SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, launched on Sunday, has failed to deliver a secret US government package into the Earth’s orbit. Codenamed Zuma, the cargo is widely believed to have been a satellite and follows Sunday’s successful launch from SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida.
Although the rocket was successful at ‘stage one’, the package failed to separate from the rocket and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere in ‘stage two’. American aerospace and defence company Northrup Grumman, who worked with SpaceX on behalf of the US government, has confirmed that ‘stage two’ would have fired Zuma into low-Earth orbit.
Compared to previous missions, Zuma is so highly classified that there is almost no information on it, even which branch of the US administration commissioned it. Being fired into low-Earth orbit suggests it might have been a military or espionage project.
Because of the sensitive nature of the mission, the progress of the rocket has not been disclosed. SpaceX has refused to comment on Zuma but has refuted allegations of a fault with the Falcon 9 rocket.
The loss of Zuma makes it the second time in two years that Elon Musk’s SpaceX has lost highly valuable cargoes. In 2016, a Facebook satellite was destroyed in preflight preparations when the Falcon 9 rocket it was carried on exploded.
An Update on Trumptopia: What’s Going on in the USA?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF)
This 2016 movie, produced by and starring Tina Fey, is based on a book that was written as a memoir by the main character, Kim Barker. It follows a period of three years between 2003 and 2006 – it was initially supposed to be a three-month assignment – when Kim takes an assignment to be a war reporter in Afghanistan.
The premise of the movie is that one’s perspective shifts to adapt to the circumstances, however bizarre, in the manner of the proverbial frog in increasingly hot water. Kim exits before she is boiled, but only just. The most poignant moment in the movie (there are not that many – the emotional tone is mostly flat), is when Kim returns home to visit a marine who lost his legs to an IED in Helmand Province. She had been told by a fellow reporter that the marine’s assignment to Helmand resulted from a segment she reported where he discussed his habit of keeping his weapon unloaded. He had greater fear of an accidental discharge than of an engagement with the enemy.
Barker felt guilty and wanted to give him the opportunity to reproach her. His response was not to blame her at all: “You embrace the suck. You move the f**k forward. What other choice do we have?” He gives her a brief history lesson on the murky issue of causation of the war in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
It is a telling lesson on the complexity of the human condition, people’s tendency to overestimate the magnitude of their own causal contribution to world events and a reminder that there are fewer easy answers than might be desirable.
Fire and Fury
The recent book by Michael Wolff is an excellent read not because it reveals anything the reader has not already heard or suspected, but rather as a sober chronicle of dysfunction and a reminder of what government should be about and what it should not be, but all too often is about.
There was drama in the LBJ administration. There was inappropriate behaviour; foul language; manipulation; ego. LBJ’s time as Vice President was a marked contrast to his stature as Master of the Senate. The transition to President in the wake of JFK’s assassination was remarkable. As the world watched, wondering how this would go, Johnson worked the levers of power to bring in a budget below the level of $100bn demanded by Harry Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee as the price for releasing JFK’s tax cut bill that was holding up consideration of the Civil Rights Bill. LBJ continued to work his inside the ropes knowledge of the legislative process to get the Civil Rights Bill passed into law. This was American government at its best.
The picture Wolff presents is American government at its worst. The legislative initiatives that have been undertaken by the current administration are healthcare reform; tax reform; immigration reform. Healthcare struggled and failed; tax reform passed and immigration reform is caught up in the politics of funding the government.
The President’s approval ratings are in the doldrums; he is forced to deny the racism revealed by his vulgar language and he is fighting with his Chief of Staff via twitter. In the meantime, those whose deportation hangs on immigration reform live in fear of arrest and infrastructure reform is on hold.
Unified Field Theory
Steve Bannon, the early architect of the Trump administration policy (since ousted and discredited by the President) and the author of the President’s Inaugural Address, was widely considered to be a proponent of a comprehensive policy to take the country back – a kind of unified field theory. His premise was that the American people had spoken through the election of Donald Trump. His organizing philosophy was a robust ‘America First’ policy on trade; a very restrictive immigration policy (widely interpreted as White Nationalist and anti-Muslim) and generally tearing down the administrative state to restore power into the hands of the executive branch.
This political philosophy was well targeted to flatter the ego of the President. Wolff’s book reveals that the President does not read and rarely listens. His attention wanders quickly and the passage to his understanding is apparently a narrow window defined by short-burst images and soundbites frequently played out on his favourite cable news network, Fox News.
There could not be a sharper contrast to the skill set required to approach the long-term issue of, for example, infrastructure repair. There could not be a sharper contrast to the achievement marked by the Civil Rights Act. There is no unified field theory of human progress. It is about hard work, incremental steps and the occasional watershed victory. Bannon was short-lived.
How Hot is the Water Right Now?
Kim Barker refers in her book and in the movie to the concept of “Kabubble”, the world in which the reporters are analogized to frogs in boiling water. The need to keep the war top of the media’s mind at home requires ever more extreme assignments at increasing levels of risk to the reporters and their teams.
The US is currently living in its own Kabubble: Trumptopia, a land where hours of media coverage are devoted to discussions of whether the President used the word “shithole” or “shithouse” to describe certain countries whose populations are considered unsuitable for immigration by the President on the basis simply of their geography (and perhaps, coincidentally, the colour of their skin).
Senators sacrifice their credibility in the cause of loyalty to a President who never repays it. If the key issue is which word was used, the story has missed its mark. If the public wishes the coverage would end because, not surprisingly, it is tired of the noise, then the essence of Trumptopia is revealed: the use of the bizarre to distract from the appalling.
Heads are spinning, and the frog has only a little time left…
UN Drug Treaties Need to Rethink Cannabis
Europe, in general, is less concerned with religion and the personal morality of others (pre-marital sex, adultery) than the United States, according to a Pew Research Center poll. So why is cannabis legalisation facing a more difficult time in Europe than in the US? Perhaps because they also trust the government more and cannot petition to overturn or change unpopular laws as they can in the US.
An unasked question is whether governments or the people can or should violate international agreements – such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which prohibits non-medical sales of marijuana – unilaterally, and what the consequences might be. We may soon find out. Canada is poised to start selling recreational marijuana on July 1, and Uruguay already has.
A Right to Marijuana?
While the US government hasn’t legalised marijuana, approximately 30 of its 50 US states – plus Washington, DC – have legalised putatively medical marijuana, and eight also have legal recreational marijuana. Almost all won those rights not through the local legislative process but instead by a voter referendum. Most European citizens don’t have that power, perhaps because they aren’t as suspicious of the government as the US, or aren’t as fanatic about personal liberty and responsibility as the government taking care of them. Free speech (it’s much harder to be convicted of libel in the US), the right to own and bear arms, and even resistance to universal healthcare are examples of this US mindset.
This mindset also means that change in the US usually begins at the local state level. That’s why the late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as ”laboratories of democracy” in 1932. Sometimes state laws become federal laws by a decision of the Supreme Court, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
Marijuana Harms Vs. Benefits
In the US federal law still prohibits all uses of marijuana, medical or not, because of marijuana’s inclusion on Schedule 1 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. That means it is officially considered highly addictive, unsafe for any use and with no medical benefits. Marijuana is similarly included in the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
That is stuff and nonsense. At the very least cannabis is safer and less addictive than many legal drugs, including alcohol and the prescription drugs driving the opioid epidemic. Unlike those deadly but legal substances, no one has ever overdosed on marijuana, and it is arguable whether or not it is physically addictive.
In Texas, though half of the US Drug Enforcement Agency offices consider marijuana the number one threat, it had zero associated overdose deaths. The drug that the other half name, methamphetamine, had 715 deaths attributed to it in 2016 alone, so it’s clear which rehab centres in Texas should be most concerned about.
Cannabis also has demonstrated anecdotal health benefits for many conditions, including chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even opioid addiction. Its very illegality makes accumulating rigorous scientific evidence, or even getting approval for such studies, almost impossible.
Marijuana’s probable benefits (versus its low risk) are why so many US states have legalised medical marijuana, despite its illicit nature. That the US so widely violates those treaties in regard to marijuana (as well as federal law) seems ironic since many believe marijuana is included in the treaties largely because the US government wanted it there.
US Government Still Opposes Marijuana
Apparently, it still does. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a legalisation opponent, has made threatening noises about enforcing the federal marijuana laws for months. In early January he rescinded two memos that had encouraged federal law enforcement to defer to state law so long as certain guidelines were met (no access to minors, no shipping across state lines, etc.).
Even in the face of Sessions chomping at the bit to enforce federal marijuana laws, more states are considering legalisation. Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah could pass medical marijuana laws this year, and Michigan and New Jersey seem almost certain to pass recreational laws.
Certainly, the tax revenue derived from marijuana sales is one draw. Colorado, the first state to enact recreational marijuana laws, reported $193.6m in tax and fee revenue from marijuana in 2016. California, which began recreational sales this month, anticipates at least $1bn in tax revenue annually.
Some opponents, without much evidence, claim the costs of legalisation will mostly cancel out these revenues, but most studies find little or no change. Maybe more people will seek treatment at luxury rehabs in California.
At least one item still dissuading Sessions from following through on his threats is the Rohrabacher–Farr Amendment, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending funds to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalised it. It is part of the budget resolution that the Congress keeps kicking down the road, most recently to January 19 (and they may kick it again). Sessions wants Congress to remove it.
Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that wouldn’t end marijuana use in those states, merely return it to the black market, which could put $7bn back into the hands of drug cartels.
Barriers to Legalisation Remain
Those three international drug treaties might be the most significant barrier to total marijuana legalisation in the US and elsewhere. Even if the US Congress chooses to change the law to make marijuana legal, or the executive branch removes marijuana from Schedule 1 (either by moving it to another, less restrictive schedule or deleting it altogether), those treaties still stand. Changing them would require an international effort and cooperation.
Violating the terms unilaterally might encourage other governments to act similarly, maybe with more harmful drugs such as heroin. The US is arguably the biggest supporter of these treaties. If it doesn’t comply with them, even in the narrow case of marijuana, the door will be open to other exceptions. (The Single Convention already has granted a major exemption to Bolivia for its tradition of chewing coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived, in 2013.)
On the other hand, Uruguay made marijuana completely legal to its citizens on July 19, 2017, and it is also a signatory to the Single Convention on Narcotics, but the sky hasn’t fallen yet (though it and the US have been under United Nations investigation since at least 2015).
Even if the US does nothing, maintaining the status quo, the effects of such a treaty violation may be felt when Canada’s legalisation law goes into effect later this year. The federal government in Ottawa says the provinces will receive 75% of tax revenues derived from cannabis sales, expected to be between $400m and $1bn annually.
Treaties Can be Changed
Canada could have withdrawn from the treaties completely. That requires a year’s notice, and sales are scheduled to begin July 1, 2018. Instead, Canada seems likely to stay with the treaties but just disregard them as far as marijuana is concerned. That might hurt its international reputation in general, and its attempt to get on the UN Security Council in particular, but other penalties seem unlikely.
There are ways around the treaties – the Transnational Institute suggests several in a 2016 briefing paper here – or of changing or writing new cannabis-only treaties. Stanford University’s Keith Humphreys, a Professor of Psychiatry, thinks it would be relatively easy for the world community to write a cannabis-specific treaty without unravelling the entirety of international drug treaties.
Mexico has legalised medical cannabis nationwide and is set to legalise marijuana-based medicines, foods, drinks, cosmetics and other products this year. A poll in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 40% of respondents in Chile and Colombia favour legalising marijuana too.
With some form of marijuana available in almost all of North America, it’s time to amend not only US law but the international drug treaties to reflect reality, decriminalise cannabis and study its real harms and benefits.
Bitmain Considers Canada Move
The Chinese bitcoin miner is looking to expand abroad and is eyeing up Canada.
Editor’s Remarks: Although Bitmain has not confirmed that it is seeking an overseas relocation because of China’s recent announcement that it will clamp down on cryptocurrency trading, it is unlikely to be a coincidence. Just a few days ago, the company said it had also opened a new branch in Switzerland, which would play an essential role in its further global expansion. Now, it has publicly said that it is considering an expansion to Canada’s Quebec region, which will give Bitmain access to cheap hydropower to power its mining operations, leading a number of crypto miners to move there.
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