Why marijuana use is a crime

The NYT series on marijuana is really just terrific.  I loved the part on the failed criminal justice policy aspect.  But I already knew most of that.  Thus, what I particularly enjoyed was a look at the history of how marijuana came to be such a forbidden substance.  Surprise, surprise… racism and xenophobia are a big part of the story:

The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria during the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason…

The law enforcement view of marijuana was indelibly shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico and subsequently with black and poor communities in this country. Police in Texas border towns demonized the plant in racial terms as the drug of “immoral” populations who were promptly labeled “fiends.” [emphasis mine]

As the legal scholars Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread explain in their authoritative history, “The Marihuana Conviction,” the drug’s popularity among minorities and other groups practically ensured that it would be classified as a “narcotic,” attributed with addictive qualities it did not have, and set alongside far more dangerous drugs like heroin and morphine.

Sad, but true.  No go read the whole thing.

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On internet polls

Nice piece from my colleague, Mike Cobb, about the NYT running results from a non-probability sample internet poll:

The poll is controversial because of how it was conducted, and the decision by the New York Times to stand behind it, not because of its results, although the data are clearly in dispute too.

YouGov conducts its surveys online. Completely. Adults are recruited to take the surveys, but the critical factor is that they are not chosen through probability methods where all persons in the defined population (say, in North Carolina) have an equal chance of being asked for their opinion.

It is an understatement to point out that probability-based sampling methods have enabled large-scale representative surveys to be successful for almost a century.

Nate Cohn recently explained, in a post for the Times’ “Upshot” blog, the issues at stake. This is a big deal.

As reported in Politico, the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) has issued a statement highly critical of the New York Times and CBS for promoting survey results obtained through a methodology devoid of a theoretical underpinning…

And Mike’s take:

If I had anything to contribute, it would be the following.

I used to be “old-school” about sampling methods – until a few months ago. By that I mean I would have dismissed the YouGov poll almost out of hand, as many others have done.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that probability sampling is itself broken, and polls that portend to use it depend on weighting their data afterwards. I am unaware of any national or state level poll that is reported without weighting because the raw data are inaccurate. Response rates for phone surveys have dipped into the single digits. A growing segment of the population cannot be reached over a land line. It’s not clear to me how entirely different a poll conducted over the phone where nearly half the population can’t be reached that way, or won’t answer, is from a poll where people opt in to the sample and are contacted only via email.

I agree with Mike entirely on this, but I’d only question one thing…  Only a few months ago?  It has been clear for some time about these very serious problems with traditional polling and just how much they have become nearly as much art (i.e., making assumptions about what the electorate will look like for the weighting) as science.  When it comes to asking about health care, guns, whatever, there’s no real way to know how accurate polls really are.  But the great thing about elections is that we can can actually see how accurate pre-election polls are (within the closing days of the race, at least).  If internet-based polls are able to prove just as accurate– more power to them.  But, since we can test polls against reality I would say on this issue the proof will be in the pudding.

Photo of the day

From National Geographic Found tumblr:

A farmer embraces his dog in his stonewalled field on Inishmore Island in Ireland, March 1971.Photograph by Winfield Parks, National Geographic Creative

A farmer embraces his dog in his stonewalled field on Inishmore Island in Ireland, March 1971.PHOTOGRAPH BY WINFIELD PARKS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Liberals, GMOs, the Democratic Party, and more asymmetry

You don’t need my take on GMO’s and liberals again, but I really enjoyed this post from Ezra explaining how despite the fact that liberals may be just as prone to a-scientific beliefs there is still a profound difference in the political impact:

GMOs are actually an example of liberalism resisting the biases of its base. Though there’s a lot of mistrust towards GMOs and fury towards Monsanto among liberals, the Democratic Party establishment is dismissive of this particular campaign. You don’t see President Obama or Democratic congressional leaders pushing anti-GMO legislation…

Part of the reason comes down to people like [Neil Degrasse] Tyson.Political scientists will tell you that parties, and the ideological movements that power them, are composed of much more than officeholders and electoral strategists. They’re driven by interest groups and intellectuals and pundits and other “validators” that partisans and politicians look to for cues when forming their beliefs.

When it comes to environmental issues, one of those validators is the environmental news site Grist. It would’ve been easy for Grist to simply cater to the biases of their audience and go on a crusade against GMOs. Instead, they had journalist Nathanael Johnson do a huge series exploring the science, practice and controversy over GMOs. His conclusion? GMOs are basically safe, though their benefits are overstated by proponents. Grist could have spun the issue, or ignored the issue, and profited off the resulting traffic. But they didn’t. They pushed against the biases of their base…

The difference, at least for now, isn’t between liberals and conservatives. It’s between the liberal and conservative establishments…

In that way, GMOs are actually an example of how differently the Republican and Democratic parties and their allied ideological movements have been responding to scientifically contested issues. Just as many conservatives distrust science that tells them the earth is warming and government needs to regulate private enterprise to stop it, many liberals mistrust science that says genetically manipulating seeds or injecting chemicals into children will lead to a better world.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. [emphases mine] And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Yep.  It’s quite clear that people of all political persuasions are prone to believing whatever they want, science and evidence be damned.  The difference is that, institutionally, the Republican Party is very much influenced by these elements, but the Democratic Party is not.

Stop snitchin’

I’ve written about Cameron Todd Willingham– the man Texas executed in 2004 despite evidence that emerged before the execution that the arson “science” that formed the basis for his conviction was complete bunk.  When it comes to false convictions, there’s an unholy trinity of junk science, bad eyewitness identification, and jailhouse “snitches” who make incredible claims that the accused made a jailhouse confession to them and nobody else, thereby buying themself a reduced sentence.  Turns out, the Willingham case had not only the bad forensic science, but a jailhouse informant who was quite clearly coerced into providing testimony against Willingham.  From a rather impressive article (i.e., you should really take a look at it) in the Post:

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line…

Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial…

“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb continued. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ”

Webb told Jackson he hoped to turn his life around and become an underwater welder. That could be arranged, Jackson assured him, according to Webb. In the taped interviews, Webb recalled, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck [Pearce] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”

“He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”

In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”

Damning, and sadly, not at all surprising.  How many others are languishing in prison (or heck, buried under ground) on the basis of such “justice”?

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