Medicinal pot, Yes. Legal pot, bad idea

Wafting around California these days is a lot of rhetoric about legalizing marijuana, a proposition (#19) that will be on the ballot in November. Californians being Californians — I’m one; I know — and pot being pot, there is no shortage of heated opinion. Here is one more.

Countless Americans suffer from chronic or short-term conditions which could be relieved by marijuana. To deny them such relief simply makes no sense at all. The sooner everyone wakes up to the logic of marijuana as comfort care, and it becomes universally legal and available, the better.

Legalizing the weed for recreational delight, though — essentially making it available to all comers — makes very little sense at all. It’s an addictive substance, folks. It messes with your mind. All we need is a whole new population of messed-up folks to add to the messes we already have.

This is just one addict’s opinion. But if one addict’s opinion is only anecdotal, some others, below, are worthy of serious consideration. They were offered by the California Society of Addiction Medicine in an op ed piece by the Society’s president, Dr. Timmen Cermak, in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 22. The Society is taking no position on Prop. 19, Cermak explains, “but we wish Californians would look at the research before they make up their minds on how to vote.” This space applauds that suggestion.

The Society of Addiction Medicine is made up of “the doctors who specialize in the treatment of drug abuse; we work every day with people addicted to drugs, including alcohol,” Cermak writes. “We are a diverse group of doctors committed to combining science and compassion to treat our patients, support their families and educate public policy makers.”

Since very few of the Society of Addiction Medicine’s 400 physician members believe prison deters substance abuse, legalizing marijuana would have that small, back-handed benefit. “Most (of us) believe addiction can be remedied more effectively by the universal availability of treatment,” Cermak writes. “When, according to the FBI, nearly half – 750,000 – of all drug arrests in 2008 in the United States were for marijuana possession, not sales or trafficking, we risk inflicting more harm on society than benefit. Prop. 19 does offer a way out of these ineffective drug policies.”

But other research should raise alarm bells. Cermak’s essay is excerpted below, with a few points worth pondering bold-faced:

“Two-thirds of our members believe legalizing marijuana would increase addiction and increase marijuana’s availability to adolescents and children. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that Prop. 19 would produce a 58 percent increase in annual marijuana consumption in California, raising the number of individuals meeting clinical criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence by 305,000, to a total of 830,000.

“The question of legalizing marijuana creates a conflict between protecting civil liberties and promoting public health… between current de facto legalization in cannabis clubs and revenue-generating retail marijuana sales… The society wants to make sure voters understand three basic facts about how marijuana affects the brain:

“– The brain has a natural cannabinoid system that regulates human physiology. The flood of cannabinoids in marijuana smoke alters the brain’s delicate balance by mimicking its chemistry, producing a characteristic “high” along with a host of potential side effects.

“– Marijuana is addicting to 9 percent of people who begin smoking at 18 years or older. Withdrawal symptoms – irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbances – often contribute to relapse.

“– Because adolescent brains are still developing, marijuana use before 18 results in higher rates of addiction – up to 17 percent within two years – and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.

“Marijuana is a mood-altering drug that causes dependency when used frequently in high doses, especially in children and adolescents. It’s important that prevention measures focus on discouraging young people from using marijuana.

“Prop. 19 erroneously states that marijuana “is not physically addictive.” This myth has been scientifically proven to be untrue. Prop. 19 asks Californians to officially accept this myth. Public health policy already permits some addictive substances to be legal – for instance, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. But good policy can never be made on a foundation of ignorance. Multiple lines of scientific evidence all prove that chronic marijuana use causes addiction in a significant minority of people. No one should deny this scientific evidence.”

So we could use the tax revenues from legalized pot. But it may surely be worth thinking twice about what the concurrent costs will be, in illness and crime and human lives.

Early cancer tests, surgeries questioned

Was this mastectomy necessary? It’s a question few breast cancer survivors want to ask, and one that few are likely to answer absolutely. But after years of aggressive emphasis on early diagnosis and treatment, some previous imperatives are being called into question. Noting that breast biopsy has long been considered the “gold standard,” a report in today’s New York Times addresses the new rethinking:

As it turns out, diagnosing the earliest stage of breast cancer can be surprisingly difficult, prone to both outright error and case-by-case disagreement over whether a cluster of cells is benign or malignant, according to an examination of breast cancer cases by The New York Times.

Advances in mammography and other imaging technology over the past 30 years have meant that pathologists must render opinions on ever smaller breast lesions, some the size of a few grains of salt. Discerning the difference between some benign lesions and early stage breast cancer is a particularly challenging area of pathology, according to medical records and interviews with doctors and patients.

Diagnosing D.C.I.S. “is a 30-year history of confusion, differences of opinion and under- and overtreatment,” said Dr. Shahla Masood, the head of pathology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville. “There are studies that show that diagnosing these borderline breast lesions occasionally comes down to the flip of a coin.”

Much of the current finger-pointing is toward pathologists, where their money comes from, whether they are ‘certified’ or not and in general, how good a job they do.

In 2006, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an influential breast cancer survivors’ organization, released a startling study. It estimated that in 90,000 cases, women who receive a diagnosis of D.C.I.S. or invasive breast cancer either did not have the disease or their pathologist made another error that resulted in incorrect treatment.

After the Komen report, the College of American Pathologists announced several steps to improve breast cancer diagnosis, including the certification program for pathologists.

For the medical community, the Komen findings were not surprising, since the risk of misdiagnosis had been widely written about in medical literature. One study in 2002, by doctors at Northwestern University Medical Center, reviewed the pathology in 340 breast cancer cases and found that 7.8 percent of them had errors serious enough to change plans for surgery.

This space has argued occasionally for reconsideration of yearly mammograms and for longer, stronger consideration of other options before a mastectomy is performed. Especially in the case of older women.

Would I insist on further studies or opt for less radical treatment if I were diagnosed with breast cancer today? Probably. Can I undo the mastectomy I had at 72? Not exactly. Second-guessing is beside the point for someone who is healthy and fit, but asking questions won’t ever hurt.

Earliest Steps to Find Breast Cancer Are Prone to Error – NYTimes.com.

Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx
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A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.

Death wish for boomers & elders?

Reaching for the hemlock in order not to be a burden…. this seems a little farther than most of us want to go. But the idea is crossing more than a few aging minds, reports CNN intern Sachin Seth on a recent blog.

Rather than burden their children with the daunting task of caring for them as they age, some baby boomers may be considering an extreme form of “relief.” Suicide.

Psychiatrist Mark Goulston says he’s been approached by some middle-aged patients who say they’d rather “take a bottle of pills” than inconvenience their children.

Dr. Goulston blames the problem on the impatient nature of “millennials” – the offspring of baby boomers – a trait he says was passed down from the boomers themselves.

Adding to their angst is their own experience of taking care of elderly parents, which sometimes leads to feelings of resentment. Baby boomers don’t want their own children to grow to resent and begrudge them when they get old and feeble.

There’s a video exchange between Goulston and CNN’s Don Lemon that’s worth watching, but won’t lift your spirits much.

Add to this don’t-be-a-burden dilemma — and it IS a dilemma that crosses the mind of everyone over 60 and most folks who have a parent over 60 — the bizarre situation of estate taxes right now and the whole business of dying gets seriously complicated. It was okay last year, when you knew estate taxes were magically going to disappear on January 1, 2010, so the focus was on staying alive until then.

The Oakland you didn't see on TV

[youtubevid id=”0MNcWUX5oU4″]You may have read the reports of how few of the vandals in Oakland CA last week came from Oakland. But what you may not have read about (or seen) were the peaceful folks who also gathered to encourage both protest and peace.

There was after-dark violence in Oakland, contained within a fairly small area, following the involuntary manslaughter verdict of transit officer Johannes Mehserle in the death of Oscar Grant, reported on TV news across the country. Oakland takes a lot of guff. There were rallies in support of Mehserle, and gatherings in remembrance of Grant, and worries because many wanted a murder conviction. Following the verdict, a crowd estimated at fewer than 1,000 gathered downtown for a peaceful demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the verdict. A small group of about 100, after the sun went down, turned to vandalism and looting. There were 78 arrests; three-quarters of those arrested were not from Oakland. It’s a sadly familiar story, especially in the way it was reported; what was reported was far from the whole story.

Interestingly, right in the middle of the troubled block is the headquarters of an organization called Not In Our Town (NIOT). “We thought it was important to set the record straight,” the NIOT folks said in an e-mail today, “by filming the encouraging community response taking place right outside our door. Here are the young people of Oakland expressing their love of this city, and their commitment to keeping the peace, no matter their reaction to the verdict.”

NIOT is a national movement that “encourages and connects people who are responding to hate and building more inclusive communities.” On their home page is a U.S. map featuring recent hate incidents (red dots) and recent anti-hate action (green dots.) The green dots outnumber the red dots, which is a heartening development to recognize, although the red dots tend to get better press.

This space is a certified member of NIOT. This space is regularly fingered as a Pollyanna. But the active (as opposed to the certified, who are often wimps) NIOT people are not Pollyannas, but courageous and simultaneously gentle souls. Check them out. You may want a NIOT in your town.

Spain wins World Cup, but not TV; Soccer from a soccer mom view

pivot soccer
Image via Wikipedia

Would soccer catch on in the U.S if our TV screens were bigger? Maybe so, but I still doubt it. Twenty-two — until you start tossing them out for misbehavior  — guys kicking a tiny ball up and down a field at warp speed without even the excitement of racking up a goal in regulation so you can stop and catch your breath, or a commercial break so you can go to the bathroom, I’m just not sure soccer will ever make it in America. Of course, your TV screen is probably bigger than ours, which is OK. On the giant screens at bars and coffee shops all along San Francisco’s Fillmore Street Sunday there was an awful lot of hoopla. There may have been some business for the restaurant owners, but it looked like a great deal more hooping and hollering than drinking.

It is safe to say that this space has been into soccer longer than any other T/S space. Dating, actually, from the day that #1 son came home from hanging out at some local playground circa 1968, and we said, “You’ve been doing what? A round, black-&-white ball you just kick? Soccer moms had not yet been invented, but this one was, at that moment. Three kids, a combined total of about 36 years at a minimum of 2 or 3 games per week; you do the math. The in-house soccer dad coached so many of them that he and his co-coach had to coach the local high school coach, who had never heard of soccer until then either. But our scruffy, inner city team beat the hoity-toity suburban high school for the state title in 1970-something (it’s all a blur) so it was certainly worth it.

Pro soccer, though, that’s another whole deal. By now every kid in the U.S. has kicked around a soccer ball, half of them are addicts, and still they grow up to be non-fans. Go figure. I think it boils down to the screen size, the warp speed and the lack of bathroom commercial time.

And it’s too bad. The primary emotion I recall from about a century-worth of soccer-game watching was empathy: everybody felt sorry for the goalie’s mom. Didn’t matter if your team scored the goal, you still felt sorry for the goalie’s mom.

The world needs a little more empathy. Meanwhile this space has to quit typing and send condolences to our good friends in Amsterdam.

Gay rights backers get some good news

Court actions over the past week have given gay rights advocates a few glimmers of hope, though no one is staging victory rallies yet. The long slog toward full rights for gays and lesbians in the military, at the altar and in the pulpit each saw small steps taken. But President Obama, who vowed to promote equality for all, remains caught in such Through the Looking Glass dilemmas as the Justice Department’s mandate to defend the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act, which Obama would like to see repealed. Same thing with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Alice would certainly find a trapdoor for falling down the rabbit hole on almost any stage where gay rights battles are being fought today.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Bob Egelko summed up the latest on one stage:

The federal judge overseeing a challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, scheduled for trial in Southern California next week, has ruled in favor of a gay rights group on a crucial issue – how much evidence the government needs to justify the ban on openly homosexual members of the armed forces.

Obama administration lawyers have argued that courts must let “don’t ask, don’t tell” stand if they find that Congress could have reasonably concluded that excluding gays and lesbians would make the military more effective – the standard most favorable to supporters of the 1993 law.

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips of Riverside, in her final pretrial ruling, said Wednesday that higher court rulings in recent years have raised the bar for the government to justify laws that single out gays and lesbians for harsher treatment. Because “don’t ask, don’t tell” intrudes on “personal and private lives” and “implicates fundamental rights,” Phillips wrote, the Justice Department must show that the ban serves an important public purpose that the military could not achieve some other way.

That principle comes from the 2003 Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws against private homosexual conduct, and from a 2008 ruling by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco allowing a lesbian officer to challenge her discharge from the Air Force, Phillips said.

Her ruling opens the door for plaintiffs in the case to put gay and lesbian former service members on the witness stand to testify about how being thrown out of the military because of “don’t ask, don’t tell” damaged them. The federal law requires that gays and lesbians who acknowledge their sexual orientation be discharged from the military. Superior officers are barred from asking service members about their orientation.

The plaintiffs, the Log Cabin Republicans gay organization, plan to present researchers who contend the policy harms the military by promoting concealment and divisiveness while excluding qualified personnel. (It is, of course, the Republicans who are threatening a Senate filibuster of a military appropriations bill that includes a repeal measure…)

The Obama administration tried to bar the testimony, arguing that it was irrelevant, and urged Phillips to postpone the trial while Congress considers the president’s proposal to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” President Obama has called the law discriminatory but says he must defend it as long as it is on the books.

On the marriage front, which currently has seen some states legalizing same-sex unions, some banning them and in California a suit to overturn the voter-approved ban, more state/federal convolutions are underway. Associated Press legal affairs writer Denise Lavoie Friday summarized what’s been going on in Massachusetts:

A key part of a law denying married gay couples federal benefits has been thrown out the window in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize gay marriage. The ball now lies in the White House’s court, which must carefully calculate the next move by an administration that has faced accusations it has not vigorously defended the law of the land.

President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that he would like to see the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, repealed. But the Justice Department has defended the constitutionality of the law, which it is required to do.

The administration was silent Friday on whether it would appeal rulings by U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro. Spokespeople for the White House and the Justice Department said officials are still reviewing the rulings.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prevents the federal government from recognizing gay marriages and allows states to deny recognition of same-sex unions performed elsewhere. Since the law passed in 1996, many states have instituted their own bans on gay marriage, and a handful have allowed the practice.

And over at the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, meeting in Minneapolis

…delegates again approved ordaining openly gay or lesbian clergy. The measure now goes to the presbyteries, or local jurisdictions, where previous General Assembly resolutions to ordain gays and lesbians have been rejected. The General Assembly also debated but did not pass a resolution that would have changed the definition of marriage from a union between a man and a woman to a union of two people.

This Presbyterian writer can tell you that getting individual presbyteries — that’s the regional groups — to approve what the General Assembly delegates just approved is no simple matter. There are plenty of Christians, not to mention less than tolerant folks of every creed and color, down the rabbit hole.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ foes win legal victory.

Cellphones, antennas, towers… radiation happens

cellphone antenna pole in Wimsheim, Germany
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Radiation from the A-bomb test witnessed by my then-Marine husband in the early 1950s was registered on a small badge worn around his neck. They double-timed from foxholes toward the site of the blast. As far as we and the U.S. government know, all of those guys went on to lead long and healthy lives — and we went on to deadlier bombs anyway. We do now know a little more about those sorts of radiation damage.

We don’t know much about the tiny emissions from cellphones, iPhones, cellular antennas, texters, Skypers, whatever. The suggestion that any of those cyber-issues could possibly cause harm draws scoffs and derision and denials, but the truth is we simply don’t know. Some folks would still like to find out; maybe even find out before harm is done rather than after. An ongoing mini-battle in San Francisco is typical of such citizen struggles everywhere:

The increasing popularity of smart phones is pitting companies looking to expand their coverage against city residents concerned about the dangers presented by a growing number of cellular antennas.

Nearly every week, the city Planning Commission hears from a company looking to add to the thousands of cellular antennas already in the city. And, like clockwork, local residents turn out to fight the plans.

“These towers should be away from residences, away from schools and away from other vulnerable populations,” said Doug Loranger, who, as founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union, has been fighting the cellular companies for a decade.

That’s not easy to do in a city as densely packed as San Francisco, where hills and tall buildings have long made radio transmission a challenge.

The crowds that jammed local stores looking to buy the new Apple iPhones last month demonstrate another part of the problem. San Francisco has a reputation as one of the most tech-savvy cities in the country, and the people buying the various new smart phones want fast and easy access to the Internet on their handheld devices, which means more demand for service.

This demand for service drives the rush to install more antennas and modify the existing ones. As long as they meet emission standards set in 1996, they are deemed fine, and cannot be challenged on the basis of health, a frustrating reality for potential challengers. Because that actually is the issue: whether — or at what point — emissions can indeed become damaging to one’s health. And though radiofrequency radiation emitted by the antennas has not been proven to have any damaging effects, activist Beverly Choe, whose children attend school near one such installation says, “it doesn’t seem prudent to add more radiation until we’re sure of the effects.”

“People want service where they live, where they work and where they play,” said Rod De La Rosa, a spokesman for T-Mobile. “We’re trying to roll out more high-speed data transmission by increasing the size of the pipe and not just for voice.”

T-Mobile is just one of the service providers looking to boost their presence in San Francisco. Just last week, Clearwire, a new company providing wireless data service only, came to the Planning Commission with requests to add antennas to existing sites in Bernal Heights and by San Francisco General Hospital.

“Starting last year, we’ve had a big increase in requests for modifications (of existing sites) and for new antennas,” said Jonas Ionin, who oversees cellular antenna requests for the city’s Planning Commission. “What we’re finding today is that the increases aren’t necessarily based on voice traffic, but on data downloads.”

The city already is home to 709 cell sites, some with as many as 12 separate antennas. Although many of the recent requests have been for upgrades and additions to those existing sites, there is also a growing call for new spots for cellular antennas, which means more battles to come.

Those continuing battles have one interesting aspect that other battles can’t always claim. No one is waiting to find out who’s right. “The funny thing is that people call me on their cell phones to complain about the new installations,” said Diego Sanchez, a city planner. We may all be addle-brained from telecommunicating before we find out where it’s coming from. A lot of us grew up in asbestos-infused schools and homes, and we’re probably all eating mercury-infused seafood (not to mention drinking petroleum-infused water); life is hazardous to one’s health.

Tension over cellular antennas mounts in city.

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