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Why Everything We Thought About Drugs Was Wrong

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Michael Schellenberger is a leading environmentalist and progressive activist who has become disillusioned with the movements he used to help lead.  

His passion for the environment and progressive issues remains, but his approach is unique and valuable.

Michael Shellenberger is author of the best-selling “Apocalypse Never”

This newsletter was sent out to Michael Schellenberger’s subscribers on Substack

The road to hell was paved with victimology

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked with a group of friends and colleagues to advocate drug decriminalization, harm reduction, and criminal justice reform. I helped progressive Congressperson Maxine Waters organize civil rights leaders to advocate for needle exchange so that heroin users wouldn’t get HIV-AIDS. I fought for the treatment of drug addiction as a public health problem not a criminal justice one. And we demanded that housing be given to the homeless without regard for their own struggles with drugs.

Our intentions were good. We thought it was irrational to criminalize the distribution of clean needles to drug users when doing so had proven to save lives. We were upset about mass incarceration, particularly of African Americans and Latinos, for nonviolent drug offenses. And we believed that the approach European nations like the Netherlands and Portugal had taken to decriminalize drugs, and expand drug treatment, was the right one.

But it’s obvious now that we were wrong. Over the last 20 years the U.S. liberalized drug laws. During that time, deaths from illicit drugs rose from 17,000 to 93,000. Three three times more people die from illicit drug use than from car accidents; five times more die from drugs than homicide. Many of those people are homeless and die alone in the hotel rooms and apartment units given away as part of the harm reduction-based “Housing First” approach to homelessness. Others are children found dead by their parents on the floors of their rooms.

Many progressives today say the problem is that we didn’t go far enough, and to some extent they are right. A big factor behind rising drug deaths has been the contamination of cocaine, heroin, and counterfeit prescription opioids with fentanyl. Others say that concerns over rising drug deaths are misplaced, and that alcohol and tobacco kill more people than illicit drugs.

But drug deaths were rising in the U.S. long before the arrival of fentanyl, and most of the people who die from tobacco and alcohol do so in old age, not instantly, like they do when they are poisoned or overdose. Of the nearly 90,000 people in the U.S. who die of alcohol-related causes annually, just 2,200 die immediately from acute alcohol poisoning.

What about mass incarceration? It’s true that nearly half of the people in federal prisons are there for nonviolent drug offenses. But there are eight times more people in state prisons than federal prisons, and just 14 percent of people in state prisons are there for nonviolent drug offenses and just 4 percent for nonviolent possession. Half of state prisoners are there for murder, rape, robbery and other violent offenses.

While it’s true that both Netherlands and Portugal reduced criminal penalties, both nations still ban drug dealing, arrest drug users, and sentence dealers and users to prison or rehabilitation. “If somebody in Portugal started injecting heroin in public,” I asked the head of drug policy in that country, “what would happen to them?” He said, without hesitation, “They would be arrested.”

And being arrested is sometimes what addicts need. “I am a big fan of mandated stuff,” said Victoria Westbrook. “I don’t recommend it as a way to get your life together, but getting indicted by the Feds worked for me. I wouldn’t have done this without them.” Today Victoria is working for the San Francisco city government to integrate ex-convicts back into society.

But people in progressive cities are today shouted down for even suggesting a role for law enforcement. “Anytime a person says, ‘Maybe the police and the health care system could work together?’ or, ‘Maybe we could try some probation or low-level arrests,’ there’s an enormous outcry,” said Stanford addiction specialist Keith Humphreys. “‘No! That’s the war on drugs! The police have no role in this! Let’s open up some more services and people will come in and use them voluntarily!’”

Why is that? Why, in the midst of the worst drug death crisis in world history, and the examples of Portugal and Netherlands, are progressives still opposed to shutting down the street fentanyl markets in places like San Francisco that are killing people?

We Care A Lot

The City of San Francisco opened this homeless encampment virtually on the front steps of city hall.

There are many financial interests that make money from the drug crisis and so it’s reasonable to ask whether progressive inaction stems from political donations from addiction, homelessness, and service providers. California spends more on mental health than any other state but saw its homeless population rise 31 percent even as it declined 18 percent in the rest of the U.S. San Francisco spends significantly more on cash welfare and housing for the homeless than other cities but has one of the worst homeless and drug death crises, per capita.

But we progressives who fought to change drug laws and attitudes were not primarily motivated by money. Sure, we needed George Soros and other wealthy individuals to support our work. But we could have made more money doing other things, and Soros and others have nothing to gain financially from drug decriminalization. The same goes for homelessness. The most influential Housing First advocates work in non-profits and universities.

Is it because so many progressives who fought for decriminalization themselves used drugs? Everybody I knew in that period, myself included, smoked marijuana, drank alcohol, and experimented with psychedelics and occasionally with harder drugs. Several of the donors who supported our work were known to smoke marijuana.

But I saw no evidence that advocates for drug decriminalization and harm reduction used illicit drugs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Some used them less and showed far greater awareness of the harms of drugs, including addiction, than many other people I have met, likely due to their higher socio-economic status as much as their specific knowledge of the issue.

And the core motivation of the people I worked with was ideological. Many people, including many progressives, were libertarian, and fundamentally believed the government did not have a right to tell able-bodied adults what drugs they could and could not use. But many more, myself included, were upset by mass incarceration, and the ways in which incarceration destroys families, disproportionately African American and Latino ones.

Our views were too simplistic and wrong. Many things undermine families and communities, of all colors, well before anyone is incarcerated, including drugs and the crime and violence associated with them. And, violent communities attract the drug trade more than the drug trade makes communities violent, both scholars and journalists find.

But mostly we were too emotional. Progressives hold two moral values particularly deeply: caring and fairness. “Across many scales, surveys, and political controversies,” notes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “liberals turn out to be more disturbed by signs of violence and suffering, compared to conservatives, and especially to libertarians.”

The problem is that, in the process of valuing care so much, progressives abandon other important values, argue Haidt and other researchers in a field called Moral Foundations Theory. While progressives (“liberal” and “very liberal” people) hold the values of Caring, Fairness, and Liberty, they tend to reject the values of Sanctity, Authority, and Loyalty as wrong. Because these values are so deeply held, often subconsciously, Moral Foundations Theory explains well why so many progressives and conservatives today view each other as not merely uninformed but immoral.

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The Victim God

California Governor Gavin Newsome has proposed a 12 Billion dollar plan to build homes for California’s entire homeless population.  

The values of Sanctity and Authority appear to explain why conservatives and moderate Democrats more than progressives favor prohibitions on things like sleeping on sidewalks, public use of hard drugs, and other behaviors. In a more traditional morality, drug use is seen as violating the Sanctity of the body, and the importance of self-control. Sleeping on sidewalks is seen as violating the value of Authority of laws and thus Loyalty to America. Writes Haidt, “liberals are often willing to trade away fairness when it conflicts with compassion or their desire to fight oppression.”

But there is a twist. Progressives don’t trade away Fairness for victims, only for those they see as privileged. Progressives still value Fairness, but more for victims, and their progressive allies, than for everyone equally, and particularly not for people progressives view as the oppressors and victimizers.

Conservatives and moderates tend to define Fairness around equal treatment, including enforcement of the law. They tend to believe we should enforce the law against the homeless man who is sleeping and urinating on BART, our subway system, even if he is a victim. Progressives disagree. They demand we take into account that the man is a victim in deciding whether to arrest and how to sentence whole classes of people including the homeless, mentally ill, and addicts.

Progressives also value Liberty, or freedom, differently from conservatives. Many progressives reject the value of Liberty for Big Tobacco and cigarette smokers but embrace the value of Liberty for fentanyl dealers and users. Why? Because progressives view fentanyl dealers and users, who are disproportionately poor, sick, and nonwhite, as victims of a bad system.

Progressives also value Authority and Loyalty for victims above everyone else. San Francisco homelessness advocate Jennifer Friedenbach told me that we should “center unhoused people, primarily black and brown folks, that are experiencing homelessness, folks with disabilities. They’re the voices that should be centered.” She is not rejecting Authority or Loyalty. Rather, she is suggesting that we should have Loyalty to the victims, and that they, not governments, should have Authority.

Indeed, progressives insist on taking orders, supposedly without questioning them, from the homeless themselves. “Drug use is often the only thing that feels good for them, to oversimplify it,” said Kristen Marshall, who oversees San Francisco’s response to drug overdoses. “When you understand that, you stop caring about the drug use and ask people what they need.”

The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness has similarly argued that the city must let homeless people sit and lie on sidewalks, and camp in public spaces including parks and sidewalks, if that’s what they would prefer, rather than require them to stay in shelters. Once you decide, in advance, to let victims determine their fates, then much else can be justified.

Many progressives do something similar with Sanctity, which is to value some things as sacred or pure. Monique Tula, the head of the Harm Reduction Coalition, argues for “bodily autonomy” against mandatory drug treatment for people who break the law to support their addiction. In so doing, she is insisting upon the Sanctity of the body, not rejecting it. The difference between her definition of Sanctity and the traditional view of Sanctity was what violated it. Where traditional morality views recreational injection drug use as a violation of the Sanctity of the body, Tula, like many libertarians, believes that the state coercing sobriety is.

All religions and moralities have light and dark sides, suggests Haidt. “Morality binds and blinds,” he writes. On the one hand, they bind us together in groups and societies, helping us realize our individual and social needs, and are thus very positive. But religions and moralities can also create giant blind spots preventing us from seeing our dark sides, and thus can be very negative.

Victimology takes the truth that it is wrong for people to be victimized and distorts it by going a step further. Victimology asserts that victims are inherently good because they have been victimized. It robs victims of their moral agency and creates double standards that frustrate any attempt to criticize their behavior, even if they’re behaving in self-destructive, antisocial ways like smoking fentanyl and living in a tent on the sidewalk. Such reasoning is obviously faulty. It purifies victims of all badness. But by appealing to emotion, victimology overrides reason and logic.

Victimology appears to be rising as traditional religions are declining. Unlike traditional religions, many nontraditional religions are largely invisible to the people who hold them most strongly. A secular religion like victimology is powerful because it meets the contemporary psychological, social, and spiritual needs of its believers, but also because it appears obvious, not ideological, to them. Advocates of “centering” victims, giving them special rights, and allowing them to behave in ways that undermine city life, don’t believe, in my experience, that they are adherents to a new religion, but rather that they are more compassionate and more moral than those who hold more traditional views.

A Bad Case of San Fransickness

Case workers at San Francisco City Hall Homeless Encampment

“Safe Sleeping Sites” is the name San Francisco gives to parking lots of tents of homeless addicts shooting and smoking fentanyl and meth. They are expensive, costing the city $60,000 per tent to maintain. Some people say they look like a natural disaster, but with city-funded social workers providing services to the people in tents, they look to me more like a medical experiment, albeit one that no board of ethics would ever permit.

At the Sites the city isn’t providing drug treatment; it’s providing easy access to drugs. That includes cash in the form of welfare payments with which to purchase drugs, and the equipment with which to inject them. As such, progressives cities like San Francisco are directly financing the drug death crisis.

Is this Munchausen syndrome by proxy, which is when a parent deliberately makes their child sick so they can feel important? In San Fransicko, I consider this possibility, and ultimately conclude that while the progressive approach to drug addiction and homelessness can be fairly described as pathological altruism, it would be unfair to call it sadistic. Many of the drug-addicted and mentally ill homeless are, in fact, sick, and most progressives have good intentions.

But it is not unfair to point out that the city’s approach of playing the Rescuer is resulting in worsening addiction and rising drug deaths. Nor is it unfair to point out that we limit people’s potential for freedom by labeling them Victims and “centering” their trauma, rather than viewing victimization as an opportunity for heroism. Nor is it unfair to point out, as I have attempted to do by describing the history, that San Francisco’s political, business, and cultural leaders should all know better by now.

People suffering from addiction and living on the street are ill. To mix them up in speech and policy with people who are merely poor is deceptive. Leading scholars have for thirty years denounced the conflation of the merely poor with disaffiliated addicts. Yet progressive advocates for the homeless continue to engage in the same sleight of hand by using the single term “homeless,” tricking journalists, policy makers, and the public into mixing together groups of people who require different kinds of help.

Progressives justify their discourse and agenda in the name of preventing dehumanization, but the effect has been the opposite. In defending the humanity of addicts, progressives ended up defending the inhumane conditions of street addiction.

The morality of victimology contains a version of all six values identified in Moral Foundations Theory. The problem is that those values are oriented around those defined as Victims in a particular context, to the exclusion of everyone else. But not even the most devoted homeless activists could do whatever drug-addicted homeless people demand of them. The demand that we give Victims special political authority is thus really a demand to give special political authority to those who claim to represent the supposed Victims, namely homelessness advocates.

The power of victimology lies in its moralizing discourse more than in any single set of laws. I was struck in my research that progressive intellectuals and activists have had a far greater impact on public policy, and the reality on the streets, than countless progressive politicians.

It is notable that while academics and activists are the most influential individuals in shaping homeless policy in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they are also the least accountable. As the problem has worsened, their cultural and political power has grown, while voters understandably blame their local elected leaders for the crisis.

Progressive advocates and policy makers alike blame the drug war, mass incarceration, and drug prohibition for the addiction and overdose crisis, even though the crisis resulted from liberalized attitudes and drug laws, first toward pharmaceutical opioids, and then toward all drugs. This view is, on the one hand, a defensive and ideological reaction. But it is also an abdication of responsibility.

And so while we should hold our elected officials responsible, we must also ask hard questions of the intellectual architects of their policies, and of the citizens, donors, and voters who empower them. What kind of a civilization leaves its most vulnerable people to use deadly substances and die on the streets? What kind of city regulates ice cream stores more strictly than drug dealers who kill 713 of its citizens in a single year? And what kind of people moralize about their superior treatment of the poor, people of color, and addicts while enabling and subsidizing the conditions of their death?

After 15 years as a TV reporter with Global and CBC and as news director of RDTV in Red Deer, Duane set out on his own 2008 as a visual storyteller. During this period, he became fascinated with a burgeoning online world and how it could better serve local communities. This fascination led to Todayville, launched in 2016.

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Bruce Dowbiggin

Are We Ready For A Russian To Become NHL’s Top Goal Scorer?

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With the grinding war in Ukraine showing no signs of ceasing and Biden-led sanctions doing nothing tangible to deter Vladimir Putin, Russia’s image in the West has rarely been this low. So now might be a good time to ask if the NHL is prepared for a Russian to become the greatest goal scorer in league history.

As the league prepares for its annual draft on Thursday/ Friday, the top pick in the 2004 Draft is showing every sign that he will pass the game’s greatest Canadians in goal scoring. Going into 2022-23, the 36-year-old Capitals star is just 21 goals behind the immortal Gordie Howe in second place and 114 back of Wayne Gretzky, the Prometheus of NHL scoring.

  1. Wayne Gretzky. 894

2. Gordie Howe 801

3. Alex Ovechkin 780

Given good health Ovechkin will surpass Howe next season and probably leave Gretzky in his wake in four seasons. Even in a time of peace it will be interesting to see the public reaction in Canada and the U.S. to Ovechkin’s passing No. 99. While the No.1 pick in 2005, Sidney Crosby, has had a squeaky clean image, The Great Eight has been a little salty for some folks.

He plays a game Howe would love, dispensing devastating hits as well as brilliant goals. His gap-toothed sneer has not always endeared him to many. Nor has his proximity to Putin himself. In November 2017, Ovechkin started a movement called PutinTeam in support of Putin during the 2018 Russian presidential election .

In recent times he’s sought to have a foot in both camps. “I don’t know what’s happening out there. I know it’s a hard situation, but it is what it is. You know, I play here, and this is my second home. I don’t want to fight between two countries, because it’s going to be a mess.”

Too late on that front, Alex. Putin’s naked aggression and Biden’s desire to unseat him (he’s endorsed assassination) have put the West on the brink of a war with nuclear potential. Few can say where the conflict is headed, except that it’s highly unlikely the West will be surrendering its sons to the battlefield when NATO runs out of Ukrainians willing to die.

One thing is certain. As we point out in our book Inexact Science: the 6 Most Compelling Drafts in NHL History, Ovechkin put an end to the bias against Russians at the top of the NHL draft. While there had been Russian Hall of Fame selections in the middle to lower rounds of the draft (Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Sergei Zubov) Ovechkin’s No. 1 overall was considered a risk at the time. He changed the equation.

It began in 2004, when the Capitals selected Russian phenom Alex Ovechkin, maybe the greatest pure goal scorer the NHL has seen. A number one pick who has lived up to the billing of “generational player,” Ovechkin maybe would have been even more widely hailed as that “Next One” had he developed under the intense hockey media spotlight of Canada, or North America in general.

Never before had an international player earned the kind of accolades Ovechkin received leading up to his draft year. After all, he was only the second Russian ever to go that high on draft day. But the fact he wasn’t a Canadian kid may have tempered the headlines around “Ovie” and made some fans skeptical about his supposed wizardry. 

He wasn’t helped by how easily a stacked Team Canada had handled him and his Russians in the World Juniors of 2004 and 2005. In retrospect, “The Great 8” was actually undersold as a generational legend. But all of this made his majestic rookie season as a 20-year-old in 2005–06 more of a revelation than it would have been otherwise.

CAA agent J.P. Barry says that some resistance remains. “Even with Russian players, we’ve seen a hesitance in the past. A few teams have said to me, “Sorry, we just don’t draft Russians. End of story.” I know of several teams that did make that an internal memo. Some even said, “We can’t take a Euro in the first three rounds!” I don’t think there’s any team that could say any of that anymore, though. Way back when, however, there were these unwritten internal policies that were just silly. 

There was definitely a period there where teams didn’t want to touch Russians, because they didn’t feel that they could get them to come over. Sometimes they were teams impacted by something negative that happened in the past and let it change their course of action.”

If Ovechkin didn’t entirely smash the Russian stereotype then his countryman Evgeni Malkin, selected right behind Ovechkin in the 2004 draft, sealed the deal. (Ironically the two were rivals for a long time, only reconciling in recent years). Lifetime, Malkin has 444 goals and 702 assists in an injury-riddled career.

To the NHL’s credit, it hasn’t banned or sanctioned its Russian stars as some have done. The country’s teams are banned from international soccer and hockey tournaments and the Paralympics. Russian tennis players Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev (the top-2 ranked Russian male players) were barred from participating at Wimbledon. Many Russian artists have seen their concerts cancelled.

For now Ovechkin is walking a tight rope. He’s called for peace without mentioning Russia or Ukraine directly. In May 2022, he reiterated his support for Putin, as well as retaining the Russian president on his Instagram profile photo. Much depends on the progress of the war, and how much Canada and the U.S. are drawn into the combat.

The best advice is probably to keep his head down and his politics to himself if he wants to be celebrated for passing Howe and Gretzky.

Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). The best-selling author was nominated for the BBN Business Book award of 2020 for Personal Account with Tony Comper. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. His new book with his son Evan Inexact Science: The Six Most Compelling Draft Years In NHL History is now available on http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx

 

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John Stossel

John Stossel on US Independence Day – Does The Constitution Need To Be Amended?

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From StosselTV

Happy #July4th, when we celebrate our independence and the Constitution.
Should we change the Constitution?
We asked people like Glenn Beck, Dave Rubin, and Jeffrey A. Tucker.
But some of the most interesting answers came from strangers on the street.

John Stossel created Stossel TV to explain liberty and free markets to young people. Prior to Stossel TV he hosted a show on Fox Business and co-anchored ABC’s primetime newsmagazine show, 20/20.

Stossel’s economic programs have been adapted into teaching kits by a non-profit organization, “Stossel in the Classroom.” High school teachers in American public schools now use the videos to help educate their students on economics and economic freedom. They are seen by more than 12 million students every year.

Stossel has received 19 Emmy Awards and has been honored five times for excellence in consumer reporting by the National Press Club. Other honors include the George Polk Award for Outstanding Local Reporting and the George Foster Peabody Award.

———— To make sure you see the new weekly video from Stossel TV, sign up here: https://www.johnstossel.com/#subscribe ————

 

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