Decriminalizing Crack

The Senate just passed a bill drastically reducing the penalty for possessing crack cocaine. The bill would increase the amount of crack requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence from 5 grams to 28 grams. The bill was approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee and finally passed this week with a voice vote. According to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) it is the first time since 1970 that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.

There are many problems, of course, with treating drug use and drug possession as criminal offenses. As dangerous as drugs like crack are, criminalizing them doesn't do that much to keep people from using them, just as the prohibition of alcohol didn't do much to keep people from drinking. Instead, by driving drug use underground, it makes it difficult to treat drug addiction. Making the drug trade illegal alsodrives the price of drugs up. That leads to enormous amounts of drug-related crime, which may do more damage to poor communities than drug use itself, as well as to the creation of the massive drug cartels that are destroying countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and now even Mexico. And the whole enterprise of drug enforcement costs the government a fortune.


But the Senate is not trying to legalize drug use, by any means. Senators have held off on even reducing the penalty for crack possession for more than a decade for fear of being portrayed as soft on drugs—or even of tacitly approving of their use. But they finally took action this week because the truth is that the penalties for possessing crack are way out of proportion. When crack emerged in the 80s it seemed so destructive to lawmakers they imposed harsh penalties for possessing even small amounts of the drug. But the sentencing guidelines made having crack a much worse crime than having cocaine in its powdered form. So much worse that you'd have to have 100 times of what is essentially the same drug to receive a mandatory sentence of five years. Probably a large part of the stigma associated with crack, of course, comes from the fact that unlike powdered cocaine its users are poor and often black. So the harsh penalty for crack possession fell primarily on poor, black communities.

The penalty for crack use is a major reason why our prisons are filled with people convicted of minor drug crimes. And it is a major reason why black men are imprisoned at around 8 times the rate of white men. Locking up so many black men for drug use—while richer, whites tend to go free—is not only unfair. It has also effectively disenfranchised huge numbers of American blacks. As Dan Froomkin points out, in many states convicted felons can't vote even after they have served their time. As a result, as Froomkin says, an incredible 13 percent of all black men are denied the vote.

The Senate's recent move doesn't make possessing crack the equivalent of cocaine in its powdered form. It simply reduces the amount of crack requiring a five-year sentence from 100 times the equivalent amount of powdered cocaine to 18 times the amount. That's in spite of the fact that, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently says, "There is no law enforcement or sentencing rational for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses." While the Senate bill does make our drug laws significantly fairer, as Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance says, by not eliminating the disparity entirely the Senate's bill shows just "how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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