May 30, 2012
Blame it on the Brain; Fear vs LogicThat the human brain is the "most complicated machine in the Universe" is, of course, hyperbole: not only do we lack the wherewithal to measure the cosmos, the attempts made thus far suggest that it's vast beyond our ability to measure, or even comprehend.
Nevertheless, our brains are far more complex than those of other mammals; also more highly evolved. Anthropologists estimate that as many as twenty-one hominid species went extinct before modern humans appeared some two hundred thousand years ago. The very looseness of that estimate suggests it has taken a long time for Homo sapiens sapiens to reach its present degree of uncertainty.
Nevertheless, we have learned a lot about both ourselves and our environment. Paradoxically, that accumulated information hasn’t been very reassuring. In fact, it may be that rather than satisfaction, our insatiable curiosity has generated more uncertainty than ever about our future as a species. In essence, that's because individual humans are prone to interpret information about similar phenomena quite differently, and equally prone to resort to violence in settling those differences.
Back to brain evolution: at some point a process now known as cognition enabled us to encode abstract ideas in ways that allow their more or less reliable transmission and discussion. Unfortunately, the more Science and literacy have informed us, the more they have divided our species, a truism famously exemplified by Galileo's punishment by the Pope for daring to publish telescopic findings that appeared to confirm unwelcome Copernican ideas relating the sun to its planets.
Galileo and Newton (near contemporaries) are also logical avatars for Empirical Science, the most reliable method for investigating the "natural" universe yet developed, a notion that has since been validated by the sheer mass of accurate information generated by scientists all over the world. Paradoxically; that enormous glut of scientific information has yet to make us feel safer or more secure; largely because of the disagreements it gives rise to.
In brief, the more we humans think we know, the more we disagree; but because science also made us more numerous and technology has enhanced our weaponry, it has also rendered us more capable of killing each other and/or disrupting our planetary environment without an accurate understanding of the culprit mechanisms or their consequences.
Several examples come to mind; "recorded" history is largely a record of wars fought between rival nations for economic advantage. As weaponry has been enhanced by technology, wars have became progressively more deadly for combatants and civilians alike. Although two "atomic" bombs arguably hastened Japanese surrender and thus saved both American and Japanese lives, and the atom was quickly hailed as the key to a more prosperous and peaceful future, the triumph of Teller over Oppenheimer told a different story. After several fusion weapons were tested by both sides, the dangers implicit in testing were realized and a degree of sanity has prevailed.
However, a realistic analysis of the current risk of nuclear war would be that ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a fragile nuclear truce has been in effect, one that could easily be broken if one of several nations that have pursued nuclear weapons development in violation of international treaties becomes convinced it has been targeted by another.
Beyond that, the “weaponization” of suicide, pioneered on a large scale by Japan towards the end of WW2, has been embraced and further refined by Islamic extremists who successfully used civilian airliners as flying bombs in September 2001 and have since demonstrated that the degree of suicidal extremism extant in various Muslim populations is enough to provoke reasonable concern.
Equally paradoxically, one of the few things the nations of the world do agree on is that anyone daring to bring even a small personal supply of cannabis across an international border should be immediately arrested and detained.
That such innocuous travelers are far more numerous than would-be suicide bombers is both a given and a reality that makes real suicide bombers more difficult to detect.
Talk about mistaken priorities...
May 21, 2012
A Courageous JudgeHopefully, this story will go viral on the internet, leak over to the rest of the media, and finally get the attention it deserves. It's the kind of man-bites dog human interest story that could put political pressure on both candidates in an election year and thus open them up to questions from the media about why they support the DEA and a policy as heartless and stupid as cannabis prohibition.
May 19, 2012
Headless in MexicoThe recent grotesque murders in Mexico, that (finally) caught the bemused attention of CNN, are a result of poverty and desperation; fallout from a brutal turf war over the smuggling of “marijuana” and other drugs that has been assiduously ignored by both governments for years; each for its own reasons. Another painful irony is that the most popular drug now being smuggled into the US is “marijuana,” the most benign of all "substances" on the DEA's forbidden "schedule one." In fact, were it not illegal, an honest Pharmaceutical industry could almost certainly have come up with a panoply of cannabis-based drugs that would be safer and more effective than the flood of synthetics touted in "ask your doctor" TV ads as palliation for the same symptoms: stress, insomnia, depression, and trouble focusing.
As an added bonus, herbal cannabis also relieves a plethora of somatic symptoms: various types of chronic pain, chronic diarrhea, whether caused by ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It also predictably lowers intaocular pressure in Glaucoma and effectively controls nausea; whether produced by cancer chemotherapy, antiretroviral drugs,or associated with migraine. Equally sadly, the generations of psychiatrists and psychologists whose "peer-reviewed" literature has been co-opted by NIDA since 1974 have had severely restricted choices for the treatment of vexing emotional symptoms.
Even less well known is suggestive evidence furnished by a study of cannabis users that many symptoms of stress can be traced to emotional trauma unwittingly inflicted within the family during childhood.
Although Mexico's prohibition-related murders only began in earnest in the late Nineties, their historical roots extend back to the utopian beliefs that persuaded bible-thumping Nineteenth Century US fundamentalists that prohibiting the sale of alcohol could succeed. That effort, an ignominious failure, was abandoned in 1933, but its failure was never officially conceded. Instead, the equally feckless federal policy of drug prohibition has not only survived, it has attained the status of a federal sacred cow- beyond the reach of Presidents, Congress, and the Judiciary. The policy's early survival is attributable to a dominant federal bureaucrat, Harry Anslinger Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962.
At about the time of Anslinger's retirement in 1962, a then largely unnoticed demographic phenomenon was already well underway; it began with VJ Day and would continue through 1964: the Baby Boom. As the huge crop of post-war babies began reaching maturity, it fell under the influence of a small coterie of literary shamans who were writing about their experiences with newly available consciousness-expanding drugs (psychedelics), including the inhaled form of cannabis that had been demonized by Anslinger as "marijuana." To Boomer parents, it may well have seemed that blowhard Harry actually knew what he was talking about.
In any event, the generation gap between the youthful "drug culture" and their “moral majority” elders led to a 1968 disaster: the election of the most insecure President in US history, a development which, in conjunction with a rare Supreme Court moment of clarity, quickly produced another tragedy: Anslinger’s Marijuana Tax Act was replaced by the even more invidious Controlled Substances Act. The CSA was almost demonic; although as historically bereft of scientific support as the MTA, it was promptly approved and immediately began empowering UN-mandated global drug prohibition through a treaty dating back to Anslinger.
Thus, as a bewildering footnote to history, we now have global drug prohibition supporting robust illegal markets in arms, drugs, and disadvantaged people that collectively generate billions of dollars a year. UN endorsement of the laws that enable those markets suggests that the human capacity for denial may be the greatest single threat to the long term survival of our species.
A recent example, familiar to anyone who has read history, was the acceptance of Adolph Hitler's racist doctrines by a German polity that was arguably as well educated and technically capable as any in Europe; yet enthusiastically followed Hitler into World War Two and national near-destruction less than seven years after his appointment as Chancellor.
However German acceptance of Hitler's policy was motivated, it led directly to World War Two. Paradoxically, it was only because his grandiosity led him to overreach that the threat he represented was ended by military defeat.
That the drug war's opponents have been both cut in on its profits and successfully scapegoated makes its ultimate termination less certain and more difficult to even conceptualize. Apropos of legality, it's probably significant that the German populace wasn’t required to actively support Nazism in 1935; only to accept the the Nuremberg laws by which Hitler consolidated the total power that encouraged him to invade Poland on September 1, 1939.
The tortuous path from the false doctrine of "Reefer Madness" to decapitated corpses in a Mexican mass grave has been more tortuous and slower to evolve, but the risks to our species may be even greater, given the planet's huge human population and degree of interdependence.
As for timing, we should remember that 11 months before the invasion of Poland, the British Prime Minister promised "peace in our time."
May 13, 2012
Cognitive Dissonance on the BorderYesterday I came across a “documentary” on Rupert Murdoch’s Discovery Channel entitled “Texas Drug Wars,” it turned out to be a state police clone of the federal “Border Wars” trash I’d seen earlier on Murdoch's National Geographic Channel; only worse. The decidedly mixed message is that evil Mexican Cartels are doing their level best to smuggle deadly “narcotics” across, under, around, and over the border with a bewildering panoply of techniques that simply can’t be stopped. Fortunately, Texas Rangers and other State Police are on the job with flak jackets, automatic weapons, helicopters, and a panoply of high tech sensors to harass them and (occasionally) intercept their evil contraband- or at least force them to abandon it; thus keeping (some) “off the street” and hurting the cartels in their wallets, “where it hurts."
Unfortunately, there is no data on either the evil product line’s production or other costs, or their sales volume, thus the Cartels' profit and loss picture remains highly speculative. In fact, the whole exercise was such utter nonsense, the immediate question any rational viewer should be asking is: why bother?
Silly me. The drug war’s sponsors have been doing this for years because it works. We know that because no matter how much money the drug war wastes and how much human damage it causes, it continues to be a high priority policy for the US and the other “sovereign” governments that pretend to take it seriously.
So long as that’s the case, the drug warriors on both sides of the border will have job security, bribes will be paid, court dockets will be choked with interminable drug cases, the prisons no one can afford will be kept full and we can go on polluting the planet with CO2. Oh yes; we can also save money on public education because many of the the kids arrested on pot charges won’t finish school. An overlooked saving is that because the symptoms they can’t obtain medical insurance to treat are more effectively treated by cannabis, they don’t add to our sky-high medical costs and the booze they don’t drink won’t encourage violent behavior.
There are, of course, other consequences of Nixon’s forty year folly, but discussing them has never been a high priority with the Fourth Estate for reasons they prefer not to discuss; perhaps because the drug war’s villains and heroes in uniform are more interesting to advertisers than a bunch of desperately poor “illegals” willing to risk their lives to cross a dangerous border in search of a better life.
May 12, 2012
Science and Belief“Connecting the Dots” between what one already knows and new phenomena one has just recognized describes one aspect of intuition, As such, it’s also an important component of cognition and scientific progress. In the Eighteenth Century, Scottish Geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell, after becoming aware of marine fossils on upland locations in their native land, became convinced that the world was considerably older than previously believed. Lyell’s views, in particular, were already well known to Charles Darwin, when the young naturalist made his brief, but pivotal, visit to the Galapagos Islands during the Beagle’s five year voyage.
That was because, by remarkable coincidence, Lyell had given a copy of the first volume of his seminal Principles of Geology to Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, who would become Darwin’s room-mate and companion on their historic voyage. Thus, the fledgling naturalist was intellectually well prepared for the critical intuition that would eventually mature into a theory that, although still scoffed at and actively opposed by many educated people, has reshaped both Biology and modern thought.
Interestingly enough, both FitzRoy and Lyell eventually disagreed with Darwin’s hypothesis as expressed in The Origin of Species. The emotionally unstable FitzRoy, who would eventually take his own life in dramatic fashion, was far more outspoken; and Lyell more reserved. In fact, Lyell may have been a part of the arrangement that eventually protected Darwin's claim to priority over that of the younger and less well connected Alfred Russel Wallace, whose work some find more thorough.
Be that as it may, what Darwin actually intuited was an idea that obsessed him for the rest of his life: namely that a causal relationship existed between the different beak structures he observed on birds of the same species, and the strikingly different climates and growing conditions he found on nearby islands. His intuition was that, over time, the beaks had somehow become adapted to the different environment. Darwin had no knowledge of the multiple other factors that made the Galapagos environmentally unique, such as the the Humboldt current; nor, because SCUBA diving was unknown, that Marine Iquanas would have been even better examples than his (misnamed) "finches."
He also had no way of knowing that other similarly situated large islands adjacent to continents (New Zealand, Madagascar, and Greenland) would eventually be recognized as examples of the same general phenomenon; nor could he have realized how much validation his intuition would receive from other scientific discoveries long after his death.
Indeed, discovery of structure of DNA provided both a logical and biochemical explanation of how natural selection could have been operating over millions of years to produce the species variety exhibited by Earth’s biota, absent any “intelligent designer” but has not convinced the most die-hard theists who continue to flaunt their misunderstanding of both Science and history.
That the same disconnect between factual observation and belief continues to haunt modern American political and “scientific” thought is well illustrated by the continued insistence of several Federal agencies that herbal cannabis (“marijuana”) cannot possibly have “medical” benefits despite a massive accumulation of credible evidence to the contrary. There are several reasons for that anomaly, many of which have to do with what I now think of as federal “M and M’ (Money and Morality) logic: they have a monopoly on tax dollars while reform had to depend on contributions from a disorganized gaggle of medically uninformed activists. Beyond that, he smear of illegality has an obvious effect on belief despite the fact that the federal government position is the one that is both factually and intellectually dishonest.
May 01, 2012
Is Latin America Finally Waking Up?I have a friend who has remained more in touch with the Drug Policy Reform “movement” than I have. Recently, when I’ve been pessimistic about Obama’s lack of resolve, he has countered by claiming that Latin American leaders are uniting to force him into a more realistic position on the drug war. Today, I did a little checking and found a recent Miami Herald column that backs him up and can be found all over the internet
Oppenheimer is a well informed, no-nonsense, commentator on drug policy, so I am impressed. What he says about Mexico also makes sense: the new President will have to back away from the carnage on the border and the only way US demand can be reduced would be lowering US prices by forcing the DEA to back off.
It promises to be interesting. At the same time, it’s disgusting that those at the top of “sovereign” nations have to use the lives of their poorest citizens as bargaining chips in an argument over a stupid, failing policy left over from the 2nd Nixon Administration.