The Casual Blog

Tag: drug war

Caring for bluebirds, and ending the war on drugs

Tulips in Fletcher Park

Humans are often strange, and sometimes really horrifying.  For the last 17 years, Sally has maintained and monitored a group of bluebird houses on a local golf course.  She’s learned and taught me about the bluebirds, including the threats they’ve faced from habitat loss and the wooden houses that have helped them recover in recent decades.  

Each spring, bluebird pairs build nests in the houses, lay eggs, tend the nestlings, and teach them to fly and find food.  In each house, they have two and sometimes three broods.

Earlier this week Sally visited the golf course to check on the recent eggs and nestlings, and found that 9 of the 20 bluebird houses had been vandalized.  Someone had opened the doors, pulled out the nests, and flung them on the ground.  There were three chicks still alive and a few eggs unbroken.  Sally replaced what was left of the nests, resituating the survivors and the unbroken eggs, in hopes that the parents could manage to reconstruct and nurse the young.

Back home, Sally cried for a long time, and asked, who would do such a thing?  My first thought was, a person who would circle a golf course destroying bird homes and killing baby birds must be severely mentally disturbed.  

But on reflection, I realized, it could as easily be an ordinary novelty-seeking adolescent who, like many other humans, doesn’t view the birds’ lives as having value.  Viewing them as having no role in the human world and far inferior, he might have seen no reason not to torture and kill them for fun.

Most people, I think, have some empathy for other animals, even when they view them as inferior.  As with racism and other failures of compassion, there are varying degrees of blindness. Perhaps the person who killed the baby birds was having a difficult personal crisis, and later realized with sadness and shame what he had done.  I hope so.  It’s disturbing to think it could be otherwise.  

On a more cheering note, we learned this week that the Biden administration has set a September deadline for ending the US’s Afghanistan war.  As a few (including me) recognized at the start 20 years ago, this was a war with almost no chance of a good outcome.  Has it taught us anything about the limitations of militarism?  It’s possible, but the idea that we can resolve our problems with war is still deep in our bones. 

We’re still fighting the war on drugs, at great human cost.  The Times reported this week that opioid fatalities were significantly up since the start of the pandemic.  With more than a third of states legalizing marijuana, there could be a growing realization that the entire prohibition regime has been a massive disaster.  

People could be starting to realize that criminalizing drugs seeds criminal enterprises, and jailing people for ordinary human pleasure-seeking mainly benefits organized crime and the prison-industrial complex.  Hundreds of thousands of deaths from overdoses are a product of this disastrous system, along with millions of people arrested and incarcerated.  But current mainstream journalism (including the Times) still usually presents recreational drugs as an enemy that must be defeated, by medical treatment if not by law.    

One strong voice dissenting from this mainstream view is Professor Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University.  Hart’s research has focused on the use of street drugs, and debunked some of the strong myths about such use.  In an interview in the TImes this week, he explained that most people that use illegal drugs enjoy them responsibly and do not become zombie addicts.  His research suggests that the small minority with addiction and related problems start with additional psychiatric conditions, and that these should be treated medically as individual human problems.  

If Hart is anywhere close to right, the war on drugs, which has lasted far longer and cost even more than the war in Afghanistan, should be ended.  As with the end of alcohol prohibition, the problems of substance abuse won’t disappear, but they can be managed.  And the far bigger problems of organized crime and organized state violence against millions of ordinary people would get a lot smaller.

Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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My budget solution: end the wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs)

Yesterday the newspapers reported that the last U.S. soldiers would be out of Iraq by the end of this year. When the U.S. invaded Iraq eight years ago, I thought it was a terrible mistake, and everything I’ve learned about it since has strengthened that conviction, as thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives, and as we increased our exposure to financial collapse by spending more than 800 billion borrowed dollars.

It’s good news that it’s over, and I wish I could feel happier about it. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc in Iraq, and now we’re stopping. Have we learned anything? That’s doubtful. As a society, we’ve hardly thought about it at all.

As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I had a concentration in political theory. I read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Montesqieu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adams, Marx, Nietzche, Bentham, Mill, Arendt, Rawls, and a lot of other interesting and challenging thinkers. For a long time, though, I had my doubts as to whether I’d learned anything at all useful.

Eventually, I came to the view that I learned one very useful thing: critical thinking. Engaging with lots of powerful ideas that were all, at least to some degree, wrong or unworkable helped develop a mental toolbox. This toolbox is useful in recognizing the weak points in arguments, discarding unfounded assumptions, and sometimes in making better decisions.

War is powerfully attractive at certain times and places. I am not immune to that attraction. Like lots of kids, I’m fascinated by weaponry (especially tanks and fighter jets), and I find military history interesting. But something in my moral education left me with the settled view that killing sentient beings is deeply tragic, and in most cases morally wrong.

Add this ethical orientation to a skeptical turn of mind, and maybe I can see through the attractions of war to the underlying horror more easily than most. Or perhaps I’m kidding myself. In any case, I have a high degree of confidence on the right way to go on this. While we’re wrapping things up in Iraq, let’s also quit sending our kids to kill and be killed in Afghanistan. There is no good reason for that war, either. We’ve spent more than $450 billion on it. Let’s stop the physical and financial bleeding.

Ditto on the war on drugs. This week’s (Oct. 17) New Yorker has a piece on the subject by Michael Specter. (Unfortunately only the first few paragraphs are available without charge online.) It starts with a discussion of Portugal’s experience of decriminalizing drugs ten years ago and treating addiction as a medical problem. “In most respects, the law seems to have worked: serious drug use is down significantly, particularly among young people; the burden on the criminal-justice system has eased; the number of people seeking treatment has grown; and the rates of drug-related deaths and cases of infectious diseases have fallen.”

Specter gives a balanced account of Portugal’s experience, and including quotes from critics of the change. Their criticisms seem mostly based on their belief that drugs are evil. Fine. But in Portugal lots of law enforcement and political leaders have given up on the idea that treating drug use as a crime can possibly succeed.

There was another good anti-drug-war piece this week by Doug Bandow, a fellow at the conservative a Cato Institute published in Forbes and republished by the Huffington Post.
According to Bandow,

Perhaps the most obvious cost of enforcing the drug laws is financial. Government must create an expansive and expensive enforcement apparatus, including financial and military aid to other governments. At the same time, the U.S. authorities must forgo any tax revenue from a licit drug market.According to Harvard’s Jeffrey A. Miron and doctoral candidate Katherine Waldock, in the U.S. alone “legalizing drugs would save roughly $41.3 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition” and “yield tax revenue of $46.7 billion annually.”

This cost is appalling, and it doesn’t even count such costs as ever expanding prison systems, corruption of law enforcement and government, breeding organized crime, and of course the human costs of broken families and lives.

But I see a little ray of hope. The national debt problem has come to be viewed as both serious and impossible to solve. However true that may be, it has created a sense of desperation in Washington. It’s just possible that drug war diehards could come to accept drug legalization as a necessary revenue-generating measure. This was part of what led to the repeal of Prohibition — the realists won the argument that we needed the tax revenues from liquor. Legalization, combined with a sensible regulation and taxation system, could make a significant dint in our budget shortfalls. Add that to ending unnecessary wars, controlling excessive military costs, cutting farm subsidies, getting health care costs under control, and voila!

Appraising the drug war

   The horrendous waste from the war on drugs is summarized by Nicholas Kristof in today’s NY Times.  http://tiny.cc/WHW5J  With annual spending to enforce prohibition at $44 billion, we have not lessened drug use.  We have, however, increased the number of people in prison for drug offenses from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today.  We’ve created the incentives for enormous criminal enterprises that threaten the stability of entire nations, including Mexico and Afghanistan.   

   Kristof suggests that we experiment having the states at their option legalize marijuana, sell it in pharmacies, and measure the effects on crime and rates of drug use.  This seems reasonable.  An incremental approach, testing the social policy by geography and by substance, might gradually overcome the fears and foggy thinking surrounding this issue.

   Glad as I am to see a few words on this enormous problem in the Times, I’m sorry to see the opinion piece headlined “Drugs Won the War.”  That isn’t the case.  Although there are losers in the drug war, there really are no winners.  It’s confusing, if not misleading, to suggest that the drugs themselves were fighters.