Obama, America, Christianity, and Islam

Does Obama love America?“ and “Is Obama a Christian?“ are both reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.’ ”

Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”

Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” - to which the answer is obviously “Yes” – or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.

Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)

So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.

If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christlike, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for something like a millennium, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.

The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.

Or take slavery or McCarthyism or the internment of the Japanese-American population during WWII. Were those phenomena “un-American”? Lincoln certainly thought so about slavery, which clearly contradicted the founding notion that “all men are created equal.”  And almost no one now defends the politics of McCarthy or the policy of internment, which were far more reminiscent of Nazi or Communist purges and deportations than of law-guided republican politics.

But of course slavery was deeply entwined with our national history – being almost as old as English settlement in the New World and being protected, directly if euphemistically, by the Constitution itself – and McCarthyism and internment weren’t the only moments at which the paranoid strand in American politics got loose: Know-Nothingism and the Palmer Raids reflected the same craziness.

So, again, if I wanted to persuade Americans to live up to the best this country has to offer the world, I’d want to claim that slavery, internment, and McCarthyism were deeply un-American, and that getting rid of them helped move us toward “a more perfect Union.” If, on the other hand, I were an America-hater, or alternatively if I wanted to defend the use of torture, I’d want to insist that all those phenomena, like violence, were “as American as apple pie.”

There is no “truth of the matter” to be found in any of these cases, because neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence,” and because in each case the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.

As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of  the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.

What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically - or even “extremely” – Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.

This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?

ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”

Last time I checked, Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of  cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms. Denunciations of his remarks from intellectuals as too one-sided and insufficiently nuanced, and by wingnuts and anti-Islamic bigots as insufficiently anti-ISIS, are equally beside the point.

Making Roadside Cannabis Use Testing Effective and Fair

Breathalyzers are extremely useful for detecting drunk driving. They allow rapid roadside testing that is accurate for answering the critical question: Is this person intoxicated right now? In contrast, urinalysis for detecting cannabis-intoxication in drivers has multiple liabilities. The test can’t be done at the roadside so the person has to be hauled in (perhaps unjustly) to a testing station. Also, a recent paper in the Journal of Analytic Toxicology points out another serious problem:

the typical target in urine is the inactive metabolite, [which is] less relevant with respect to impairment. In addition, drug metabolites become concentrated in urine and may be excreted for many hours, or days after use, and are less probative with respect to whether a person’s drug use was recent or more historical.

Tetrahydrocannabinol is lipid-soluble and regular pot smokers excrete it over time in their urine even if they haven’t smoked recently. As a result, a urine test could result in a cannabis-impaired driving conviction even though the person isn’t currently stoned. The JAT paper evaluated a different approach which may resolve these problems: Oral fluid sampling. The driver suspected of impairment is mouth swabbed at roadside and the saliva is placed in a machine, which rapidly prints out a result. This technology is fairer than urinalysis because it is only sensitive to recent marijuana use rather than use that happened a day ago or a week ago.

Of the devices the researchers tested in the study, the Dräger Drug Test 5000 (pictured above) had the best results. Assuming it doesn’t cost a mint, this technology could be a breakthrough for law enforcement as well as an important civil rights protection for people suspected of drug-impaired driving.

More on the WA cannabis price collapse

I feel sorry for the farmers getting caught in the downdraft. More than that, I’m worried about the impact of cheap pot on problem use, and on illegal exports out of state.

But as a pure analyst, I’d just like to ask Beau Kilmer to take a bow. He calculated the cost of Dutch legal medical cannabis at approximately 1 Euro ($1.30) per gram. Now the reported wholesale price in Washington is $700-$800/lb. That works out to about $1.65 a gram.

Will wholesale prices rise as more retail stores are licensed? Maybe, for a while. But there’s every reason to think that next year’s crop will be bigger, and therefore cheaper, than this year’s. In the long run, the pre-tax price of a joint will be the pre-tax price of a cigarette or a teabag: pennies, not dollars.  That’s the policy problem we need to wrestle with now. It seems inevitable that cannabis will become legal. But will it do so in a more-public-health-friendly way, or a less-public-health-friendly way? Right now, the auspices aren’t favorable.

Is Reduced Enforcement Leading More Americans to Smoke Pot?

arrest trends

The number of arrests for marijuana possession is often thrown around as if it had some inherent meaning, e.g., that if the number goes up year-on-year the police must really be cracking down. But a rising number of arrests can mean that enforcement intensity is lessening if the prevalence of the underlying offence is increasing even faster, and a declining number of arrests can betoken increasing enforcement intensity if the underlying offence is declining in prevalence even faster. Also, the same number of arrests has a different meaning for crimes with different prevalence: 1,000 arrests a year in a big city represents aggressive enforcement if the arrests are for homicide, minimal enforcement if the crime is marijuana possession.

Fortunately, readily available federal data allow us to look at marijuana arrests in light of how many people use the drug and how use trends are changing over time. In the chart above, the red line is marijuana possession arrests reported to the FBI and the green line is aggregate days of marijuana use reported by respondents to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The full picture is of marijuana enforcement intensity swooning for a long time, well before any states formally legalized recreational markets.

Some people might look at this chart and ask whether the correlation between reduced arrests and increased pot smoking proves that the former caused the latter. I asked drug policy expert Dr. Beau Kilmer that question and he gave the following answer: “No.”

Let me elaborate on why I agree with Beau’s pithy response. For a behavior to be deterred, there has to be a reasonable likelihood of punishment. Even before enforcement intensity began to plummet, the risk of being arrested for smoking marijuana was very low. For the recent enforcement drop to have cause the increase in marijuana use, people would have had to notice when a once a week pot smoker’s risk of arrest dropped from once every 50 years to once every century. That’s not a sufficiently noticeable difference in the deterrent power of enforcement to be driving such a dramatic change in use.

Making a drug illegal deters use by raising prices, because prices go up everywhere when a business cannot operate legally. Higher prices are deterrent because, unlike police, they really can be everywhere. Routine enforcement of prohibition is needed to sustain that economic effect, but beyond that, ramping up arrests does little or nothing to deter a behavior as prevalent as pot use (If you are interested in the academic research behind that point, this book is a good starting point).

If you want to read more about the above data and hear more of what I learned when I interviewed Beau, check out my latest piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Pot prices plunge in Washington State

The harvest is in, and ounces of 10%-THC cannabis are selling for $200 at commercial retail outlets in Washington. (Figure roughly 70 joints to the ounce, and at least 3 stoned hours per joint, so the cost of intoxication is roughly $1 per hour.) That price is fully competitive  with both the illicit market and the medical market.

This was utterly predictable, as I know because my RAND colleagues predicted it. So much for the argument that Washington’s taxes were too high.

What is also predictable is that prices will continue to drop, both in Washington State and in Colorado, unless the authorities start to limit production volume. $200/oz. would be a fairly reasonable price target; anything much lower than that risks a big increase in heavy use and underage use. (Of course there’s no way to keep the stuff from leaking from adults, who are allowed to purchase, to minors, who aren’t.)

Falling prices are also bad news for all the folks who thought they were going to get rich selling a newly legal product at the old, illegal prices. No such luck.

 

 

 

A Public Health Approach to Reducing Opioid Overdose

Every day in the United States, over 100 people die of a drug overdose. In the past decade, the most important part of this sad story has been the vast expansion in availability and use of opioids (e.g., oxycodone, heroin, fentanyl). Although a “downstream” intervention will never fundamentally solve the problem, it can at least reduce the death toll. That is the role of expanding access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone (aka Narcan) and creating Good Samaritan provisions for overdose emergencies.

The White House Office of Drug Control Policy, which strongly supports these reforms (Yes, elections really matter) has assembled the following data on the state of play around the country. Clearly, much has been accomplished and much more remains to be done. I dig into these details more in my latest piece at Washington Post Wonkblog.

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Michael Pollan on the value of the hallucinogens

Michael (Botany of Desire) Pollan has a breathtaking piece in the current New Yorker on the current wave of scientific research on the benefits – and not merely the medical benefits – of mindful and well-directed use of psilocybin and other chemicals classified as “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics” or (in some uses) “entheogens.” It’s as good an introduction to the field as one could ask for. Well-written, of course: what else, from Pollan? More than that, it catches all the right nuances of a technically, socially, and even metaphysically hairy field of inquiry.

The central idea is that the mystiform experiences that psilocybin and other drugs can trigger under the right circumstances can be beneficial, not only in treating specific problems – end-of-life anxiety, for example, or nicotine dependence – but by enriching lives: making some people “better than well.” So far the studies are small, but the results are impressive.

It’s encouraging to see the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health taking a scientific attitude: cautious but interested. It’s discouraging, though – alas! – not at all surprising to see the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse responding to exciting research results by worrying about what might happen if someone tells the children.

Among the central characters in Pollan’s narrative is Robert Jesse, among the most impressive – I might even say “saintly” – people have I ever encountered. Bob doesn’t push for credit; it’s nice when someone like that gets credit just the same.

Congress meddles in DC cannabis policy. Bad move. Good results?

No, Congress shouldn’t have meddled in DC home rule by blocking the city from legalizing cannabis on the alcohol model. But the result is to leave in place the “Grow and Give” system the Washington voters approved. On its merits, that system deserves a trial, and we should watch the results closely

Jamaican government proposes non-commercial legalization of ganja

Mark Golding is the Jamaican Minister of Justice. Below the fold is the text of a press release from his office about legislation that would decriminalize of cannabis possession and legalize its production and sale for medical use and for use in Rastafarian religious observance.

In addition, the fine print:

Permits the cultivation of five or less ganja plants on any premises, which will be regarded as being for medical or therapeutic use of the leaves or for horticultural purposes

In other words, the proposal is for complete but noncommercial legalization.

Key sentence:

The system of complete legal prohibition of ganja in Jamaica has been in place since 1948, has not worked and is no longer considered fit for purpose.

Note the cross-national difference in terminology: to “table” a bill means to offer it, not to defer its consideration. Also note that under a parliamentary system, a Cabinet bill is likely to become law without much modification.
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