Category: Policy

Looking for Truth on Keystone XL

There’s an old saying that truth will out. Eventually. Given enough time. Someday, we can expect we’ll get the real story.

Which implies that for now, we probably aren’t.

Nearly two years ago, I pointed out the flawed reporting regarding the Keystone XL pipeline and its associated environmental impact statement. Specifically, I noted that

the State Department did not prepare the environmental impact statement. If you read the department’s web page on the project, you will see that they farmed out the EIS to Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a multinational environmental “consulting” firm.

I took issue not only with how the journalist was reporting the story, but also with the fact that, all too often, our government places undue confidence in private firms to conduct its business.

Art: iStock

Art: iStock

It now appears that Bloomberg Businessweek agrees with me.

In an article dated Jan. 23, Brad Wieners lays bare the clear case for ERM’s conflict of interest in being awarded the job of doing the environmental review for the Keystone XL pipeline. He states that, at the very least, there is not enough separation between the reviewer and the reviewee:

The State Department review process has a built-in conflict of interest, because contractors like ERM are paid for by the applicant—in this case, TransCanada, ERM’s former client.

Wieners’ article goes into much more depth than I could hope to get on my limited time and budget, but we’ve come to the same conclusion.

Which is refreshing.

Often, through all the shouting, I feel as if I’m off in a corner talking to myself. I’d rather feel like a contributor to a more rational conversation, one that leads in the general direction of truth.

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Free to Light Up

Freedom of choice and personal responsibility. That’s what America is all about, right?

It’s what separates the United States from what we perceive as overly-restrictive societies, such as those in Saudi Arabia or North Korea. It’s what allows us to wear the clothes we want, own guns, and legally buy alcohol and cigarettes.

It’s what we claim to support when we ridicule the so-called Nanny State.

And it’s what should allow us–as free and mature adults–to purchase marijuana legally if we so choose. That’s what the New York Times says, and I have to agree.

At the beginning of this year, interested by Colorado’s and Washington’s new adventures in legalization, I explained my feeling that the vast majority of pot consumers can be trusted to be responsible users.

man smoking at window

Smoking by Francois Karm on Flickr

Now, in a well-considered and important series, the New York Times has laid out its case for the repeal of the national prohibition on marijuana. It discusses the policies that would support such a repeal and the science behind it. It also points out how the current prohibition is unjust, racist, and based on the myth of a “gateway drug.”

So don’t just take my word for it. The Times is on board too. Now if only Congress would do something.

Weed and Wine

My brother lives on the opposite coast from me, and we’ve spent many holidays apart. One year, though, he visited for several weeks in December. On Christmas Eve, as things were settling down for the night, he told me he was stepping outside.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’m going in the back yard to smoke a joint.”

His casualness about it surprised me. But once the initial shock wore off, I was fine. Surprisingly fine. My brother, you see, does not fit the stereotype of a pot smoker. He’s not a hippie or some stoner who never bathes or lives on the street. He owns a house and has a steady job. He’s never had any legal troubles. He smokes marijuana to relax, get a little buzz, and feel good about life once in a while. He is a responsible user of marijuana.

Weed and wine.

Art by me.

I have never tried weed. There are several reasons for this, but mostly because I don’t want to tangle with its illegality.  I do, however, enjoy wine. Typically, I will finish off two or three bottles a week. I drink wine for basically the same reasons that my brother smokes pot. We talked about it once, when he turned down a glass of Chianti. He said he much prefers marijuana. “Alcohol,” he said “just doesn’t do it for me.”

I worry about him, that one day he’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time and will be arrested just for preferring cannabis to alcohol. The reasons why marijuana is mostly illegal while alcohol can be purchased at your neighborhood store are complex and in many ways irrational.

What I don’t worry about is whether he’s on his way down the slippery slope to hard-core addiction. Because, while I know he’s had some youthful indiscretions, he’s not an addict any more than I’m an alcoholic.

Alcohol has its detractors. During the Temperance Movement, alcohol was considered the Devil in a bottle, to be wiped off the face of the Earth. Further back in history, however, beginning in pre-Christian times, alcohol was considered a gift from the gods. Society’s ambivalence over alcohol has led to a mish-mash of policies and a mish-mash of proposed solutions–medical, legal, psychotherapeutic, religious–that work at cross-purposes with each other.

After the repeal of Prohibition, government has, for the most part, stepped back from trying to dictate what we can and cannot drink, and rightly so, I think. In a free society, personal responsibility should be what dictates choice.Close_the_Saloons_poster_Why_Prohibition_1918

This same ambivalence seems to be spilling over to our feelings about marijuana, as evidenced by the new legalization in Colorado and Washington. Much is made of marijuana being a “gateway drug,” a term used for a substance the use of which allegedly will lead to more problematic drugs such as cocaine or heroin. But this view is not supported by any valid science, since a correlation between marijuana use and subsequent use of heroin or other drugs has not been established, according to psychologist Jeffrey Schaler. He goes on to say that, “it might not be that there is something in marijuana that causes a move to heroin, but rather that consumers are looking for the same thing in heroin that they derived from marijuana.” Even if there is a correlation, then, it cannot be assumed that one causes the other.

In fact, most studies have found that a vast majority of marijuana smokers do not become drug addicts or move on to harder substances. I guess this means that most can be trusted to be responsible users.

I realize that many will take issue with this view. To some, substance use equals substance abuse equals addiction equals disease. For others, these conditions are not all the same, and you can have substance use without it being substance abuse. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a rational conversation about drugs when the terms mean different things to different people and there is significant disagreement over the underlying assumptions.

The regulated legal marijuana markets in Colorado and Washington are an important social experiment. And it has been a long time coming. If successful, it could loosen the restrictions on responsible pot use in many areas, such as athletics.

With some notable exceptions, getting a product off the black market and into the public eye is a good thing. At the very least, it provides greater choice for those who might otherwise turn to a substance that is less natural and more dangerous.

And I’ll raise a glass to that.

Reducing Gun Violence and Protecting the Second Amendment

Bill of Rights
Ted Nugent’s brother. Really?

I was prepared for the article to be poorly written by some shmoe who is trying to profit from association with a more famous sibling. Think Billy Carter. I almost didn’t read it.

But to my surprise, I humbly admit that Jeffrey Nugent makes a compelling case for a way forward on the issue of guns. I don’t mean for this blog to be entirely about weaponry, but I needed to mention this article.

The article echoes some of the things I have said before. But, convincingly, it makes two points I did not think of.

First, Nugent says, “irresponsible gun owners are bad for everyone.” This is true. I’ve thought this about hunters over the years. One idiot shooting someone while out hunting can tarnish the reputation of all hunters.

Second, he says, “car companies know it is good for the auto industry to make cars safer and get dangerous drivers off the road.” Exactly. Gun manufacturers should follow suit rather than veiwing some common-sense controls as bad for business.

Imagine that airplanes were as unsafe today as they were at the dawn of the aviation age. Would you book a flight? Maybe once or twice, but eventually, as airliners repeatedly crashed, the airline companies would go bankrupt. Why? Because nobody would trust them.

Trust. It’s what it comes down to. Can we trust that the NRA has the best interests of the majority of Americans in mind? Can we trust that gun manufacturers are putting lives ahead of profits?

I don’t know. And that uncertainty is the problem.

By the way, Jeffrey Nugent is the former president and CEO of Revlon. Who knew?

The Roots of Newtown, Part III: Where the NRA has it wrong

By Wright for the Palm Beach Post

By Wright for the Palm Beach Post

The National Rifle Association’s steadfast defense of the Second Amendment right to bear arms is prefaced on two assumptions: that all people are sane, and that all people are adequately socialized.

Under scrutiny, neither of these assumptions turns out to be true.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “mental disorders are common throughout the United States, affecting tens of millions of people each year, and that only a fraction of those affected receive treatment.”

Department of Justice statistics indicate that, in 2010, there were approximately 725,000 people incarcerated under state jurisdiction for a violent crime, and that number has increased since 2000. In 2011 (the latest year for which full data are available) there were 8,552 murders, 124,606 robberies, and 138,336 aggravated assaults nationwide involving a gun, with 59 percent of all murders committed using a firearm. That’s in just one year.

Clearly, based on these data, not all people are sane or adequately socialized.

But that is what background checks are for, gun proponents argue, which is true in regard to those who’ve already been convicted of a crime or diagnosed with mental illness. Neither was the case with Adam Lanza. Which is why such checks will not catch the next mass murderer.

Gun proponents press the issue by saying that guns don’t kill people—people kill people. Again, this is true, except that it is undeniably easier to kill everybody in the room with an assault rifle and a multi-round magazine clip than with a  knife or one’s bare hands. Any casual student of combat will notice that weaponry has evolved to place more and more distance between the combatant and his target. What began as hand-to-hand or sticks-and-stones became blades, then arrows, and now guns, artillery, and drone aircraft.

The point being that a gun conveys a distinct advantage to the shooter over an unarmed victim.

Furthermore, when the Second Amendment was written, the pinnacle of modern firearms was a single-shot, muzzle-loading rifle. By my guess, it takes about eight seconds to reload and fire one shot from a muzzle-loader. Today, we have semi-automatic weapons never contemplated by the Framers of the Constitution. Depending on the estimate, a shooter can fire a semi-automatic somewhere between 40 rounds per minute and 3 or 4 rounds per second.

Using the NRA’s logic, if people are the key to whether gun violence happens or not, then a solution hinges on what we offer those people. Why is it easier, then, for a criminal, or someone with mental illness, or a socially awkward young man to get his hands on a gun than for that same person to find a program that will serve their needs and truly benefit the individual and society? I don’t know of anyone who can satisfyingly answer that question.

In the meantime, while politicians and special interests spar about what ought to be done, another confused boy is playing video games and withdrawing from purposeful contact with others. One day, he will reach for his legally-purchased semi-automatic weapon and enter whatever place where people congregate that he’s chosen—a school, a movie theater, a church or mosque—and he will use the skills he’s honed alone in his basement.

“At last,” he will think as he aims his piece at the moving targets, “someone will notice me. I’ve achieved what I set out to do.

“Won’t they be amazed….”