Three Things That Puzzle Me

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January 2, 2007

In other installments of this continuing rant, I've examined the phenomena of the ignorance of the people combined with the duplicity of the government. In this episode, I look at a few other miscellaneous items. While the subtle questions ' involving the national debt, national security, imperialism, torture, and the rule of law ' are open to debate, I would like to think the basics are well understood by everyone in this great land of ours. When it comes to getting involved in the lives of others, I'm sure we'd all love to believe the state would take a good, long look and employ the most logical means. As expected, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is painfully illustrated below.

Waging a War Against a Tactic Is Stupid

There was a time when (I'm sure) many people believed the U.S. would attack another country only if we had been attacked by that country, or one of our allies had been attacked by that country, or some other pseudo-justifiable reason for aggression based largely upon the fact that we have the best army and little else. Nowadays, we wage war on a tactic used against us, and people line up and cheer to support.

Terrorism is a tactic, so waging war against it is patently impossible. One can only wage a war against a physical adversary. In sharp contrast, a tactic is 'a method employed to help achieve a certain goal.' How can anyone reasonably expect to wage war on a 'method'? Any supposed 'war' waged against an idea (war on terrorism), or a result (war on drug addiction) can by definition, only be waged with propaganda and education. A war of ideas is fought on the battlefield of the mind and heart. Actually shooting people and/or dropping bombs is barking lunacy.

So the state's premise for starting wars, even a war of ideas, is specious. But even if that's true, at least when the state seeks to protect us from the consumption of dangerous goods, we know that the motivations are correct, don't we? I'd like to agree that, 'at least their hearts are in the right place,' but that conclusion is rather hard to reach.

There Is No Reasonable Justification for Medical Marijuana to Be Illegal

I've noted the lunacy of the drug war previously. And in this regard, I am far from alone. But even if one cannot accept the logic and supporting statistics regarding why 'hard' drugs like cocaine and heroin should be legalized, surely the issue of marijuana generally and medical marijuana specifically is different. The amount of information about the relative benign-ness of weed is voluminous. In fact, quite a bit of the proof of why pot should be legalized was funded by the same government that keeps it illegal. What possible reason can be used for the continued stance supporting illegality for this substance? Is the FDA really that much of a toadie for the pharmaceutical industry? (Don't answer that.)

Maybe I'm just dense, but I cannot figure out how this fight against pot in general, much less medical pot specifically, makes sense. Smoking is allowed, yet cigarettes kill many, many people. Mood alteration is allowed, as evidenced by not only the ready availability of every conceivable type of alcohol, but also the massive marketing of anti-depressants, sleep aids, and the like. So neither smoking itself or mood alteration are unlawful. But somehow smoking a plant that provides both 'pure smoking satisfaction' and 'a light buzz' is worthy of being shot by some guy dressed for being dropped out of a chopper over Afghanistan . I just don't get it.

In his 1999 book, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson recited some fascinating statistics on the results of the drug war. Two in particular stick out for me.

  • 1. Approximately 60% of America 's prison population is there for a 'non-violent' offense, typically involving drugs.
  • 2. A first-time offender is more likely to get more time for a drug offense than for a violent felony. In fact, allow me to quote Bryson:

'According to a 1990 study, 90 percent of all first-time offenders in federal courts were sentenced to an average of five years in prison. Violent first-time offenders, by contrast, were imprisoned less often and received an average of just four years in prison.'

One might argue that Bryson is far from an expert on drug use, law enforcement, or government. While this is certainly true, the drug war and the issues involved are simple enough that such expertise is not required. I'm fond of saying that I'm no rocket scientist, but if we are really that concerned about something personal like smoking a little weed, while simultaneously less concerned about someone who 'kicks an old lady down a stairwell' ' to quote Bryson ' we've got serious issues with proportionality regardless of the scientific or legal details.

But because Bryson's statement, as quoted above, seemed so outrageous, I did a little checking. I did not find the study he mentioned, but I did not come up empty! Below is a summary of what I found:

  • ' The overwhelming majority of people in prison are there for drug offenses. On September 30, 2000 , 129,329 offenders were serving a prison sentence in Federal prison; 57% were incarcerated for a drug offense; 10% for a violent offense; 8% for a weapon offense; 8% for a property offense, 11% for an immigration offense; and 6% for all other offenses. (Reference: Federal Criminal Case Processing, 2000)
  • ' The overwhelming majority of people in prison for drugs are also non-violent offenders. According to official statistics from the NYS Dept. of Correctional Services (DOCS), drug law offenders are overwhelmingly non-violent. Nearly 80% of drug offenders in prison have never been convicted of a violent felony; about half have never even been arrested for one. (Reference: MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT THE ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS
  • ' Drug offenses account for a higher percentage of people in federal prison than weapons, extortion, homicide, robbery and burglary combined. In 2006, 53.7% were drug offenders, 14.2% were weapons offenders, 5.4% were robbery offenders, 3.8% were burglary offenders, 4.2% were extortion offenders, and 3.1% were homicide offenders. (Reference: Federal Bureau of Prisons: Quick Facts 2006)
  • ' Punishment for first-time offenders is generally higher if the offense is a drug-related. (Reference: Cruel & Unusual Punishment)
  • ' In New York state, the minimum sentence given to a first-time drug felon is the same as that for a murderer. The minimum sentences for a first offender person guilty of selling two ounces of cocaine is 15 years to life, the same sentence as given a murderer. (Reference: Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses?)

It seems pretty clear that proportionality is not high on the state's priority list, at least when drugs are involved. As such, prison populations in the U.S. continue to climb. Well, even if the state made a slight miscalculation regarding medical marijuana, that's no reason to think they aren't effective in other ways. Certainly one could argue that people need protecting, and the best way to do that is via laws passed by an informed Congress. The words of that Hertz commercial come to mind here: 'Not exactly!'

They Protect Me From Me, but Nobody Protects Me From Them

Recently New York state imposed a ban on trans fats. For those who haven't heard, trans fats are the result of trying to make vegetable fats, typically not suitable for baking due to molecular structure, into a substance that is suitable for baking. For instance, to get that 'moistness' that we all crave in our baked goods, one generally must use oil that is solid at room temperature. (Don't ask how I know this.) This is relatively easy if one uses animal fats (lard) or tropical oils (coconut, palm). But somewhere back a decade or two or three ago, it became unpopular to use saturated fats.

Not surprisingly, it also became unpopular to use imported tropical oils, although even with their high saturation level, they are still some of the healthiest oils one can consume. The soy lobby authored most of the information used to vilify tropical oils. (Shocking, but true. Well, maybe not so shocking!) Luckily, plentiful (cheap) oils were available from the fertile farmlands of the North American Continent! Unluckily, these oils were naturally polyunsaturated (lacking in hydrogen atoms along the chain of carbons), and therefore unsuitable for baking. Science came to the rescue and found a way to add hydrogen atoms along the molecular chain of these oils ' via a process know as hydrogenation ' creating what is called a partially-hydrogenated oil, which could then be used for baking and was still vegetable-based. Healthy, cheap, and produced on this continent ' a veritable 'trifecta' ' booyah! Not quite.

It was more recently discovered that these fake baking oils were actually worse for you than the stuff they replaced. (That there are still people using margarine at this late date is testimony that this information hasn't yet reached all of the hoi polloi.) So, health-conscious people began to raise a stink about these 'trans fats,' while study after study illustrated their awesome power for clogging arteries better than even the lardiest lard. And thus, here we are, with them being banned. Interestingly, this occurred long after they had been placed in just about every baked item sold in the overwhelmingly large processed food market in the U.S.


Let's review this last little scenario, shall we?

  • ' Initially people are free to use whatever they want, including lard, butter, coconut oil, olive oil, whatever. (Some people are fat, but hey, that was less about the fats and more about their choices.)
  • ' Tariffs make it cost prohibitive to use tropical oils. (State intervention makes finding a domestic substitute financially critical.) Propaganda from the soy industry drives the public and legislative perceptions.
  • ' Partially-hydrogenated oils are developed. (Manufacturers, seeking to maximize profits, eagerly incorporate this crap into, well, everything.)
  • ' After years of clogged arteries, heart attacks, bypass surgeries, and the like, somebody discovers that making a cheap vegetable oil into a baking fat via the wonders of chemistry also somehow changes the properties of that oil for the worse. (Who knew?)
  • ' Trans fats are banned. (State intervention seeks to preclude that which was originally facilitated largely by state intervention.) Complete symmetry is achieved!

Isn't it always the same thing? Second verse same as the first. Back when he had a popular TV show, Arsenio Hall was fond of saying 'Now that's something that just makes you go Hummm?' Indeed. What I find the most interesting, is how the same things keep happening over and over again, and generally from the same cause ' the Nanny State gone way off track.

Now if I could just find a tasty cracker that didn't clog my arteries! Maybe the U.S. Congress will invent one and require that we all eat it.

Or maybe, just maybe, I'll get to choose for myself just this once.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
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Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.