Monday, January 7, 2013

Editorial: Church-state debate remains insoluble

The unnamed editor writes, "Almost daily an issue arises that continues to put the question of separation of church and state to the test. We can't seem to leave this alone and go our separate ways, choosing to believe what we prefer." This is the same voice that only a couple of weeks ago fired its own defensive salvo in the imaginary War on Xmas. Like parody, irony is dead, or at least on life support.

In writing his attempt at a Rodney King moment, the editor entirely misses two key points that are so obvious it feels that just naming them is belaboring them.

 First, there is no legal "debate." The enforced separation of church and state, meaning the prohibition of any legal requirement of religious observance or the use of public resources to promote or facilitate religion, is long-settled law that not even the most right-wing Supreme Court since the Civil War can bring itself to breach.

Second, the only people making an issue of this are the religionists, under the direction of those who would move us toward theocracy. There are enough of those in government to force those of us who simply want our Constitution defended to stand up and point out cases where government allows behavior that crosses the legal line. But there's no question about where that line is. This is not about competing interpretations of the law. This is about people who want to reinterpret the law to favor themselves.

Maybe what the editor really wanted to say is that the religionists just don't seem to ever be willing to give up on their dead hobbyhorse. But his framing in this editorial allows the reader to continue to believe the ridiculous canard that there's some sort of liberal conspiracy to destroy religion. No, editor: liberals in this country are the strongest advocates for protecting religious liberty, and we do that by preventing the ascendence of any cult to official primacy.

Christians have played the victim card for two thousand years, it's built into the culture across the religion's many sects and cults. But believing you're the victim doesn't make it so.

If I squint and read charitably between the lines in the editorial, I might have hope that a good editor could have reduced the entire piece to one line: "Religionists should just stand down and shut the fuck up." Knowing where the editor and publisher are coming from in terms of faith, however, I just see confusion and internal conflict. This is a shame, because the editorial was an opportunity for the paper to act as a force for common sense.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Ongoing Medical Buzzkill

Pop Rocket, January 2013

Readers who vaguely recall that two years ago Arizonans voted to legalize medical cannabis (for the third time) may be wondering why so little has so far come of it. It's true that foot-dragging by obstructionists in our state government is partly to blame (again), but you may be surprised to learn that a lot of it is more structural.
     Credit where credit is due must first go to Governor Jan Brewer, Attorney General Tom Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who have nearly exhausted their legal avenues for digging up excuses to avoid doing their duty and ushering in positive change. The courts have ruled pretty uniformly that no, state employees will not be subject to federal prosecution for issuing patient ID cards and fulfilling other related licensing functions, demolishing the state's argument time and time again.
     It's kind of touching to watch the contortions that these proud defenders of "state's rights" have to put themselves through to argue that we really should be obediently following federal law in this one area. That it also puts the lie to their "we the people" posturings is just cake.
     We should also note that it appears most county health departments have turned in their homework and set up the local infrastructure for regulating patients, dispensaries and suppliers. Kudos to them for doing their jobs.
     Cards are being issued, but only one dispensary is officially operating as of this writing, in Glendale, with another in Tucson about ready to go. Most entrepreneurs are waiting for what will likely have to be an Arizona Supreme Court decision finally declaring that the people have spoken (doh!) before they will even slightly expose themselves to the tender mercies of the likes of Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio. At the federal level, answering the question of when Congress will finally get off the dime and move cannabis from Schedule 1 (Evil Things) to Schedule 2 (Very Profitable Things) under the Controlled Substances Act is anyone's guess, making truly secure business planning essentially impossible for the foreseeable future. But as we've seen in California and Colorado, a lot of people will be willing to accept that risk. The "user base," as we say in the biz-journo trade, is huge.
     The legal obstructions will eventually pass, at least at the state level, and in not too long. For people who are serious about this as a business, however, there are other, even more daunting obstacles.
     The official delays on the dispensary network are pushing suppliers through a loophole in the law for any patient who doesn't live within 25 miles of a dispensary. They are legally allowed to grow their own, and many are forming wildcat co-ops for that purpose, operations that they may not want to give up once the dispensaries start opening. You may have noticed a few shops around town last year supplying equipment for home growing. All in our area have closed again or gone back underground for the time being. (Update: I've since discovered that there's at least one smokeshop recently opened.)
     It seems that all the legal posturing in Arizona and the official ambiguity of the President and his Justice Department is turning off most landlords from leasing space for dispensaries and supply-chain businesses. And who can blame them? When the people who know most about this business have been operating as criminals for in some cases generations, they've already got big hurdles to clear to prove they'll be acceptable tenants. And they'd better not have a dog, either.
     Further, once past the warm glow of clearing the many legal hurdles and getting a business open, every entrepreneur discovers the need for a solid credit line, for capital improvements, payrolls, insurance, supplies, equipment, even startup advertising. But Arizona banks and credit unions are uniformly refusing to bank these businesses, blocking even just regular business checking accounts, fearing that if the Justice Department happens to feel like blowing hot one day, they'll be left holding stacks of unrecoverable loans, making their shareholders very unhappy. This is forcing these first dispensaries to operate on a cash-only basis, inevitably causing daily liquidity concerns and exposing the entire class of businesses to all sorts of financial abuse.
     So where does that leave the industry for 2013? We've had popular votes in 20 states and DC saying that cannabis can be good for you, including two that want to make it as legal as alcohol. More will surely come to that conclusion, and expectations are expanding that the weed will be imminently decriminalized and available, creating new unfulfilled demand right now. We have established a legal structure for distributing cannabis as medicine in our state, but structural discrimination against the industry is preventing all but the very well-heeled from getting involved legally.
     I'm thinking that if we can't get it together soon, our effort to end this campaign of the War On (Some) Drugs could ironically lead to unilateral disarmament and an unhappy scenario in which well funded, experienced and highly motivated criminal organizations could launder themselves into nonprofit respectability and take over the ground floor of what will eventually become a fully open and legal profitmaking industry. This is essentially what happened in the wheezing demise of Prohibition (without the nonprofit whistle stop), leading to the hegemony of Seagram's et al., and would prove to pot-haters that the whole idea was bad from the start. Then you're in backlash territory. Anybody remember 1980?     Would we be happy to see our seniors forced to buy medical cannabis from some infernal partnership between the Zetas and Philip Morris? Or would we prefer a more grass-roots (ahem) industry open to local entrepreneurs and employing Arizonans in what will surely become a significant labor force?
     To readers identifying themselves as conservatives especially, I'd like you to try to get beyond your entrenched feelings about cannabis and focus on the practical aspects of dealing with it as it comes out of the shadows and into common social acceptance. This is happening. Right now we have the opportunity to make positive choices about the future of this new industry, and I hope we won't blow it.

Update, Friday: Today I'm hearing that legislative Republicans will try to refer the law back to the ballot for a third do-over in November, hoping we voters will finally change our mind and repeal the entire system. This is of course why they've been doing all they could to stall implementation. Again, they only respect the will of the people when it agrees with them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Courier's top news story buried on Page 6

The AP story on A6 should really be the front-page headline today, but you can't even see it online: Weather Disasters: 2012 another record-setter in the US. Mark me, folks, this is really what will define the 21st century and most affect all of us in the long run, for generations at least.

I guess we might be thankful that it's in the paper at all, but that sets the bar awfully low.

Editorial: Hobby (Lobby)'s stand on par with civil-rights fight

This is just so wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to begin.

What's sort of scary is that I'm confident the unnamed editor really believes what he's written, opening a window on the abyss of victim-thinking that our dominant white-male-religionist culture has wrapped itself in to justify its continuing efforts to turn back the clock and recover the days when women and nonwhites were kept firmly in their places, by force when necessary.

Wallace stands up for his rights in 1963. 
Yes, editor, it is a lot like the civil-rights movement, but not at all the part you're evoking. A much more apt analogy is George Wallace making a show of blocking federal troops from enforcing civil rights for blacks at the University of Alabama fifty years ago. Wallace firmly believed that his state had a right that superceded the rights of its citizens to access state education resources. It didn't work out.

We have a well respected principle in this society holding that an individual right ends where it infringes the right of another. You may not impose your beliefs on anyone, especially those over whom you wield power. The owners of a corporation may not treat its employees like children or religious congregants. They may own the enterprise, but not the people working for it.

The company argues that it should not have to provide resources for an action that it deems immoral. Company-funded health insurance is a form of employment compensation, so it may as well argue that it won't pay an employee who might use the money to buy contraceptives over the counter, either. It's a ridiculous argument on its face. Add in that the firm is under no compulsion to provide the insurance package at all, and we can see clearly that the issue is not about refraining from immoral action, but rather abusing its power as an employer to force others to do so.

In the long run we'll all come to see the Hobby Lobby show as just another ignorant and futile attempt to control women and impose religion on the rest of us, with the same sort of grandstanding that won George Wallace his place in the Hall of Fame for Stupid Cranks. It will fail, and in short order, that's obvious. The editor's defense of this idiocy as somehow heroic won't cause a ripple as it slips down the drain of antiquated babble, but it's still a shame for our community that our local paper is so backward and in thrall to magical thinking.

It's neither a good way to inform readers nor a good way to attract and hold advertisers. Make your case in your church pulpit if you must, editor, but please, keep it out of the paper, it's embarrassing and counterproductive for your business.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Talking past one another on gun violence

When I was in college many years ago, as both an art technique exercise and a meditation, I hand-drew a large copy of the ancient illustration at left. You may not be able to see the details well here, but what's most striking about it for me is how happy and industrious the monks are in contrast to the stolid world-weariness of the elephant.

The Courier's letters section has been awash in chatter about guns and gun violence since the Newtown massacre. The current round is larger in scale than usual, but not much different in quality than the reactions to any previous mention of guns on the op-ed page. I'd like to be optimistic that people are waking up to the seriousness of our national problem with guns, but, well, you know.

It would just be nice if for once we could hold back on the rush to frame the issue, which is really all that's going on.

The gun lovers want to put the frame on the individual who did the deed, and in this case they're focusing on his developmental disability, blithely unconcerned about tarring everyone who's mentally challenged with the broad brush of scary difference.

The gun despisers want to put the frame on the weapons and the truly insane ease of access to them in this society, unconcerned about the many owners of firearms who keep them safe and under control.

Both these perspectives include essential truths. Both insist that there's nothing more to the picture, and as long as we refuse to put our arms completely around the problem, we can never come close to a solution or even useful alleviation of the incessant damage.

When will we accept the wisdom that we're unwilling and perhaps unable to see the whole picture? Could we at least reject the relentless framing, which amounts to putting out our own eyes, and open ourselves to seeing and hearing something new here?

The letters and comments are a complete waste of time, so I'm not linking to any of them.

It's a day for resolutions, and I'd like to hope that as a nation we can resolve to be better people, take better care of one another, pay better attention, and fear one another less.