Monday, January 26, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Marijuana Bandwagon Rolls Along And That's (Mostly) A Good Thing

There is some good news amid the torrent of police shootings, terrorist attacks a little too close to home for comfort, travails of the middle class and the blatherings of a dysfuctional political establishment: The embrace of gay rights and abolition of draconian marijuana laws have accelerated at breathtaking speed in a society in which positive change comes with a painful slowness, if at all.

These seismic shifts have a common denominator: They make sense. 

A majority of Americans endorse gay rights, including support of same sex marriage, and are in favor of decriminalization, if not outright legalization, of marijuana because they know that there is nothing inherently wrong with homosexuality or smoking marijuana despite religious and legal prohibitions, and in the case of pot, penalties for even simple possession that do not begin to fit the "crime" that are a result of decades of federal government-sponsored misinformation, scare tactics and fear mongering.

There also is a huge difference in these seismic shifts: Money.

While it is the right thing to do, no one is going to make a buck because gays are afforded the same legal rights as straights, while a growing number of state and local governments, as well as entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing, see financial windfalls in licensing and taxing marijuana cultivation and sales, and permitting the sale of food and beverages with pot as an ingredient.
An astounding (for this old head, anyway) 23 states and the District of Columbia have at least decriminalized marijuana possession.  Colorado, Oregon and Washington state have legalized pot and licensed its sale outright, nine states have both medical and decriminalization laws, eight states have medical laws, and four states -- including usually neolithic Alabama -- have decriminalization laws.  And more are about to join the crowd.   Alaska, Arizona, California, New Hampshire and Nevada are on the short list of the next states to jump on the bandwagon.

* * * * *
Count Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper among the converts. 

Hickenlooper, 63, grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s and was bombarded from an early age with the familiar smorgasbord of government-pedaled lies: Marijuana makes people crazy.  It turns them into sociopaths, even murderers.  And it is a gateway to the harder stuff like cocaine and heroin.  While Hickenlooper would never admit as much, it is likely he smoked or at least tried pot at the Main Line boy's school he attended or later at Wesleyan University.  This was about the time a future president by the name of Bill Clinton was smoking but famously not inhaling.

And it is just as likely that none of the classmates of Hickenlooper and Clinton became poster kids for the propagandistic evils of the illegal weed while their elders were consuming so-called legal drugs, including pain- and reality-killing alcohol and pills.  The negative impact of their use and too often their abuse -- addiction, drunk driving, broken families, domestic abuse and divorce -- far outweighed the consequences of smoking the occasional joint and getting the midnight munchies.
Hickenlooper worked in Colorado as a geologist in the early 1980s and stayed.  He eventually got into politics and started a microbrewery in a trendy Denver neighborhood.  As his statewide profile grew, he came out against nascent efforts to soften the state's tough marijuana laws and opposed Amendment 64, the successful 2012 ballot measure legalizing cannabis for adults and allowing commercial cultivation, manufacture, and sale, as well as limited home cultivation, effectively regulating pot in a manner similar to alcohol.

Today Hickenlooper is a changed man and concedes that the consequences of letting people grow, sell, and consume pot without risking arrest have not been as bad as he feared.
"It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now," the governor says. "If that's the case, what that means is that we're not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We're not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we’re actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado, and we’re not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters."
Legalization, licensing and taxing -- allowing anyone 21 or older to walk into a store and walk out with a bag of buds, a vapor pen loaded with cannabis oil, or a marijuana-infused snack -- has been a financial windfall for Colorado. A record $36.5 million flowed into state coffers in November 2014, the most recent month for which data are available, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue, which projects out to $438 million a year.  
Meanwhile, legalized marijuana has taken the investing world by storm as investors have bought into so-called marijuana stocks with enthusiasm, causing share prices to skyrocket.  According to Arcview Market Research, the industry generated $1.53 billion in revenues in 2013 and was expected to jump to $2.5 billion in 2014-- a robust 40 percent growth rate year over year -- primarily because of the widespread and growing decriminalization of medical marijuana.
* * * * *
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's legendary praise for states as the "laboratories of democracy" has gotten a vigorous workout as state after state has decided that beyond potential revenue windfalls, a ride on the bandwagon is preferable to continue to clog its court systems and prisons with penny-ante marijuana cases.

Indeed, the bandwagon had to get rolling somewhere, and even some politicians who oppose legalization have been comforted by the fact the federal government isn't driving itLest investors think that the sky's the limit, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is still occasionally raiding marijuana dispensaries in states that have decriminalized such businesses, and the incoming Congress is decidedly more conservative than its predecessors in terms of potentially legalizing marijuana at the federal level. 
But for the most part, the Justice Department has allowed the bandwagon to keep rolling.  
Last August, the deputy attorney general issued a formal -- though nonbinding -- assurance that the feds would take a mostly hands-off approach as long as state governments pursue "strong and effective" regulation to prevent activities such as distribution to minors, dealing by gangs and cartels, dealing other drugs, selling across state lines, and weapons possession.  Justice also has been quietly working with the Treasury Department to reinterpret banking laws to allow state-licensed pot businesses to have checking accounts and take credit cards, thereby avoiding the dangers inherent in cash-only businesses.

Washington Monthly writer Mark Kleiman has noted that the systems being put into place in Colorado, Oregon and Washington roughly resemble those imposed on alcohol after Prohibition ended in 1933.  That is, competitive commercial enterprises produce the marijuana and competitive commercial enterprises sell it. 
The post-Prohibition restrictions on alcohol worked reasonably well for a while, but have been substantially undermined over the years as the beer and liquor industries consolidated and used their economies of scale to lower production costs and their lobbying muscle to loosen regulations and keep taxes low. 
"The same will likely happen with cannabis," Kleiman warns. "As more and more states begin to legalize marijuana over the next few years, the cannabis industry will begin to get richer -- and that means it will start to wield considerably more political power, not only over the states but over national policy, too.
"That’s how we could get locked into a bad system in which the primary downside of legalizing pot -- increased drug abuse, especially by minors -- will be greater than it needs to be, and the benefits, including tax revenues, smaller than they could be. It's easy to imagine the cannabis equivalent of an Anheuser-Busch InBev peddling low-cost, high-octane cannabis in Super Bowl commercials. We can do better than that, but only if Congress takes action -- and soon."
I won't hold my breath waiting for Congress to do much of anything, and I happen to inhale.  
In fact, as someone who was introduced to the benign delights of the evil weed in the year that apocalyptic anti-marijuana sign appeared in a Buffalo store window (as in nearly 50 years ago, man) the trend toward legalization is welcome but still rankles this old head because of the tiresome tendency of capitalism -- whether in the form of states taxing a recreational drug that hurts no one to cannabis entrepreneurs selling to folks like me who just want to chill on their own terms -- to exploit people.
My not so secret hope is that because marijuana is so damned cheap and easy to grow (it's not nicknamed "weed" for nothing), it will get still cheaper and still easier to grow because of the legalization bandwagon, state revenue agents and Anheuser-Busch InBev be damned.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

L.A. Confidential For Real: The Twisted Tale of 'Black Dahlia Avenger'

Sixty-eight years ago today, a 22-year-old beauty by the name of Elizabeth Short was found brutally slain in a vacant lot at 39th and Norton streets in Los Angeles. Her body was cut in half at the waist with surgical precision, her face and breasts slit, and there was a large gash where her vulva should have been. She had been drained of fluids as if prepared for an embalming and she was left in a garish pose, her head turned to the side and one arm above her body.
The case became known as the Black Dahlia Murder because Betty, as the wannabe actress liked to be called, wore her hair and clothes black.
The lurid crime shook Angelenos usually inured to the rampant crime in their midst, and a huge team of detectives was assigned to track down the perpetrator. Many suspects were pursued, but all were released and the case technically remains unsolved.
I'm somewhat of an armchair expert on the Black Dahlia Murder and have looked pretty deeply into it in connection with research on another brutual murder for my true-crime book, The Bottom of the Fox, that also does not lack for suspects and hasn't been solved.
I was involved in many homicide cases during a long newspaper career, and you haven't really lived until you've stood in a morgue and watched a coroner in a white lab coat open one of those stainless steel drawers and slide out a sheet-covered corpse. Yup, just like in the movies. I also have read dozens of criminology and forensic texts and true-crime books in order to steep myself in investigative methodology and police jargon for my own tome.
Steve Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius For Murder was the best of the true-crime books I read, although it may be the least well written.
As for literary pretension, it certainly cannot be compared to the Black Dahlia, the first of the novels in James Ellroy's acclaimed "L.A. Quartet" and the book on which The Black Dahlia, film director Brian De Palma's 2006 bomb, was based. But Hodel's Black Dahlia Avenger is in its own way an extraordinary stemwinder.
Here's the story:
Hodel was a career Los Angeles Police Department detective and a model of the good cop. He was retired in 1999 when Dr. George Hodel, the brilliant but troubled father from whom he had been estranged for most of his adult life, died at age 91.
Included in his father's personal effects was a small palm-sized photograph album. The doctor's wife -- the last of four -- thought that the son should have it.
Among the photos were Hodel as a child on his father's knee, Hodel's mother and two photos of a young Eurasian woman that Hodel, to his horror, recognized as Kiyo, his own former wife. Yet Kiyo is much younger in the photos than Hodel ever saw her and can only be a Kiyo whom his own father had known years earlier.
The mystery deepens when Hodel looks at two photos of another young woman -- a white woman with two flowers in her black hair, her eyes cast down. He wonders if she was asleep when the photos were taken. Or dead.
Hodel is struck by the face but can't remember why until he later realizes to his shock that the flowers are dahlias and the woman could be . . . you guessed it, Elizabeth Short.
George Hodel was tall, dark, suave, handsome and a connoisseur of fine art and women. He also was an abortionist and a devotee of the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper.
He ran orgies in Steve Hodel's boyhood home frequented by avant-garde artist and photographer Man Ray, legendary film directors John Huston (who previously had been married to George Hodel's wife, Dorothy) and Orson Welles, among other notables. One orgy involved the gang rape of Steve Hodel's older half sister, Tamar. George beat the rape rap because he told the LAPD that Tamar had made the whole thing up. Investigators were notably uncurious about whether the well known doctor was lying.
Steve Hodel began working on the Black Dahlia case despite a lack of physical evidence, which was destroyed by bumbling and corrupt detectives trying to cover up an unrelated conspiracy involving crooked pols and gangsters and a number of notes possibly written by the murderer to throw them off the trail.
I am not spoiling the book by stating the obvious -- that the son came to believe that his father, acting out his obsession with De Sade and The Ripper, murdered Betty Short (who is shown atop this post with an autopsy photo superimposed). There also are intriguing indications that Wells may have been an accomplice, although Steve Hodel says he has found no evidence that he was.
Welles's alleged involvement is circumstantial but intriguing: Production of The Lady From Shanghai, the movie he was making, shut down on the day Short was murdered, the way she was mutilated is uncannily like that of a woman in The Lady, Short's body was found on a vacant lot once used by Welles's The Mercury Wonder Show, a circus in which he famously sawed a woman in half, Welles took out a passport a few days later, Short wrote in her diary of dining with a man called "George" (Welles's first name) at a restaurant he frequented, and most bizarrely of all, a few days before the murder he had applied to register as an assistant with a local mortuary.
Meanwhile, Hodel has published a sequel to Black Dahlia Avenger that sheds little new light, but do further cement the George Hodel-Elizabeth Short link.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): George Hodel and Elizabeth Short; Black Dalhia murder newspaper clipping; Detectives kneel over Short's body; One of the notes sent to police to throw them off the trail; Photos from George Hodel's album; Salvatore Dali with Man Ray; John Huston; Mia Kirshner as Short in DePalma's Black Dahlia.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Walter Kühr (1955-2015)


Photograph by Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Saturday, January 03, 2015

A Musing On America's Dysfunctional Society & Broken Politics

The United States enters the new year a deeply dysfunctional society with a severely fractured political establishment and a dearth of ideas about how to confront either.  Police routinely abuse black men and men of all colors routinely abuse women.   The closing of the racial and gender gaps is a cruel fiction.  The gulf between rich and poor grows ever wider, while the so-called social safety net is in tatters.  It matters little that Barack Obama has been a godsend, because the president has been abandoned by fellow Democrats while Republicans, addicted to dog-whistle obstructionism and fighting old wars, have no clue as to how to help govern a nation out of perpetual crisis even if they wanted to.
Students of American history will find a certain perverse logic in this societal malaise, as well as why there are so many pols from both parties bellying up to the big trough called Capitol Hill where they gorge on the gifts bestowed on them in return doing the bidding of a powerful corporatocracy that has become a shadow government.  You know, Wall Street interests, defense interests, fossil-fuel energy interests, pharmaceutical interests, and so on and so forth.  Besides which, perpetually raising money to run for re-election is a jolly sight better than actually having to do anything to help a struggling middle class, rebuild a crumbling infrastructure and invest in stuff like education. 
Back in the day, the Founding Fathers declared that "All men are created equal," and there was no suggestion that they might have been alluding to the little women they went home to each night to powder their wigs for them after the exhausting job of trying to form a new republic.  In a knock down-drag out fight that has been going on for decades, women have clawed their way to a modicum of equality, even as many have chosen to continue to walk a step or two behind their husbands, and a woman may even become the next president.  Unfortunately for women, today's Republican Party and its handmaiden conservative Supreme Court majority have labored diligently to deny or take away many of the rights that men -- well, white men, anyway -- take for granted.  For them, having double standards is twice as good as having standards.  Meanwhile, Democrats work on perfecting their coward act.
As for blacks, the Founding Fathers struck a wink wink-nod nod deal that anything having to do with racial minorities, which is to say blacks who were routinely indentured, exploited and oppressed, which virtually all of them were at the time, would be ignored because the third-rail issue of slavery would wilt even the most heavily powdered wig and kill any hope of forming that new republic.  In a not dissimilar knock down-drag out fight to that waged by women, blacks also have clawed their way to a modicum of equality, and one is president.  And while overt racism has pretty much crawled into the shadows, a systemic and institutionalized racism persists.  The selfsame GOP and that high court majority, who like Shakespeare's Iago seem to revel in the pain they cause others, have worked hard to whittle away at blacks' achievements.  Meanwhile, Democrats work on perfecting their coward act.

* * * * *
I saw enough bad police behavior to last several lifetimes during the 21 years I worked for one of Philadelphia's two major daily newspapers.  This did not make the unjustified and widely publicized killings of black men by police officers in a St. Louis suburb and on Staten Island in the year past any less vile.  It merely reconfirmed for me that until the police in this country are brought under control, there can be no racial rapprochement.  That also applies to many police officers' lah-di-dah attitude about the abuse of women, something that is deeply enshrined in our culture whether you are white, black, Latino or Asian. 
During my two-plus decades in Philadelphia, officers routinely brutalized criminal suspects and innocents alike with little likelihood of their being sanctioned by their department, let alone charged with criminal offenses.  Efforts to reform the department through blue-ribbon panels, task forces and legislative fiats came and went with the seasons and today, 13 years after I left the City of Brotherly Love, its police department remains deeply corrupt and rogue officers -- taking advantage of a powerful police union, weak laws and compliant district attorneys -- continue to terrorize the communities they are sworn to protect.
What for me deeply complicates matters is that beyond the reality that race has never been easy to discuss in this country, even in the thoroughly integrated newsroom where I toiled in Philadelphia, the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island again showed that people find themselves forced to take sides. 
Because Brown had stolen a box of cigarillos from a convenience store, he was fair game for a fusillade of bullets from Officer Darren Wilson's revolver in the yes of many people. Garner died from a chokehold administered by Officer Daniel Panteleo, a clear violation of department regulations, while five other officers looked on, but the lines were no less blurred although Garner's "crime" was selling single cigarettes for a dollar each on the street.  If you were white and empathized with Brown or Garner, you were soft on criminals, or worse, a "nigger lover."  
An overriding lessons from these killings are that they are merely the tip of an immense iceberg, and that the criminal justice system, as we were reminded from the grand jury proceedings in both cases, is hard-wired to disenfranchise victims and their families, especially if they are black and poor, and to protect vested interests.

* * * * *
Isn't it stunning, just stunning, that in America today being a woman and being pregnant means you can be discriminated against by your employer?  Well not really, because we live in an era when the attack on women, whether it be matters of equality or reproductive and employment rights, is relentless.

Take the case of Peggy Young, who used to drive for a parcel delivery service.  When she became pregnant, her doctor recommended that she avoid lifting anything heavy.  Her employer responded by placing her on unpaid leave, and she lost her paycheck, disability benefits and pension.  Young's employer was not some mom-and-pop outfit.  It was the United Parcel Service, which has nearly 400,000 employees, raked in nearly $55 billion last year, and is one of the largest corporations in the U.S.  Young sued UPS under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the case percolated up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she is almost sure to lose despite the fact that her dismissal was plain wrong, women make up 47 percent of labor force, and 62 percent of women who gave birth in 2013 were in that labor force.
There is ample precedent for the high court telling Young to shut up and go bake cookies because it already has smacked down women in cases involving equal pay, medical leave, abortion and contraception.  Kind of reminds you of one of those gender-obsessed Islamic states, doesn't it?

* * * * *
While a recent poll on Americans’ opinions on economic and financial issues found that only 64 percent of respondents said they still believed in the American Dream, the lowest result in  two decades, the overriding reason for there being a dearth of ideas on how to deal with our societal morass is that many people are deeply in denial.  They not only don't believe their country is in crisis, they still believe it is the best on earth.  This is not to ignore that the national snooze alarm does go off now and then: There were mostly peaceful demonstrations following the Brown and Garner grand jury belly flops and outrage over the Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing CIA depravities.  There does seem to be a new age of activism, although I have to wonder where these people were during the Iraq War.

The U.S. was indeed once an indisputably great country, and in some respects perhaps the greatest country.  I speak not of American Exceptionalism, the belief of neoconservatives and some fundamentalist Christians that God made this nation to spread liberty and democracy to the unwashed masses, in the case of the Iraq war, at point of gun.   I speak of a nation where prosperity and success could be attained through hard work, where there were myriad educational and job opportunities, where no infrastructure improvement, be it a dam, rail line or highway, was too ambitious, and where borders were open to people in pursuit of that American Dream.

But in recent decades America's standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures.  
America is first by some measures, all of them negative: These include infant mortality, incarceration rates and anxiety disorders, as well as that gulf between the rich and everyone else that accelerated during the Bush Recession as the economy tanked and unemployment soared while CEOs and their corporations pocketed record stock dividends and profits.  (From 2009 to 2012, a mind-blowing 95 percent of new income went to the top 1 percent).  But by other measures, including life expectancy, despite by far the highest health-care costs in the world, as well as obesity, child poverty, commitment to infrastructure development, broadband access and arts funding, America ranks dead last or nearly so. 
How America stands in relation to other so-called civilized countries when it comes to police forces is . . . well, criminal. 
American cops shot and killed at least 450 people last year, a disproportionate number of them black men; no one is sure what the real number is because police departments are notoriously lax when it comes to reporting statistics that don't make them look good.  By comparison, cops in England shot no one last year.  Police forces in the U.S. have taken on a nasty paramilitary edge (what happened to community policing, fellas?), while SWAT team raids rose to 50,000 last year, way up from a mere 3,000 in 1980.  And does anyone believe that police departments need grenade launchers? 
If there is a common thread through all of this societal rot it is a rampant amorality, this in the churchgoing-est nation on Earth.  Would Jesus have tortured?

* * * * *
This hellbent race to the bottom ("We're Number 17! We're Number 17!") has been a group effort, but the three arms of government -- the executive, legislative and judicial branches -- that are supposed to be the custodians of our national interests must shoulder most of the blame, with a big helping left over for a complacent and compliant news media.

Nixon's excesses and Clinton's infidelities aside, the Bush-Cheney interregnum was not merely the darkest chapter in modern American history with its gross distortion of presidential power, it has remained a debilitating presence.  While Obama has suffered his share of self-inflicted wounds, as well as the slings and arrows of cruel Republicans and spineless Democrats, the toxic fallout from the first eight years of the decade has compromised his ability to lead America out of the morass.

Congress deserves the harshest criticism because it is so out of touch with all but the most affluent and powerful Americans, as well as that corporatocracy.  When I recently reread David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, I was struck by how President Johnson and his advisers had to escalate the Vietnam War by stealth because Congress would never have approved massive troop increases and a sustained bombing campaign because the American people would not have supported them.  Contrast that with how Congress has rolled over on gun control again and again in fawning obeisance to the National Rifle Association, America's largest terrorist organization. Never mind that many of us favor toughening weak federal laws and demanded action in the wake of the Sandy Hook and other massacres made possible because of the wide availability of assault weapons, the sole purpose of which is to kill people.  Yes, many of us also recognize that the epidemic of shoot-and-kill incidents by police is a direct consequence of our gun-sick culture.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become a branch of the Republican Party and the lapdog of the plutocracy, its hackery evident in decisions from Citizens United to enshrining workplace discrimination and validating civil liberties abuses such as voter disenfranchisement, to protecting Big Pharma from liability for killer drugs and medical devices.

* * * * *
It was a Come to Jesus, or perhaps a Come to Vladimir moment:
Russian television networks gleefully leading their newscasts with footage from Ferguson as protesters took to the streets, first after the Brown shooting and then after a grand jury was manipulated into the decision to not charge Officer Wilson, some hurtling rocks at riot police, others torching and overturning cars, and still others looting stores.  After absorbing a steady diet of assertions from Washington for years that the Russian government abuses its citizens and denies them fundamental human rights, the shoe was on the other foot. 

And damned if it wasn't a perfect fit.