Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Treason and Privacy

Everyone is suddenly talking about privacy. That “traitor” Edward Snowden has certainly weakened our government, so our government says he must come back to the US to be charged with illegally disclosing government secrets.

Has he weakened America? Is our society weaker now that we know more about what our government has been doing for years, still is doing, and wants to keep doing? Isn’t it likely that serious terrorists knew much more than we did about how daily communications were being monitored?

That same claim of treason was made, along with the same threats of imprisonment, when Daniel Ellsberg revealed the Pentagon Papers. They were, in Wikipedia’s words, “a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War.” He was accused in federal court of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and of theft – he could have been sentenced to jail for 100 years.

Perhaps it was good for us all that Ellsberg was hauled into court, because at his trial the depth of Nixon administration corruption and law-breaking was revealed. Nixon’s legal counsel and his Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, helped plan the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to steal all the files about Ellsberg, and called it “Hunt/Liddy Special Project No. 1” in his notes. Their next special project was Watergate.

U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr., dismissed all charges, and ruled: “The totality of the circumstances of this case which I have only briefly sketched offend a sense of justice. The bizarre events have incurably infected the prosecution of this case.” Perhaps Judge Byrne was offended that Ehrlichman had offered him the job of FBI Director during the trial.

It is surprising to think that the Obama administration’s response to Snowden has been similar to the Nixon administration’s response to Ellsberg. A Republican President supported the criminal enterprise that broke into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office, and then supported his arrest and prosecution. Now a Democratic President, who made more honesty and more transparency a campaign slogan, supports the arrest and prosecution of Snowden.

Our response as citizens should be very different. In June, 1971, Ellsberg revealed things the government knew and had been covering up: how badly the war in Vietnam had been going for years. The war was already unpopular and Nixon had promised an honorable peace in 1968 during his campaign. The Pentagon Papers speeded up a process of popular protest that forced the end of our bipartisan adventure in Vietnam.

Our current situation is more serious. Snowden has revealed a bipartisan government assault on our privacy and on the Constitution. Recording our phone calls and storing our emails by the National Security Agency was widened by the Bush administration and energetically pursued by the Obama administration, with Congressional approval all along the way, and their own private court system to make attack on those policies impossible.

The best weapon against official law-breaking is publicity. Many Americans now call our government’s espionage against its own citizens snooping, instead of defense against terrorism. A few Democratic politicians are criticizing the NSA, but only after an internal audit found thousands of instances where its own privacy rules were broken. Senator Rand Paul has been the most outspoken Republican critic of NSA, but he does not propose anything more than Supreme Court oversight. So don’t expect Congress to do anything fundamental to end the surveillance of our daily lives.

Public opinion is shifting toward opposition to such government surveillance, but not strongly enough to cause political leaders to stop what they have been doing for years. A variety of recent polls shows that Americans are divided about whether this NSA eavesdropping is justified. The Huffington Post poll earlier this month found that 48% believed it was an “unnecessary intrusion into Americans’ lives”. Men were more outraged than women, whites more than blacks or Hispanics, those with less education more than college grads. Opposition to the NSA at this time comes much more strongly from Republicans, who were in favor of snooping when George Bush pushed it, so this might be less about principle than partisanship.

The combination of a few giant companies who carry all of our communications and a government which places its version of security above our right to privacy as citizens means we will be at their mercy unless we offer some alternative view. Here’s one: we don’t trust you to follow your own rules, to respect our constitutional rights, or to use our data only to fight foreign terrorism, so get off my phone line and out of my email.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 25, 2013

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

We Need More Drug Testing

Illinois and many other states have begun to explore the unknown land of legal marijuana. Illinois just became the 20th state to legalize marijuana for medical uses. Most Western states and most East Coast states north of Virginia have already taken that step. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use. Many more states have joined those two in supporting legislation which would prohibit the federal government from interfering with a state=s marijuana laws. Such a law would allow a state to decriminalize marijuana possession without worrying about federal drug laws.

The claims that marijuana is addictive in a way that other substances like alcohol are not, that marijuana usage leads to more dangerous drugs in a way that many other substances do not, that marijuana does more permanent mental damage than products advertised on TV every day, were always ideological, rather than scientific. Research not only made no difference to the proponents of banning marijuana, they actively prevented any research from happening, just as the NRA has prevented research into the effects of guns on our society.

All these old arguments that kept marijuana illegal for decades have fallen before a more powerful argument: marijuana can make sick people feel better. According to Wikipedia, cannabis has been shown to have the following medical uses: Athe amelioration of nausea and vomiting, stimulation of hunger in chemotherapy and AIDS patients, lowered intraocular eye pressure (shown to be effective for treating glaucoma), as well as gastrointestinal illness. It also has antibacterial effects and is one of the best known expectorants.@

There is nothing new here. Traditional Chinese herbal medicine dating back 5000 years included cannabis as one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Modern medical studies indicate that marijuana may be useful in treating a remarkably long list of diseases, from bipolar disorder to colorectal cancer, from asthma to psoriasis.

It would be interesting to figure out when, how and why the opinions about marijuana of some segments of Americans have changed from the screaming anxieties of AReefer Madness@ to the broad acceptance for specific uses today. There is, however, no rush to complete that sociological project. But we are way behind in knowledge about what medical usage and legalization will mean, and we should already know that now.

Even if the dangers of marijuana have been exaggerated and its medical usefulness is incontestable, it is important for our society to know more about this drug as its use becomes legal across the country. For example, the new law in Illinois allows patients to obtain up to 2.5 ounces per week, or more than 8 pounds a year. That seems to me to be quite a lot. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie, defended that number, saying that, AMost don't smoke it, they cook with it or vaporize it.@

It is difficult to find easily accessible information about how much marijuana would be used with different methods of consumption. According to the World Health Organization, a weekly ration of 2.5 ounces would translate into 30 to 60 marijuana cigarettes (joints), which would be an enormous amount for one person on a regular basis. If Rep. Lang is correct (how does he know?), then recipes for pot brownies can be found all over the internet which also would provide a high and constant dose all week with much less than 2.5 ounces.

The question of how much is needed for medical use is much more complicated than that. Does a person=s weight matter? How about age or gender? Treatment for glaucoma might be very different than for nausea. It is not clear that doctors who might prescribe medical marijuana now know enough to write prescriptions tailored to particular patients and their ailments.

Proper dosage is just one of many questions about marijuana usage which can only be answered by research. For that reason, I advocate a serious program of drug testing. Not the kind which is designed to ferret out users of drugs in the workplace B that sort of drug testing is the product of the paranoid reactions to marijuana which have until recently characterized American society. We need scientific drug tests to determine how medical benefits can be maximized through the best methods of cultivation, processing, and dosage.

If our state government has determined that marijuana is a useful medicine, we need to know as much about it as we know about aspirin. Suddenly legalizing 2.5 ounces per week per patient without much more complete knowledge is reckless legislating.

Fortunately, marijuana is remarkably safe. Research published in AThe Lancet@, one of the best known medical journals in the world, shows that AThere are no confirmed published cases worldwide of human deaths from cannabis poisoning.@ Unlike aspirin or alcohol or almost any other drug, marijuana has many possible medical uses with little danger to the user. It=s time to replace ignorance with knowledge, in order to get the most benefit from this ancient medicine.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 13, 2013