Markey upbraid a stony faced panel of big oil execs for their behavior and then turned the set off to write this entry rather than listen to his eager colleagues wax predictably self-righteous in the TV spotlight.
It’s now time for me to drive over to Oakland to screen some new pot users seeking to become “legal’ and renew that status for others under the provisions of California’s still-disputed and much misunderstood law.
All of which simply reinforces my belief that, for all our cleverness, we humans can be maddeningly self-destructive.
Can the crisis really be avoided?Despite its obvious limitations, I was strongly in favor of California's marijuana legalization initiative from the time it qualified for the November ballot, and had thus been following developments closely until very recently.
However, the deepening crisis in the Gulf of Mexico had completely changed my focus; particularly after it became painfully evident that very few of those in a position of responsibility had come to terms with the enormity of the problem, or that any "solution" would have to be a remarkably lucky ad-hoc experiment. At a minimum, it would have to succeed well before the November election if a massive global financial crisis were to be avoided.
In an almost unbelievable real time coincidence, I then found myself typing this as I watched and listened to Kevin Costner explaining to Anderson Cooper on CNN how he had been developing an oil/water separation device for the past several years; also that several will soon be deployed by BP.
It's now about two hours later and this is the first chance I've had since listening to Costner to finish this entry. Why? Because other, more pressing matters intruded; and hey, we still have a few weeks to wait before seeing if Costner's invention will prevent a total melt-down of the world's financial system.
June 13, 2010
Needed: A Scientifically Valid Theory of Human BehaviorEmpirical Science can be defined as an approach to natural phenomena based on observation, hypothesis and experimentation, all ideally carried out in a collegial atmosphere of healthy skepticism and rigorous honesty. Also understood is that new observations should be scrutinized for both their accuracy and compatibility with accepted theories. In that context, it is not expected that new observations or hypotheses must be accepted by all workers in a given field; rather collegial disagreement on some issues often persists for long intervals; but without introducing error or impeding overall scientific progress
In terms of its impact on human behavior, the spectacular development of empirical Science (generally conceded to have started with Galileo) has become the single most important factor shaping human (and other) life on the planet. Indeed; violent discontent generated by ambient discrepancies in the rate of scientific “progress” and distribution of the wealth it enables may be the single most immediate threat to human existence. Although we are often reminded of other, more potent existential threats, the ones we create are important because they are at least potentially remediable and some, like accelerated climate change and looming shortages of energy and fresh water, are decidedly urgent.
In that context, it can also be persuasively argued that what our species needs most is an accurate, evidence-based theory of human behavior, one also as compatible as possible with well established scientific theory.
Whether one can be developed in time to avert all extant man-made threats is unlikely; however, it’s also unlikely that any one threat would become an extinction event. Indeed; a “natural” reduction in human numbers might even be a useful first step towards planetary stabiliization.
In future entries, I hope to present persuasive evidence that the erroneous faux-scientific theory of drug prohibition now embraced by the world's governments (for a variety of understandable reasons) has become a major obstacle to an accurate understanding of our behavior as a species.
Until that obstacle is removed, it will probably be impossible to “solve” the serious behavioral problems now being forcibly misrepresented as a matter of (seriously mistaken) policy.
June 12, 2010
Is Denial an Ultimately Fatal Human Flaw?My study of pot use has supplied me with a gradual understanding of the degree to which denial is a form of intellectual dishonesty, one all too characteristic of human behavior. That, in turn, brought some other human vulnerabilities into greater focus. To a degree I could not have imagined a few months ago, recent events in the Gulf of Mexico may have started the clock on a doomsday scenario consistent with my worst fears. That it also involves Mexico, the most recent subject of my “drug related” concerns, simply adds to the irony. To put it as succinctly as possible: evolving events in the Gulf since April 20, in combination with the world's swollen human population, together with our tendency to deny obvious problems and our basic insecurity may have already intensified the current economic "downturn" enough to make escape uncertain.
The reasons are relatively straightforward: the Exxon-Valdez disaster, with which the gulf “spill” is being compared, was limited from the beginning by the size of the tanker. A runaway leak from a breached well one mile below the surface is potentially unlimited; neither its rate nor its effects can even be measured, particularly until we know if it can be shut off; let alone how long that might take.
In the meantime, a rich ecosystem is being poisoned and a cascade of devastating economic consequences has been set in motion in a world already reeling from an unprecedented burden of debt; yet the concerns being voiced by world “leaders” are as pedestrian as always.
Need I say more?
June 06, 2010
The Impact of Policy on ResearchThe last entry described the discovery of what I initially mistook for a whole new area of research on youthful “stress” by two neuroscientists using exotic techniques for gathering blood samples from unstressed subjects. Among other things, I would soon learn that similar physiological "stress" research has been far more common than I'd realized; although not necessarily as focused on differences between youthful and adult subjects as in my two examples.
In the first, East African baboons were being surreptitiously darted by the researcher himself, a Stanford professor who had developed it as a virtuoso technique during annual visits to Kenya over a span of decades. The other, younger and also a PhD with post-doc experience at Rockefeller, was using a more lethal technique: guillotining rat pups for the same purpose: obtaining blood samples as free from the effects of stress as possible.
As I read further about what had at first impressed me as an exotic new subject, I came across names and concepts from my college and medical school days, both now over fifty years behind me. The first was Claude Bernard, a Nineteenth Century giant considered by many to be the father of modern Physiology, and also famous for his insistence on objectivity and the concept that a millieu interieur compatible with survival had to be maintained in all species. Another was early Twentieth century American Walter B. Cannon, a Harvard professor who helped Bernard's concept along by linking psychological stimuli to physiological responses and introducing the concepts of fight or flight and homeostasis to the dialog. Cannon had also identified the adrenal gland as the source of adrenalin and a key component in a non specific pituitary-adrenal response to change ("stress") a theme that was quickly developed and expanded between 1936 and 1956 by Hans Selye as the General Adaptation Syndrome.
Based on my own certainty that cannabis became popular in the Sixties because it had been so effective at relieving adolescent stress, my immediate response was to wonder why Doctors Sapolsky and Romeo (both of whom had professed a desire to see their results extrapolated to human behavior) had gone to such lengths.
Then I got it: human subjects would have been verboten. One of the drug war's greatest successes has been to persuade laymen that research on "drugs of abuse" is illegitimate; studies of cannabis most of all. The mechanisms are federal control of most drug research funding, fear of incurring federal displeasure, and the second of three (never-validated) claims concocted to justify Schedule one in 1970: arbitrarily designated "drugs of abuse" have no "accepted" medical utility. Why? Because we say so.
Sadly, the more respected one becomes in academic research, the more important it is to remain NIDA compliant.