The Casual Blog

Tag: war on drugs

Happy New Year! But there’s some bad news

Here are a few more shorebird pictures from our wonderful wedding celebration at Atlantic Beach, NC. Clark, our new daughter-in-law, exceeded all expectations!  I also enjoyed spending time on the beach with the birds, and interpreting these images. As noted below, I, and probably you, can definitely use more of the beauty and peace of nature.

As we start a brand new year, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with dire problems:  the resurgent pandemic, mass shootings, fires, tornadoes, droughts, melting ice caps, and the list goes on.  There’s a lot to deal with.  As part of my meditation practice, I try to make some time every day for conscious gratitude and compassion, including self-compassion.

Given all our other problems, it’s obviously not a great time to discuss the possible end of American democracy. We’re already exhausted.  But we need to buck up and find our second wind.  Our system has been much weakened and may fail entirely.  If we want to save it, we have to act soon.  

Besides worry overload, another reason I hesitate to raise the subject is that there is so much wrong with American-style democracy.  Its most valuable ideals – free elections, equality before the law, free speech and other civil liberties – have never been fully realized. Meanwhile, this system has given us extreme inequality, embedded racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia.  

We have the world’s largest rate of incarceration, and an endless war on drugs that keeps prisons full and sustains worldwide criminal organizations.  Our military brings death and chaos to remote areas of the globe, while maintaining hair-trigger readiness to end civilization in a nuclear war.  For many, there is not adequate food, housing, transportation, or medical care.  For non-human beings, it’s even worse.  In short, our political processes have not produced what we would reasonably expect of a wealthy, enlightened nation, and they’ve done a lot that we cannot be proud of.  

But for all our shortcomings and failures, American democracy still provides one thing that is extremely valuable:  the possibility of change.  We have a tradition of fair elections and peaceful transitions of power.  Our votes almost always get counted and determine the winner.  Exceptions are vanishingly rare.

If the governing party loses, it peacefully concedes and allows the business of government to continue.  The new government might improve things, and at any rate, it is generally agreed that it is entitled to take a shot.  This has been true for a long time, and it’s hard to conceive that it could be otherwise.  But it easily could.  

Now, more than a year after the last presidential election, a substantial majority of Republicans have been persuaded that the election was stolen, and that Joe Biden is not the legitimate president.  They reject the overwhelming weight of the authorities – court decisions, officials, scholars, and news media – that contradict that view.   

Republican leaders at the national and state level, with very few exceptions, continue to support the big lie that the true winner in 2020 was Donald Trump, and to refuse to support or cooperate with investigations into the illegal attempts to nullify the victory of President Biden.

Republican legislators in some 19 states have already passed laws to make future Democratic victories less likely by making it more difficult for some groups to vote.  Several Republican-dominated states are getting rid of their non-partisan election officials who refused to assist in overturning the last presidential election and installing supporters of the big lie.   

In other words, many states are putting in place a system to stack the deck against Democrats and then, if that doesn’t work, nullify election results. In addition, dozens of states have enacted new laws criminalizing various acts of protests, including ones that would likely occur after a stolen election. Meanwhile, the courts have been stacked with Republican judges.  

While all this is happening, repeating the big lie prepares the psychological ground.  If enough people are convinced, wrongly, that election fraud is common, they may also be convinced that their own cheating isn’t so bad.  Cynicism, apathy, and fear could be paralyzing, or at least keep many people from protesting.  

These forces could in short order leave us with an authoritarian, neo-fascist system.  That is, a system with all of our current problems, minus the machinery to allow for political change to address those problems, and minus long-standing institutional restraints on repressive violence and corruption.

I know this is no fun to think about, but fortunately, it’s not hard to understand intellectually.  The challenge is to fix it.  As to Republicans who understand the big lie and disapprove of it, they need to show some backbone, and tell the truth.   Democrats who understand it need to get to work educating others on what’s happening.  And they need to get involved, volunteering, making phone calls, watching the polls, and so forth – all the no-fun jobs that are part of free and fair elections.  

Although I think saving our democracy will be tough, our ancestors have won long-odds fights for rights before.  In the last century, women fought hard to win the right to vote, and African Americans won the right to be treated as full citizens.  The forces that have brought us to this point – fear, hatred, ignorance, greed – are nothing new, and we already have the tools to counter them:  kindness, compassion, and love.  But hope alone won’t get the job done.  We need to get to work.  

Caribbean misfortunes, reconsidering Vietnam, good drug news from Portugal, and rising Carolina dancers

It’s been tough to see the devastation of the Caribbean islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria these last weeks.  I’ve got a warm connection to some of the most affected islands (Dominica, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, Key West)  from scuba trips.  I found so much beauty and joy there from both the natural world and the people.  I recently read a new history of the region,  Empire’s Crossroads, by Carrie Gibson, and discovered some unexpected complexity.  

Beginning in the late 15th century with Columbus’s voyages and extending for another three hundred some years, these islands were not vacation paradises but rather economic powerhouses for an expanding Europe.  They were  fought over repeatedly, because they produced enormous wealth, mostly from growing sugar with slave labor from Africa.  At the time of the American Revolution England and France both valued their Caribbean possessions more highly than the American colonies, and England’s need to protect those islands from the French was part of what created a power vacuum that led to the revolutionaries’ victory.  Their normally kind and beautiful exterior conceals a lot of tragedy, and they just got more.  

The people there face desperate conditions — homes and businesses destroyed, no electricity, no drinkable water.   And of course, the animals and plants there have also suffered greatly, which is seldom noted.  Our tendency as humans to forget about other species is deep seated, but not insurmountable.  It’s possible to view nature as worthy of caring and respect, rather than just something for humans to exploit.  This viewpoint makes possible a deeper engagement with nature, but it also makes natural and man-made disasters more painful.  

Speaking of painful subjects, we’ve been watching the new Burns-Novick documentary on the Vietnam war, and I highly recommend it.  It’s by no means fun, but it feels positive to get a more rounded understanding of this chapter.  There’s a lot of tension between our abiding central national narrative (we’re always on the side of good), and the death and mayhem that’s almost impossible to get our heads around (58,000 lost American lives are a lot — but we tend to forget the 3,000,000 Vietnamese ones) .  It’s amazing in a way that we’ve mostly repressed and forgotten the Vietnam experience, especially when its combination of good intentions, hubris, cynicism,  and sheer cluelessness continues to be relevant to our quagmire in Afghanistan and violence elsewhere.  

In other quagmire news, there was a relatively cheering piece by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times today entitled How to Win a War on Drugs.  It summarizes the experience of Portugal after it decriminalized all illegal drugs fifteen years ago.  Portugal’s drug mortality rate is now the lowest in Western Europe and one-fiftieth (1/50) of that in the US.  Portugal’s rate of heroin use has dropped by seventy-five percent.  Meanwhile, deaths in the US from opioids have risen dramatically.  The core of Portugal’s approach is to devote resources to medical treatment for addiction.  Though far from perfect, this approach has been far more effective, and far less expensive, than the US’s war on drugs.  While there’s a lot we don’t understand about drug addiction, it could hardly be clearer that our war approach hasn’t worked, and that there are better alternatives.

We went to our first Carolina Ballet performance of the new season last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  With all the disasters in the headlines, to find a couple of hours of nourishing, energizing beauty is particularly welcome.  Some of our favorite dancers retired last season, and they’ll be missed, but the change has brought vibrant talent from the company ranks into view.  Lily Wills was a sweet and touching Ugly Duckling.  Jan Burkhard, back from maternity leave, was exquisite in Flower Festival in Genzano, a Bournonville pas de deux.  

Dialogues, the new ballet jointly choreographed by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael, was bold and refreshing.  The Dialogues music, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin, was played by pianist William Wolfram, who performed with insight, power, and passion.  With his daughter, Lauren Wolfram, now part of the company, I hope we’ll get to hear this great artist again.  We also enjoyed the angularity of Les Saltimbanques, with choreography by Weiss and music by Stravinsky.  Ashley Hathaway, Amanda Babayan, and Courtney Schenberger were striking and lovely.

A lovely wedding, and new books on evictions and the war on drugs

On Saturday we drove down to Charlotte and then flew to Chattanooga for my nephew’s wedding. After we checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn, we took a cab to Dalton, Georgia for the ceremony.  The venue was a converted farm, with green meadows and mountains in the distance, and the skies were sunny and blue.  It was good to see family, and good to see the loving groom and bride.

On Sunday morning we walked from the hotel down to the river, and that was all the time we had to check out Chattanooga before flying out.  We would have visited the aquarium if we’d had a little more time.  People we encountered seemed unusually friendly.

With the benefit of all that happiness, I was able to have a look at some counterbalancing sad truths, including finishing reading Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.  It’s a close up view of the lives of poor people in Milwaukee who can sometimes barely, and sometimes can’t, make rent.  The problems related to housing insecurity are basic but also big — joblessness, poor nutrition, poor education, and lack of community.  It’s an eye- opening  and disturbing portrait, and a call for reform. I highly recommend it.

I also finished a Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari, a book about our war on drugs.  The book focuses on a few individuals who were either drug warriors (government officials, drug logs) or victims. I hadn’t known the story of Harry Anslinger, a primary architect of the federalization and internationalizing of the war on drugs starting in the 1930s. In this telling, he is a ignorant, peculiar man, but, unfortunately, highly effective in promoting the idea that some drugs are inherently evil, and the people who take them should be treated as criminals.

Hari offers the alternative view that illegal drugs are not inherently different from legal ones, and although they can be harmful, we’ve inherited a greatly exaggerated view of their harmfulness.  Drug addicts are not zombie monsters, but rather troubled human beings who can be helped.  He examines the results of the legalization programs in Portugal and elsewhere, and looks at how we might get to legalization in the U.S.  I thought the book was a bit heavy on the human interest anecdotes and sometimes light on the science, but still well worth reading.

There was also a good short primer this week on the history of the war on drugs in the Huffington Post by Tessie Castillo. Castillo makes a good case that the main reason we treat certain drugs as illegal was economics and cultural prejudice, and particularly fear of immigrants.  Opium was perfectly legal and widely available until Chinese workers were demonized as taking American jobs, at which point it was criminalized.  Similarly, marijuana was legal until it became associated with Mexican immigrants and other minorities, at which point it became “dangerous.”  The myths required to sustain this view, including explicitly racist nonsense, eventually began to seem real.  

Richard Nixon has been treated unfairly by history in some respects, such as our tendency to forget his progressive social programs, but he deserves disdain and disgust for his whipping up the hysteria on drugs.  According to reporting by Dan Baum, John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon, fessed up as follows: “The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar Left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Political cynicism? Perhaps a wee bit. But note, President Reagan followed suit, and President Clinton, and …. Well, we’re still fighting a war on drugs that with enormous costs in dollars and lives, based on fundamentally false premises. I think we’re starting to realize this is crazy, but we’ve still got a ways to go.

Spring, some explosive questions, including a nuclear one, and hope

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More harbingers of spring arrived in Raleigh this week: forsythia, red buds, and more daffodils started blossoming. Those colorful little flowers will cheer you right up. Look closely and you can see more buds getting ready. The flowers do not last long, so to enjoy them you need to get outside quickly and focus intently. They remind us that life is such a precious, precarious thing.
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Last week a white policeman in Raleigh shot and killed a young black man. I felt very sad, and also concerned about possible damage, physical and mental, to our community. I’d like to think the race relations and police-black community relations here are much better than, say, Ferguson Missouri. But it’s also fair to say that there could be big problems that people like me just don’t know about. One thing I’ve learned from Black Lives Matter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alice Goffman, and others is that while I almost never see it in its raw form, racism is real, and being black in this society is still a big health risk.

Soon after the shooting, hundreds of people marched in the street in protest. There were some traffic problems, but there was no reported harm to persons or property. Also no reports of police in military armor and tanks.
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The first descriptions of the incident featured a fleeing suspect getting shot several times in the back. The official police description differed greatly, saying the man who was killed tried to shoot the officer and was wanted for drug crimes. We tend to see these things in the way that fits most comfortably with our preconceptions. Most white people I’ve discussed this with are inclined to accept the police account as true, despite eyewitnesses who say otherwise. But just as insidious racism can shape perceptions, it’s possible that eyewitnesses who fear and distrust police conformed their memories to fit their larger life narrative. I’m consciously uncertain. Either way, any time a person is killed in the course of our misbegotten war on drugs, it’s an avoidable tragedy. We need to keep working on ending prohibition.
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Also last week, the U.S. killed 150 new recruits of al Shabaab in Somalia. Using bombs from drones and manned aircraft, we caught them standing in formation, perhaps graduating from terror school. According to Pentagon sources, they were going to be part of an imminent attack in Somalia on African soldiers and a few U.S. advisors. This is very similar to the bombing of possible terrorist recruits in Libya recently, so it seems to now be a thing – mass execution of young men who could potentially attack people we don’t know much about. Are we really sure this killing was justified? Is there no possible non-fatal way of addressing such threats? Could we be increasing the chaos and the risk of more mayhem through such attacks?

We don’t have a good track record in using our military in a carefully calibrated way, or in telling the truth about our attacks. See Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Now Libya and Somalia. Tomorrow?
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You may have missed the story, which I did not see in a major U.S. newspaper, of the trial of the Marshall Islands lawsuit in the International Court of Justice seeking to stop nuclear proliferation. The Marshall Islands were used by the U.S. as a test site for 67 nuclear explosions in the 40s-60s, which devastated the area and sickened and killed part of the population. The lawsuit is about the lack of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, in which some nuclear powers agreed to work in good faith towards disarmament. Apparently the suit is seeking a declaration that this hasn’t been done, and must be done.

For quite a while I’ve been thinking about whether there’s any way nuclear arsenals can be justified. They need a strong justification, because the risks are extremely high – accidental explosions, theft by crazed terrorists, escalating counterattacks, all out annihilation and the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s my current view: no political dispute could possibly justify killing thousands or millions of innocent people, which is the intended purpose of our most powerful nuclear weapons. No sane person would willingly subject the planet to nuclear winter, when much of the animal and plant life that initially survived a major nuclear war would die. Deterrence only works if an adversary is sane and rational (it doesn’t work on madmen), so deterrence is either unnecessary (as to the sane), or ineffective (as to the mad). So we cannot reasonably support the state’s creating and maintaining the risk of nuclear war. That leaves disarmament as the only credible, ethical strategy.

You may agree or disagree, but in either case, why aren’t we talking about this? Perhaps we assume that there’s nothing that can be done, or that it’s something we as individuals can’t effect. The Marshall Islands, a very small country, has challenged that stance. It’s election season, so let’s ask the candidates: what steps will you take to lower the risk of a nuclear holocaust and move towards a nuclear-free world?

On Friday, Bernie Sanders was speaking at noon at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, which is just a couple of blocks from where I work. It was a mild, sunny day, and so I thought it would be nice to see him, and perhaps ask him his view on the nuclear risk. By the time I got there, the line was very long. It took me ten minutes to walk to the end of it, by which time I realized there was no chance I was getting into the hall. But it was nice to see the crowd. They were very young! And, I’m guessing, hopeful. Anyhow, it made me hopeful.
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A piano recital, Turing’s secrets, NSA surveillance, and the cure for addiction

It was rainy and raw on Friday evening when Sally and I drove over to Durham, and the traffic kept bunching up. We were a bit anxious about being late to meet our friends at Watts Grocery, and we were late – they’d already ordered drinks and salads. But they forgave us, we caught up, had a good dinner, and made it in good time to a concert at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, where we heard a program by the eminent pianist Jeremy Denk.

Denk is a musician’s musician. His program was, as he put it, a mix tape of Schubert dances shuffled together with short Janacek pieces, and also some atypical Haydn, some atypical Mozart, and Schumann’s odd and powerful Carnival. Everything he played seemed thought through to the smallest detail, but at the same time full of feeling.

For encores he played the slow movement of Ives’s Concord Sonata, and one of the slower Goldberg Variations, both of which were exceptionally colorful and beautiful. Though not a particularly good-looking guy, he was also fun to watch, with gestures that accorded with the music and magnified the feelings. Later, I re-read his wonderful autobiographical essay from the New Yorker, Every Good Boy Does Fine, which I highly recommend.

We saw The Imitation Game last week, which was a bit staid but also touching. I knew something of Alan Turing, including his brilliant contributions to computing theory (including the Turing machine and the Turing test) and that he helped break the Nazi’s Enigma code. I hadn’t known how he did it, or much about him as a person. From the movie, he appeared distinctly anti-social. This being Hollywood, it seems safe to assume he was probably even harder to like in real life. But he contributed enormously to the world, before being hounded to death at age 41 for the crime of being gay.

Turing’s death was a tragedy, but in earlier chapters he was lucky, in a way. How inspiring and daunting it must have been to think that thousands of lives, and perhaps the future of western civilization, depended on whether you could succeed in an almost impossibly difficult code-breaking task. And by golly, he did it!

Indeed, although I’ve never thought of it this way before, our forebears who found themselves facing Nazism and Fascism were lucky, in a similar way. They had an unambiguous enemy, a massive threat, that could only be defeated by joining together, and with heroism and sacrifice. We seem to need big enemies to unite us as a society. That may be why, when we don’t have big enemies, we magnify smaller ones.

And so, as I discussed here last week, we push forward with the 13-year-old war on terror, which continues to morph. This week a coup in Yemen resulted in headlines suggesting we should panic over a new terror threat. The coup was actually by sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, but the fear seemed to be that increasing disorder was likely to lead to increased space for militant anti-Americanism to expand. That’s possible, I guess. But it’s possible that this is a civil war with entirely different drivers, tribal, religious, or financial. Perhaps it’s not all about us.

The thing is, when we panic we do foolish and deplorable things – domestic spying, torture, assassinations, war. This week the New Yorker has a piece by Mattathias Schwartz about the NSA’s collection of internet searches, social media, and metadata on phone calls – hundreds of billions of records, at a cost of tens of billion of dollars ($10.5 billion in 2013). Schwartz examines the question of how many terrorist attacks were stopped by this program, and finds . . . perhaps one. Not exactly saving western civilization.

Actually, the one was not so much a potential attack, and not so much in the US, as a financial contribution of $8,500 by a Somali born U.S. citizen that may have been made to Somalian guerrillas (the Shabaab) who had jihadist ambitions and Al Qaeda connections. The evidence sounds ambiguous, but there were three convictions, and rightly or wrongly, the defendants were sentenced to prison terms of up to 18 years. That’s all we got, in return for billions of dollars and constant surveillance of our everyday lives that undermines our privacy, our public discourse, and our Constitution.

As crazy and depressing as this is, it should be noted that there’s hope: our mass panics can be overcome. For example, it seems like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in our costly and tragic war on drugs, at least as to marijuana. With several states in various phases of legalization, it’s increasingly hard to argue that using pot should be punishable as a crime. But it is still being punished as a crime in places, and we’re still spending $51 billion a year on fighting drugs here and around the world.

Jocelyn pointed up a piece this week in the Huffington Post with a new, to me, take on drug addiction. A basic premise of the war on drugs is that some drugs are so fantastic that they’re irresistible, and so they take control of and destroy lives. But the piece, by Johann Hari, suggests an alternative paradigm.

Hari reexamines the famous rat-with-cocaine experiment, where the rat is alone in a cage and keeps taking cocaine until it dies. Later research by Professor Bruce Alexander focused on the environment of the rat – which was caged and alone. When rats were put in more stimulating environments, including toys and rat friends, and offered the same drugs, they mostly shunned them. Alexander found that even rats that were thoroughly addicted to heroin kicked the habit when they had the benefit of other rats to socialize with and stimulating environments.

The theory expounded by Hari is that what drives addiction is not primarily chemical hooks, but rather isolation, and that what prevents it are meaningful human connections. This may also explain some non-drug addictive behaviors, like gambling. That is, drugs or gambling may be responses to other problems, like loneliness.

Hari notes that Portugal, which once had a very high rate of drug use, decriminalized all drugs 15 years ago, and invested some of the money saved from drug warring in social programs, such as housing and jobs. The rate of injected drug use has fallen by 50 percent. Fifty percent! I recommend reading Hari’s piece.

Fireworks, wildlife, and Carl Hart’s book debunking drug myths

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Fourth of July fireworks are hard not to like. As a friend once observed of sex, even when it’s not particularly well done, it’s magnificent. On Friday we were planning to walk a few blocks to see the one of the two downtown Raleigh fireworks shows, but Sally was not feeling well, so we got some takeout Indian food from Blue Mango and watched from our twelfth-floor balcony.
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That afternoon I’d Googled how to take good fireworks photos, which is a bit involved (use a tripod, remote control, bulb setting, manual focus, etc.), but I found it interesting. I got a few images I liked of the display at Red Hat Amphitheater. I could also see parts of the display at Memorial Auditorium, which appeared to be more magnificent, but this could be the grass-is-greener effect.
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I continued exploring local parks, looking for dragonflies and other wildlife, this time stopping at Shelley Lake. There were lots of mallards and geese, but the one below, by herself, got my attention. I also stopped in at Raulston Arboretum on Sunday morning and focused on some little creatures communing with the flowers.
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On Saturday I finished reading an unusual and worthwhile book: High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, by Carl Hart. Hart is a professor at Columbia University who’s devoted his scholarly career to studying the effects of illegal drugs on the brain. His book is an autobiography of growing up poor and black in south Florida, and somehow not getting shot, becoming a dropout, becoming a hardened criminal, becoming an addict, or going to jail (which were common outcomes of his friends and family), and instead somehow getting an education, becoming a respected scientist, and learning to question his own assumptions. It’s remarkably honest.

I was particularly interested in his take on the war on drugs. As I’ve noted before, I view the drug prohibition regime as a terrible social policy from every perspective. Hart focuses particularly on the costs to the black community, with draconian laws resulting in mass long-term imprisonment and destruction of the social fabric. He combines an overview of the human toll with his own drug experiences.
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Like almost all of us, he initially accepted uncritically the media/government claims that crack cocaine was a menace that threatened to make addicts of everyone who tried it and turn them into zombies who cared for nothing but the next high. He gradually realized, based on his own experience and his research, that this was a wild distortion of reality. Crack cocaine is chemically almost identical to cocaine, and the effects on the body are basically the same. The primary difference is social: crack cocaine is cheaper and marketed more to black communities, while cocaine is an expression of wealth and status. And crack prison sentences are much more severe.

This has become almost common knowledge, and the sentencing disparities have been substantially reduced (but not eliminated, unfortunately). For me, Hart’s account highlights how media and politics can create a moral panic, and even otherwise responsible scientists can get swept along. Thus the famous example of the experimental rats that can’t resist crack, which supposedly proved that crack was uniquely addictive. Hart explains that the rats, which are social creatures, were unhinged by isolation, and had no alternative activities to getting drugs.
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Hart did experiments with human subjects who were in fact crack addicts, and offered them a choice of getting high or getting $5. They took the money frequently enough to disprove the idea that addicts cease caring about anything but drugs.

Hart contends that the problem of drugs in poor communities is complex, and viewing drugs as the primary source of social ills is mistaken. The kinds of social problems that he grew up with – domestic violence, petty crime, an extreme culture of honor magnifying violence, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment – preceded the arrival of crack. The central problem of poor communities is poverty. It’s not surprising that people with few other entertainment options are more prone to entertaining themselves with drugs.

Hart finds that the great majority of people who use drugs, including crack and heroin, are in no sense addicted. Most users have jobs, families, and orderly lives. The notion that addiction always results from exposure is simply false. This doesn’t mean that addiction never happens, or that it is not a serious medical and social problem. There are addicts who need help. But we need to get our facts straight, quit moralizing, and quit punishing people for addiction.

The war on drugs is a fascinating case study of how fantastically wrong ideas with horrendous consequences can propagate and take over entire societies. We tend to think of this happening in the distant past (think of witchcraft) or foreign lands (murderous religious extremists). But it happened to us! With all our wealth, education, science, and technology, we were still overpowered by groupthink that stopped critical thought. And while we may be winding down the war on drugs, it is definitely not over.

Thus it took courage for Hart to write this book. With an entire population raised on constant messages of moral panic, to challenge the basic foundations of the war on drugs is risky. You will be viewed by many as dangerous and immoral, which could be career-limiting.

But this book may help shift the debate. I was a little disappointed that Hart didn’t follow his sound reasoning all the way on the question of legalization, and ended up promoting instead decriminalization. As the Economist has repeatedly pointed out, decriminalization leaves the drug markets in the hands of criminals, whereas legalization with careful regulation would deprive criminals of a major source of revenue. But never mind. I’m grateful for Hart’s book.
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Lincoln, political courage and pragmatism, and the war on drugs

As my Twitter followers (awful expression, sorry) and Facebook friends (also awful) already know, we saw the new movie Lincoln over the holiday, and really liked it. It works like a good old-fashioned Hollywood movie, which is to say it can be enjoyed as pure entertainment, but it does a lot more. It takes on a huge and deeply embarrassing subject, one that we still can barely bring ourselves to acknowledge or discuss a century and half later — American slavery — and contributes meaningfully to the dialog. This is remarkable. Kudos to Steven Spielberg and a great cast (especially Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field) and production team.

The movie reminds us that there are crucial moments when individual courage and moral vision matter. It concerns the last few weeks of the Civil War (1865) when the burning issues of how to stop the carnage and how to stop slavery were both pressing and pulling in opposite directions. About half of the members of Congress thought black people were subhuman and were opposed to recognizing them as in any sense equals. If the war ended, the matter of passing the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery would become less politically pressing, and could conceivably not happen at all. The President was under great political pressure to end the horrific war, but insisting on abolition of slavery looked likely to prolong it. Resolving this dilemma required both courage and political genius.

David Brooks wrote an interesting column on Lincoln noting that the political solution required the President to act in ways that were, well, ethically questionable. That is, he engaged in tactics that could easily be viewed as bribery and other dishonesty. Brooks suggests that this is characteristic of politics — pure moral vision has to be balanced with pragmatic compromise to get anything done. Is some degree of dishonesty inescapable and even necessary for normal, effective politicians? I truly hope not, but it’s an interesting idea. In any case, the movie makes the case that Lincoln’s ethical compromises were justified.

Another theme of Lincoln is that words matter. The abolitionists, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) clearly saw the evil of slavery, and were prone to use language that prevented dialog with those that hated blacks, and also with those that saw slavery as a complex issue. Stevens could verbally disembowel his political opponents, but it just made them more determined to fight abolition. Persuading him to soften the rhetoric was a key part of the strategy for passing the Thirteenth Amendment.

And then there are the iconic words of Lincoln. The movie strains a little to get the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural into the story, but the strain is worth it: these words are among his proudest accomplishments, now with quasi-Consitutional status, and are still inspiring. Listening to them again, I was struck by their chiseled beauty, but also their combination of directness with artful ambiguity. They start with a factual and moral premise that almost all could agree on — many have died, and it cannot be they have died in vain. The concept of equality is discussed, but the in terms that seem classical rather than radical. The idea of full equal rights for slaves is not explicitly mentioned, presumably because it would make political compromise impossible.

Speaking of issues that require some amount of political courage and some amount of pragmatism, here’s one: the war on drugs. There was good news a few weeks back when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. They expect to regulate and tax it and raise substantial revenue as a result. This seems rational in these tough budgetary times. As I’ve said before, it seems like terrible public policy to put people in prison for smoking marijuana. The drug war costs us more than $76 billion a year, including the costs of police, courts, prison buildings, guards, services, and foregone revenue. At the same time, we create an entire criminal economy that not only corrupts our society but wreaks violence across the globe.

Much of this is to discourage pot smoking. We’ve been trying it for several decades and it hasn’t work! Instead it has destroyed individual lives, families, communities, and governments. No matter how bad an idea you think pot smoking is (and I agree it can be bad for some people), you might still agree that the cost of the drug war is wildly disproportionate to its positive achievements. I”ve thought for a long time that the practical need to address budget woes and the huge economic upside of taxing marijuana might eventually overcome the moralism of those who support the drug war path. The votes in Colorado and Washington suggest on this I might be right.

Birther psychology, lacrosse, and another call to end the war on drugs

Some of the nicest people I know are Republicans, so I say this with all due respect: how is it that 45% of Republicans are birthers? That’s a lot of Republicans! As the NY Times noted this week, not for the first time, there’s overwhelming evidence that the President is a natural born citizen, and so a birther is almost by definition someone resistant to considering evidence and applying reason. The Times got opinions from various academics and pundits about this odd phenomenon, and one by David Redlawske struck me as particularly thoughtful. He observed that feelings often trump facts:

We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

This isn’t groundbreaking, of course, but it’s easy to forget how fragile and subject to failure rationality is, and how hard it is for the reason to overcome prejudice. Major political issues can get invented, distorted, or ignored based on likes and dislikes, without regard to evidence or analysis. We all do this to some extent, but some more than others. And our dysfunctional political process is a result of this resistance to evidence and reason.

Friday night Sally, Diane (Sally’s Mom), and I went over to Durham to see some lacrosse — Duke and Virginia in the ACC championship semifinals. Diane has developed an unlikely passion for lacrosse, and with her encouragement we’ve been to a couple of games this season. It’s a great sport, with some of the speed and fury of hockey and the strategy and finesse of soccer. The evening was cool and drizzly, and we were damp and shivering by the end. The Dukies had their way with the UVa, 19-10.

On the way back, I asked Diane about her views on the war on drugs. She wasn’t familiar with the term. Diane reads the NY Times every day and is extremely well-informed on current events, so her lack of knowledge on this subject worried me. I suspect that a lot of bright people filter out news on the drug issue, because the news is confusing and frequently painful. The drug war is costing billions of dollars, exhausting the capacities of our courts and prisons, destroying lives, financing organized crime, and destabilizing entire countries (Mexico, Afghanistan, Honduras, Nicuragua, El Salvador etc.).

But some good news: there are more and more people ready to talk about our failed drug policy and what to do about it. According to a reliable sounding blog in the Huffington Post (how’s that for sourcing?), the Obama administration invited questions for various “town meetings,” and the most frequently raised topic was drug legalization. Unfortunately the President avoided the issue. But the political tide is moving, and may be turning.

So what’s the problem? Almost everyone knows that many people like mood and perception altering substances. That was true of our remote ancestors, and it’s true of us. But too much media coverage of the drug issue is alarmist fear mongering, which creates fearful beliefs that make it difficult to proceed with reasoned discourse. Thus we’ve had the rise and fall of the crack epidemic — a drug originally reported to be so addictive that no one could use it responsibly and so powerful that it was going to destroy our cities. This was plainly a huge exaggeration. Before that were such stories as the tendency of LSD to induce psychosis (huge exaggeration), and of pot to cause bizarre criminal behavior (Reefer Madness) (a complete fabrication). The fact in plain view that was ignored, and is still ignored: most people that use illegal recreational drugs are functioning just fine.

I say this not to encourage illegal drug use. It’s been many moons since I myself used an illegal drug. I avoid them because I think they’re too risky, both in terms of criminal liability and otherwise. Some people (you? me?) are prone to addiction, which is a serious health problem with multiple dimensions. Also, there is no particular reason to trust an unknown unregulated chemist, and no reason to be confident that his chemical product will not cause either immediate or long-term physical harm. There are plainly many degrees of risk, and individual preferences for risk taking vary. Some people like to jump out of airplanes, and some people like to try new designer drugs. Others, like me, are uncomfortable with such levels of risk.

But as a matter of ethics, there’s just no distinction between most of the intoxicating substances that we’ve legalized and those that we put people in jail for. Alcoholic beverages for most people are pleasant diversions, and for an unfortunate minority they are career-destroying, family-destroying, health-destroying addictions. The same is true of cocaine, and the same is true of recreational use of legal pharmaceuticals. The Times reported this week that Oxycontin abuse is widespread in Ohio, and resulting in addiction and deadly overdoses. These health problems should be recognized and addressed, but not exaggerated. We need to confront fears and assumptions with evidence, and figure out how to make an orderly withdrawal from the war on drugs.