Marijuana: okay for rich white professionals; others not so much

David Brooks has been widely excoriated for his absurd column on marijuana legalization.  Thanks to Itchy for pointing me to the best takedown I’ve seen, from Matt Taibbi:

That’s because the legalization question, whether about pot or alcohol, is never really a referendum on the drugs in question. It’s much more a referendum on prohibition, which didn’t work with an extremely dangerous, addictive and destructive drug like alcohol, and makes even less sense with marijuana.

The Brooks column is particularly infuriating because in just a few hundred words it perfectly captures why marijuana needs to be legalized. Here’s this grasping, status-obsessed yuppie who first admits that that he smoked an illegal drug without consequence in his youth, then turns around and tells us, as a graying and bespectacled post-adult, that it would be best if the drug remained illegal for the masses.

Would David Brooks feel the same way about drug laws if he was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans arrested in weed-related incidents every year (it was over 700,000 people in 2012)? If he’d been prevented from getting a student loan or getting a state job because of such a bust? If he’d lost a professional license, or had his property seized, or even had a child taken away from him?

We’ll never know, because by and large, people like David Brooks, or me for that matter, don’t suffer serious consequences for weed arrests. Most people who get busted on pot charges are non-white and from poor neighborhoods: In the Bloomberg years, there were as many as 50,000 pot arrests a year in New York City, the overwhelming majority of which were black or Hispanic people. Brooks should ask himself how sending people to sit in Rikers on weed charges (I’ve met such people) reflects upon our “moral ecology,” especially when it’s almost guaranteed that the cops who sent that person there also smoked pot in high school and/or college.

Meanwhile, your typical well-heeled white kid blazes up unapologetically throughout his or her school years, and may even spend much of that time tooling around the country watching Phish concerts and pounding Chex Mix with eyes glazed over in open worship of weed culture. And he or she generally never gets in serious trouble.

Yep.  The blinders from Brooks and others on this issue are just astounding.

Map of the day

Via the Atlantic.  Very cool– what you get when you ask a bunch of people to draw a world map and then merge them all together (the 2nd image incorporates satellite data).

Robert Gates, Obama, and real media bias

So, Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary, has written a new book which includes a number of unflattering statements about Obama’s leadership.  First off, any honest account of any Defense Secretary would surely have a number of criticisms of the president under whom he served.  Even if the president was perfect, you should expect some strong, ongoing disagreements.  And nobody is going to argue that Obama is a perfect president.  By all fair accounts, Gates’ memoir paints a nuanced and complex portrait of Obama’s leadership (as well as that of GWB).  Good for Gates.  

Sadly, when it comes to media values, however, negativity and controversy trump all.  That’s why pretty much every headline I’ve seen has focused on Gates’ criticisms of Obama.  I really love John Dickerson’s take on this:

But the early response to the book has none of the subtlety of Gates’ actual prose. There are enough damning quotes in Duty to serve any purpose, and those quotes have been weaponized and they’re detonating all over Twitter and in slapdash reviews, locking in narratives for both the right and the left. 

So, if you don’t like President Obama, you quote Gates’ claims that he engaged in “wishful thinking” and lacked nerve when things went bad and that his White House micromanaged on a level with the Nixon White House. Or you can choose to note that he says the Obama White House was “determined to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work.” (Ouch.) 

If you do like Obama, you can cite any of the several times Gates calls him “bold,” the blanket statement about his Afghanistan policies (that his every decision was right and that he frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats”), and Gates’ characterization of Obama’s call to go after Bin Laden as “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.” …

Those using Gates’ words to bash Obama or Bush are acting out the precise pantomime that Gates hates so much and that appears to be the central target of this book. 

My one criticism of Dickerson is that he is blaming only political operatives.  The negativity has been catnip to political journalists as well.  Now, the former Defense Secretary leveling some tough criticism of the president is, admittedly, news, but the typical coverage is entirely lacking in nuance and complexity.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Forget “liberal media bias.”  The media is all about views/ratings and “controversy” and “negativity” sell, whether the president is a liberal or conservative, so that’s what we get.  And, our democracy is the worse for it.  

Photo of the day

Recent National Geographic photo of the day:

Picture of a great gray owl camouflaged in a nest

Knot an Owl

Photograph by Mauro Mozzarelli, National Geographic Your Shot

A camouflaged gray owl protects its nest in this Your Shot picture chosen for the Daily Dozen roundup of editors’ favorites.

What should Muslim women wear?

Very interesting Pew infographic on attitudes in eight Muslim countries about what is appropriate attire for women:


Go Lebanon!  And Saudi Arabia– yikes!  Unfortunately, this tells us something about how backward their culture is.

Eyewitness testimony and evidence-based policy

Great piece in Slate a few weeks ago that I’ve been remiss in letting go by this long.  It’s basically your (all too typical) egregious case of somebody being convicted based on highly suspect eyewitness testimony.  E.g.,

In the early afternoon of April 6, 1979, a 78-year-old white man named Jack Sasson was robbed and shot five times at close range as he sat behind the wheel of his blue Chevrolet in the carport outside his home in West Los Angeles. His wife, Renee, testified that when she found him, he was “all blood.” Three weeks later, Sasson died of his injuries.

Brenda Anderson, 19, lived in an apartment on the same street. She told police at the scene that she heard gunshots, looked out of her window, and saw a black man flee the carport, double back, fire more shots, and run off again. Three days later, detectives at the West Los Angeles Police Station showed Anderson a photo array with six pictures of young black men. Anderson, who is African-American, identified the suspect as 18-year-old Kash Register, a former classmate of hers from high school.

A second person also claimed to be an eyewitness: 31-year-old Elliott Singleton. He was shown the same photo array and also identified the suspect as Register. Singleton, who is black, said he’d been painting the house across the street from Sasson’s house when he saw the shooting, and that he chased the armed shooter for blocks, stopping only when the man turned and pointed the gun at him.

The fingerprints on Sasson’s car did not match Register’s. The police never recovered a wallet or a weapon. In a search of Register’s house, they found three brown caps, a pair of black pin-striped pants, and a burgundy shirt, similar to the clothing Singleton said the shooter was wearing. There was a speck of blood on the pants. DNA testing did not exist in 1979, so the blood was simply found to be Type O, matching Sasson, Register, and more than 3 million residents of Los Angeles.

Register, who lived nearby in an apartment with his mother and older brother, said he had spent the morning before the murder at the local unemployment office, where he had finally gotten a lead on a job, and the afternoon having lunch and watching television with his long-time girlfriend, Cheryl Perry. She was pregnant, and he was anxious to start supporting her and their baby. The unemployment office confirmed his account about the time he’d spent there, and his girlfriend backed up his alibi.

Still, Register found himself facing charges of first-degree murder for Sasson’s death—with the possibility of the death penalty. Because the physical evidence was weak, the case against Register turned almost entirely on the eyewitness identifications of Anderson and Singleton.

Oh, and Singleton was a loser drug addict who was clearly willing to tell the cops anything to avoid her own problems.  Now there’s a reliable eyewitness for you.  Of course, the sad thing is how not surprising this all is:

And yet, according to Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Convicting the Innocent, eyewitness misidentifications have played a leading role in nearly 75 percent of 250 convictions overturned by DNA evidence between 1989 and 2010 [emphasis mine]. In more than one-half of those exonerations, the eyewitnesses start off unsure, a “glaring sign” of potential trouble as Garrett puts it, yet appear to become increasingly certain over time. This often corresponds with police practices like suggestive photo arrays, lineups, and even well-intentioned comments like “Good job!” after a witness makes an identification, however tentative. All of this can cause “contamination” of memory, Garrett says so that “there is no way to know after the fact whether the eyewitness could have actually picked the person with any degree of confidence.”

What kills me is how incredibly dumb we are about this at the policy level:

We say we have the best criminal-justice system in the world, and that’s true. But it is also flawed. One giant crack that runs through it is that courts, prosecutors, and juries routinely take eyewitness testimony at face value. Garrett describes as “toothless” the standard the Supreme Court set in 1977 for admitting eyewitness identifications as evidence: “Even in cases with eyewitnesses who were drunk, half blind, observing someone at night, from a distance, it is almost impossible to find examples where appellate judges say it was error” to allow jurors to hear their testimony, he says.

That is starting to change at the state level, but only in fits and starts…These states and a few others have revamped their police practices, trying to weed out the ones that have proven problematic. Still, in most states and the federal system, there are no standardized, evidence-based guidelines for introducing and evaluating eyewitness evidence once a case goes to trial. [emphasis mine]

In short, eyewitness testimony as a category is not at all an evidence-based best practice.  In fact, it’s quite often a worst practice.  The science, the psychological and neurological research, is at this point extensive and incredibly compelling.  Yet it has almost no influence on how our legal system used eyewitness testimony.  That’s completely nuts!  Honestly, I don’t know what they do in other advanced democracies, but it surely cannot be worse.  This is an absolute embarrassment and it frustrates me so that there’s just not enough people who care to change it.  The persistent callousness in the obvious face of wrongful convictions– not to mention the simple-minded belief that a guilty person must really be guilty no matter what– is just infuriating.  You can do better America.  Damn it!

[The whole piece is an amazing narrative of this one case that I didn’t really go into at all, but you should so read it].


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