Obama's Pot Dilemma: Is It Time to Evolve?
Ethan Nadelmann, a leading expert on drug policy, sees evidence that Obama is willing to move in "a somewhat new direction" on drug policy.
From 2011-2014, Daniel Honan was the Managing Editor at Big Think. Prior to Big Think, Daniel was Vice President of Production for Plum TV, a niche cable network he helped launch in 2002. The production team he oversaw won over two dozen Emmy awards. Daniel has created numerous shows and documentaries for television, and his film credits include Stealing the Fire, a documentary on the black market for nuclear weapons technology.
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What's the Big Idea?
When the clock struck midnight this past Wednesday, dozens of pot smokers lit up in plain sight at Seattle's Space Needle. At that exact moment, the state of Washington's liberal marijuana law went into effect. No federal officials were in sight. No arrests were made, even though smoking marijuana in public is still subject to a fine in Washington. Law enforcement officials seem to want to stay as far away as possible from these types of celebrations, so as not to open up a legal can of worms.
Yet no one seems to be in more of a pickle on this issue than Barack Obama and Eric Holder. Federal law prohibits the possession of marijuana; state laws in Colorado and Washington, on the other hand, now allow it. So which laws should be enforced?
According to Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, this is not completely unfamiliar territory. After all, medical marijuana began to be legalized in various states back in the 1990s, and now 18 states plus Washington, D.C. have set up their own systems for regulation. Colorado, for instance, developed over the years what Nadelmann considers "a very good model for regulating above ground marijuana."
In fact, Nadelmann sites the success of medical marijuana programs as one of the reasons why public opinion has shifted so dramatically in favor of outright legalization. So why mess with the states and the will of the people? Nadelmann, a leading expert on drug policy, sees evidence that Holder and Obama might be willing to move in a somewhat new direction.
Watch the video here:
What's the Significance?
To get a better sense of what the White House will do, we need to deconstruct a recent New York Times article that has been astutely described as a "trial balloon." As Pete Guither observes, "there’s no better tool for official leaks than the New York Times, which has a policy against using unnamed government sources — a policy that it ignores constantly."
The article in question describes the thinking of "Senior White House and Justice Department officials" who spoke on the condition of anonymity. These officials floated various courses of action -- some of which are extremely aggressive -- to test the public reaction, as Guither suggests.
So what have the reactions been? Here's the liberal Huffington Post:
Here's Obama supporter Andrew Sullivan:
Will Obama get the message?
To answer this, let's ask a broader question. As the president looks at his second term and plots his legacy, will he "evolve" on drug policy the way he did on gay marriage? Nadelmann points out that this is an issue where the public is leading, not the politicians. A recent PPP poll shows that a record 57 percent of Americans now favor marijuana legalization and most expect federal prohibition to end within the next decade.
Of course, we don't have to wait that long if Obama decides to lead on this issue now. And there are some compelling reasons for the first black president to do just that.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, "at yearend 2010, black non-Hispanic males had an imprisonment rate (3,074 per 100,000 U.S. black male residents) that was nearly 7 times higher than white non-Hispanic males (459 per 100,000)."
This imbalance is largely due to the fact that drug laws are "disproportionately enforced against the poor and younger and darker-skinned members of society," Nadelmann tells Big Think, and that has been the case from the origin of the War on Drugs to the way it is carried out today.
There is an enormous cost to taxpayers and individuals. As Nadelmann points out, incarceration destroys lives. A single arrest "can severely limit an individual’s ability to obtain housing, schooling, employment, and credit," he says.
Does Obama want to be the president who puts an end to all that?
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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