The Stoner Vote

This year Californians will vote on a ballot proposition that would legalize the sale and possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Democrats around the country will be watching the vote closely to see if it could hold the key to the 2012 elections.

It’s not that the Democratic Party necessarily supports legalizing marijuana. In fact, neither Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who is facing a tough battle for reelection, nor Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, support Proposition 19. Democrats are reluctant to support legalization, for fear for of the moral stigma associated with drug use.

There are good reasons to support legalization, of course. Marijuana, like any drug, can be abused, but it’s hardly more dangerous than alcohol. Just as with alcohol, it probably makes more sense to regulate marijuana's use than it does to prohibit it entirely. Criminalizing marijuana wastes police and legal resources on what is at worst a minor infraction. Legalizing marijuana would eliminate the black market for the drug. That which would reduce drug-related violence in the U.S., and substantially weaken the Mexican cartels that have are tearing apart our neighbor to the south. Marijuana is practically already legal in California as it is. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill reducing the possession of less than an ounce from a misdemeanor to a mere infraction—the equivalent of a speeding ticket. Many police departments choose not to use their limited resources prosecutor minor offenders anyway. And it’s fairly easy to get a card authorizing you to use marijuana for a wide variety of medical reasons.

But none of that’s why legalization may be good politics for Democrats. Even though many prominent Democrats don’t support legalization, the people who are in favor of legalization tend to vote Democratic anyway. If the prospect of voting for legalization gets people who are likely to vote to Democratic to the polls, that’s great for the Democrats, whether or not the measure passes. Peter Wallsten reports in The Wall Street Journal this week that pollsters are seeing just such a “coattail effect” among voters under 30 in California. It’s easy to joke that supporters of legalization will be too stoned to come to the polls, but it's not just regular users who support legalizing the drug. Polls show that close to half the country supports legalization. Most of those people are Democrats. Just as ballot measures banning gay marriage got social conservatives to the polls in 2004—and helped hand George W. Bush the election—Proposition 19 may get liberals to the polls in California and swing California state elections in the Democrats’ favor.

Ballot measures don’t usually have a large effect on turnout. But if they drive key groups to to the polls they can make a difference. That’s crucial because while polls show just a small advantage for Republicans this year among registered voters, they show a much larger advantage for Republicans among likely voters. In other words, the reason the Republicans are poised to make substantial gains across the country this year is that Republican voters are likely to turn out in record numbers, while many Democratic voters stay home. Proposition 19 might narrow that “enthusiasm gap” in California by getting a more Democrats out to the polls. That could make the difference for Boxer and Brown, even though they have both come out against Proposition 19.

It could also make a difference in 2012. If Proposition 19 gets more Democrats to turn out this year, the Democrats will consider introducing similar measures in battleground states like Colorado, Washington, and Nevada. Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant, told Wallsten that legalization measures could boost turnout among the young by 2-4%. “It’s not like a home run,” Butterworth said. “But with elections being so close these days, it’s a big difference.”

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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.
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  • 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.

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