Friday, 26 July 2013

Rethinking Legalization v. Decriminalization of Marijuana

Full disclosure: I am 65 years old and smoked my first joint in or around 1965, when I was ~18. I haven't smoked a joint in or around 10 years, but in the intervening years I smoked almost every day. I quit simply because I lost interest in the effects. My personal preference was for hashish rather than marijuana, but the point is moot.

For decades I have advocated the legalization of these substances, and frequently compared their side- and after-effects to those of alcohol. Numerous studies have evinced, for example, the fact that stoned drivers tend to be far more cautious than drunk drivers. I did read the results of many studies on various drugs, also including LSD, mescalin, peyote, etc. I fancied myself well-acquainted with the published literature.

But now that Colorado and Washington have voted in favour of either decriminalization or outright legalization, I have become aware of the side effects -- not of the substance itself but rather the complications inherent in outright legalization, and also of my naive simplification of these issues. Consider a few of these:

1. Regulation by content: in the case of alcohol, this is easy. Despite all the talk among devotees of wine or whiskey, from the regulatory point of view there is only one significant measurement: the percentage of alcohol within any particular beverage. Depending on the country, percentages vary considerably. On average, however, beer contains about 4-6% of alcohol. "Hard" liquors such as Scotch or vodka or gin can go to 40% content. The governments tend to price them relative to that content factor. For example, the price of a single liter of vodka is equivalent to a case of 24 beer, and both are taxed accordingly.

I used to think that equivalent rules could be applied to the world of marijuana and hashish, in the belief that the THC count was the only important measure. But lately I've been doing some reading of the research available, and have come to realize how naive were my original beliefs. First and foremost, measuring the THC content is woefully insufficient: between 35 and 40 other variables factor into the ultimate effect of any given sample of marijuana; to cite just one, the content of triptamine significantly affects the resultant effect. The net result of this research is that one cannot test simply for one element, but must factor in the relative presence of many others as well.

2. In the case of alcohol, one simple measure indicates the content, and can easily be printed on any given brand's label. But how should we deal with the fact that 35-40 elements all factor into the resultant affective content? Who makes a label that large, upon which to print such information?

3. No two batches, even grown from the same seeds under the same lights, will be equivalent. Granted, that could ultimately result in a market in which, say, the 1998 batch was far superior to the 2010 batch, and the result would be something akin to the wine or Scotch markets, which in itself might be a good thing, but which would place an enormous burden on both the growers and the governmental machinery required to conduct these measurements -- not to mention the huge task awaiting the equivalent of wine-reviewers, whose lives would be further complicated by the simple fact that most wine-reviewers take a sniff and then a taste and then spit it out rather than ingesting it. Not possible with marijuana or hashish.

One argument often proposed by those who object to decriminalization is that marijuana is a gateway drug (i.e. it leads to the use of cocaine, crack, heroin, Oxycontin and similar hard drugs). My counter-argument is that tobacco is the gateway drug, not marijuana.

I have written frequently about the incredible costs of criminalization of these substances: the number of people in jail, the vast costs of finding the traffickers in terms of police expenditures, the overall failure of the War on Drugs, and perhaps most significantly, the movement of billions of dollars per year into the hands of criminal empires. All these arguments remain relevant, in my opinion, but I used to think it was a simple problem to solve, and I now see that this is far from the case.

Time was, I thought that decriminalization was senseless, since it prevented the governments from acquiring a huge new source of taxation revenue. But now I'm thinking that decriminalization is the middle path. As now, go after large-scale grow-ops and prosecute them to the full extent of the law, but permit Joe and Joan Average to grow a few plants at home with impunity. Keep it as a cottage industry, so to speak. This would effectively cut the legs out of the criminal empires, while simultaneously avoiding the nightmare of regulation. It might not be the perfect solution, but then what is? A world in which people had no desire to take recreational drugs, perhaps, but what is the likelihood of that?

Friday, 5 July 2013

On Influential Teachers

I'm not sure why this happened this morning, but probably it was due to listening to something on cbc radio. The topic is my favourite teachers in my life. There are three, two of whom suffered me during school and the  third being in university.

The first is Peter Cowie, who taught Literarture. He lived it, not just taught it. When he introduced a new poem, he delivered it. The poem that I remember most was called "David", by Earl Birney, and it concerned two mountain climbers; David fell off a cliff and his friend scaled down to where David lay, back broken, and David said "Over", and his friend understood what he meant, and pushed him over. David did not want to live as a wheelchair-person, and asked his friend to end it. Peter Cowie read that poem to us and I wept. I still remember his green corduroy sports jacket with its leather patches, and him standing there in the front of our classroom, not so much reading that poem but living it.

A couple of years later I took another course from him, and he did the same thing with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I have memorized that poem, and several others by T.S. Eliot. Peter Cowie gave life to these poems. He would stand at the front of the room and speak the words like an actor, not merely reading the words but breathing life into them. He turned them from poems into songs from the soul.

The second most influential teacher was Mr. Christie. I never did learn his first name. He taught math, with genius. At one point when he was telling us about the congruency proof, I raised my hand in objection and said, Wait a minute, a point is a location in space, and therefore cannot be moved; you can't move triangle ABC and lay it atop DEF. He chuckled, and we got on exceptionally well from then on, and he taught me some pretty advanced stuff for a grade-ten student. For example, he showed me the Galois proof that it is impossible to trisect an angle using only a compass and a straight edge. Actually, to tell the whole story, he challenged me first to solve it, and I slaved every night for several hours, for a month, and then went to Mr. Christie's office, pouting, and said, "Mr. Christie, I can't do it/" And he said, "It's ok, Arthur, nobody else can either."

Those are my recollections of my two favourite teachers. There was a third, Philip Wright, from whom I took two courses in Philosophy, and a specialist in Greek philosophy. From him I learned about Heraclitus, Parmenides, Socrates and Plato, the Atomists, the Cynics and so much more. I will never forget his classes. At one point, in Philosophy 301 or whatever its number was, we were challenged to present a paper to our fellows. Mine was on math+art, and my central argument was "The Nude Descending a Staircase", by Marcel duChamp, which when initially exhibited at the 1914 exhibition in New York, was described by one NYT journalist as "an explosion in a shingle factory". Fine. You're entitled to your opionion. I saw an equivilance to Minkowski's math theories of the time, about the universe being an involuted four-dimensional hypersphere -- or to simplify this for the casual reader, imagine that your life is a single strand of spagetti in a bowl of similaar strands -- beginning and end are alfready disctated, and your only job is to travel this strand.

That's what I got from Marcel duChamp and the great mathematician Minkowski.
Subsequent to his teaching, I encountered a book by W.F. Stone, "The Trial of Socrates", that changed my life, and I wish that Phil were still alive so I could present some of Stone's arguments to him. Sadly, I missed that chance, but on the other hand, Phil got me addicted to philosophy and linguistics, and even at age 65 I still read this stuff. I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, to name just two.

I can't let it go at that. I a huge fan of Neal Stephenson. He steered Speculative Fiction into entirely new realms. Snowcrash was awesome, but then a couple of years later came CryptoniiconThe Primer and then the gigantic trilogy called The Baroque Cycle. This is writing on the scale of Thomas Pynchon, as evinced by V. and Gravity's Rainbow. These books are Art, not just some forgettable fling on the subway. These books are Art. It's difficult if not impossible to select a favourite, but if push comes to shove, I think that I would go with Cryptonicon or The System of the World -- not that I dislike Neal's other books, it's just that one captured my soul, perhaps because of the Turing connection. The point is, Neal Stephenson has written some of the finest literarure that I have ever read. The man is a rock-solid genius

A Story about Backgammon

The old version of backgammon was radically revised in about 1920 with the introduction of the doubling cube. There are no clear answers about who introduced this change, but it totally transformed the game.

I learned the game, well no, I knew the basics, but played Vladimir Dobrich for 40 hours straight and after that read every available book about the game. A summer later Vlad and I attended a World backgammon championship in Nassau. For the unacquainted, even though the first prize was then $50k, that's not where the money is: it's on tables beside the swimming pool. And there is a variation of championship backgammon called chouette, which involves several people playing on a team, against a person who is called The Man In The Box. So if we're playing for $10 a point, if TMITB loses, he loses $10 a point to each player, e.g. if the cube was passed (e.g. doubled), then it's $20 not ten, and if passed backed (redoubled) it's now $40 per game. In other words, this can get expensive very quickly.

Anyway, I was in Nassau, attending the Nassau Championship ($50K prize), playing in a game by the swimming pool, approximately two hours after arriving on the island. There was a chouette game underway at the pool. I knew all the opponents on sight because all but one at that point had written books. How are you going to learn except by playing your superiors? There is no other path. The opponents were:

1. Paul Magriel, who wrote perhaps the definitive book about the game, simply called Backgammon, and resulted from his extensive analysis of the game on a PDP-11 while teaching math at Princeton.

2. Bruce Becker, who wrote Backgammon for Blood

3. Kent Goulding, a Floridian and absolutely cool and expert player. I don't know if he's written a book on the subject, but if anyone is qualified to add to the literature, I would most certainly recommend him.

4. Vlad Dobrich, seven times the Canadian chess champion and twice the world champion of backgammon, and my principal instructor in the game.

5. Ozzie Jacoby, most known for his skills in Bridge, but also the author of a book on backgammon, and one of the greatest players in the world.

I was The Man in The Box (which means that I'm fighting all of these world-greats). There had already been a couple of doubles, and they redoubled me, taking the cube to 16, which meant if I accepted and lost the game, I would owe five players 16 * $10, which would have bankrupted me and left me with only the vague hope that I might win the tournament. I looked at the stats (for those readers unacquainted with backgammon, the secret to success is your ability to do rapid stats on any given position). I looked at the position and calculated the stats and eventually concluded that they had doubled prematurely, which is to say, ignoring the amount of money at stake, I had no alternative but to accept the double.

Bruce was the Captain  of the team, and rolled the dice, and got his worst possible roll. I followed up with one of my several excellent possible rolls. They took another roll, which turned out ugly. I redoubled and they all declined, and I won more money in half an hour than I ever done in my life.

Don't get this story wrong. I am most definitely not saying that my backgammon game is superior to theirs, not even close. I think of these people as the most gifted people in the game. But that, ironically, is the point of the story. There I was, playing five of the best backgammon players in the world, and I just kind of closed my eyes and said, "It's not about the money; it's about the math." And I looked at the math and decided that I must accept this double. Emotion and drama and fear did not enter into the equation. Only one thing did: the math,

There may not be a moral in this story, but if there is, it’s “Stick to the math, and damn the torpedoes.” That’s what I did and continue to do.  Now and then, forecasting does not correspond to outcomes. That is to be expected. But more often than not, cold, cool calculation wins.