Thursday, August 13, 2009

Choose Your Battles

Drug abuse is an awful thing. I can't imagine there is an American family that hasn't been wounded by an addiction of one or more of its members to one or more substances. Kind aunts racked with cigarette-caused lung cancer. Adorable nephews seized by the death grip of methamphetamine. Fathers neglecting their families while lost in alcohol-induced stupors. Fortunes blown on cocaine, futures surrendered to heroin.

Nicotine and alcohol are and will remain legal, regardless of the dangers they pose. Given the addictive nature and inherent dangers of heroin and cocaine, it's hard to imagine any sort of push to legalize their production and distribution.

But marijuana? By all scientific measures, it's far safer than either cigarettes or alcohol. One can become emotionally dependent on pot, but there is absolutely zero risk of physical dependence. There are no withdrawal symptoms even if a daily user one day simply stopped.

But the people who like it, like it. And there are millions of them, all across the country. They like getting a little buzz on after work or before going to a movie or having a delicious meal or making love. Some use it to treat nausea or insomnia or arthritis -- and it works for them. So there is demand for it. Lots and lots of demand.

This comes to mind in thinking about Barack Obama's recent statement during his visit to Mexico, when he said, "the United States will also meet its responsibilities by continuing our efforts to reduce the demand for drugs..." Sorry. Not gonna happen. You can't reduce demand. People like the way marijuana makes them feel. Just like the way other people like the way a couple of shots of Jameson or a long drag off a Camel Light makes them feel. I mean, it's nice to imagine you could convince some people they'd be better off not smoking or drinking or toking, but demand comes from a place deep inside people that government simply can't get to.

So if you can't reduce demand for a substance, even when that substance can have negative effects (especially when used habitually or to excess), what do you do? We tried banning alcohol, interdicting it, making criminals out of people who were just after a bit of relaxation or reduced inhibition -- not to mention allowing real criminals to get easy access to some real money by supplying the in-demand contraband to willing buyers.

You can educate people on the dangers of use and abuse. Cigarettes hold no interest to me, partly because of the cancer risk, but partly because the four times I've used tobacco, the nicotine high never did anything for me. Other than make me dizzy. I wouldn't go near crystal meth. Or heroin. I ingest caffeine only occasionally, partly because it makes it hard to fall asleep if I have it after about 11:00 a.m. and partly because I don't like having to have a cup of coffee to get started in the morning. I don't like that sense of being dependent.

But not everyone is as easily educated as I. So let's agree then that meth, heroin and cocaine are the big three bad boys of the drug world, the substances we think are so dangerous we can't let anyone use them. Problem is, the demand hasn't gone away. People who need heroin or meth or coke really need them.

Problem is, the people who like their pot (and get it from Mexican sources who also trade in the harder stuff) are partially funding the efforts of drug traffickers to evade the law. The millions that come in from mostly harmless pot can be used to buy planes to smuggle heroin and guns to protect the shipments (or kill off rival drug lords).

So why not legalize marijuana and pull the money rug out from under them? That's the thesis of a thoughtful letter from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers. Money quote:

"Mexican organized crime would be devastated if we could run marijuana through legal channels. They make most of their money from pot. Not only that, but they use their vast distribution networks for marijuana to move their other drugs. More marijuana is consumed in this country than all other illegal drugs combined. The black market for illegal drugs is mostly a black market for marijuana. All the drugs can be found in this black market though, with most of them coming from the same organizations up the line. When we legalize marijuana we're going to take millions of participants out of the black market for illegal drugs. This will make it harder for these Mexican DTOs to get their cocaine, meth and heroin and whatever else they are selling out to the public. If we have "pot stores" like liquor stores, these pot stores will be no more likely to sell all these other illegal drugs than liquor stores. The black market for illegal drugs and organizations like these Mexican drug trafficking organizations will shrink down to something much smaller and easier to contain."

If we're going to continue to have a war on drugs, let's at least fight the right enemy.

Look Out Below!

There are thousands of large objects -- asteroids, mostly -- that could one day collide with Earth with enough impact to render our dear blue sphere inhabitable to a demanding species such as ours. Fortunately, space is large and can contain thousands of objects quite safely for quite a long time. About 500,000 years or so. On average, that's about the amount of time between catastrophic impacts, like the one that may have turned the dinosaurs into the extinction cliche they have become.

NASA, however, has been trying to keep an eye on them for us. For the past years, they have been watching for and cataloging as many of the larger objects as they could. In fact, they are closing in on identifying at least 90% of all objects in near-Earth orbits that are larger than a kilometer across. If one of those hits the Earth -- anywhere -- humanity's lights will be turned out permanently. The agency was planning to catalog 90% of smaller objects, too, those that are a minimum of 140 meters across. Though much smaller, they could still leave a nasty mark.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have meant this goal will likely not be met. Which means one morning we could wake up to find a giant rock hurtling toward us.

I'm all for watching out, but if we see one coming, can we really do anything about it? NASA has a plan to try and deflect such an object, if it can be detected early enough, but do we really have the capability to turn a giant asteroid from its course? You can find a link to NASA's deflection plan here.

Here's the Cliff Notes: "Unless there are decades of warning time, hazardous NEOs (those are Near-Earth Objects) larger than a few hundred meters in diameter may require large energies to deflect or fragment. In these cases, nuclear explosions, either stand-off or surface blasts, might provide a suitable response. For the far more numerous objects that are smaller than a few hundred meters in diameter, and provided there is a sufficient warning time, a kinetic energy (KE) impactor spacecraft might be sufficient to deflect the hazardous NEO so that it would miss the Earth at the time of a predicted impact."

Key word in both those instances: might.

So wear a hat.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

These are Real People We're Talking About

Whenever people get caught up in the abstract rejection of marriage equality -- almost always with religious "justification" (if the haters can put "marriage" in quotes when referring to my relationship...) -- I think it's important to remind them that the denial of equal civil rights has real consequences on actual human beings. Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal brought that home once again with a great piece yesterday, in which he details the struggles of his gay brother and the brother's partner of 30 years when one of them was hospitalized with a serious infection.

Money quote:

"Having just been told, at 3 a.m., that his partner of three decades might die within hours, Mike Brittenback was told something else: Before rushing to Bill's side, he needed to collect and bring with him documents proving his medical power of attorney. This indignity, unheard-of in the world of heterosexual marriage, is a commonplace of American gay life.

Frantic, Mike tore through the house but could not find the papers. He would need to retrieve them from a safe-deposit box. Which was at a bank. Which did not open until 9 a.m."