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by danps

The curious silence of libertarians on pot legalization

2:14 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

For as long as I can remember the joke about libertarians is that they are Republicans who like to smoke pot. Those who identify as libertarian seem to go to great lengths to point out their ideological differences with Republicans (and conservatives more generally). They stress liberty above all and oppose anything – like, say, non-military government spending – they perceive as even peripherally infringing on it. In addition to heartily approving of the freedom to, say, die without insurance, libertarians have long denounced the drug war as a hateful incursion on peoples’ freedom.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many opportunities to tease out whether libertarians truly are independent gadflies or just slightly heterodox Republicans. To get a solid answer, we would need to see one of their favored policies enacted. Since their ideas (agree with them or not) aren’t really in the political mainstream, their commitment to them never really gets put to the test.

Armstrong Legalize Marijuana

Happily, the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado provides just one of those rare cases. Libertarians have long criticized the drug war, with leading voices such as Radley Balko and John Stossel weighing in against it, Matt Welch reporting on its hoped-for demise, and so on. (This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive survey. I pick up libertarian names from ambient political noise, so in this post I checked ones I was familiar with.)

The initial days of legalization anywhere in the country would seem to be cause for great celebration: the first crack in the rotten edifice! An opportunity to see one of their principles enacted! Shouldn’t this be a subject of intense interest at the moment? Yet none of the writers mentioned above have weighed in so far. Stossel didn’t even see fit to mention it in his year in freedom post at the end of last month. With the exception of Nick Gillespie, and full credit to him on this, libertarians have been awfully quiet on what should be a momentous achievement.

Libertarian outlets are similarly quiet, or worse. Cato has plenty to say about social spending, unemployment insurance and the Federal Reserve, but nothing on this week’s tremendous advance in liberty. Meanwhile, The American Conservative, which claims to stand “for fiscal responsibility, civil liberties, and a prudent foreign policy,” published a really, um, interesting piece on how smoking pot is fine for trust fund babies but not the rabble. (The comments are worth reading – at least readers take the site’s stated mission seriously.)

As for elected leaders, I’ll just note that one libertarian darling has spent the week engaged in cheap political grandstanding and not celebrating the march of freedom. (It’s not as though Citizen Paul were a sitting United States Senator with the power to impanel hearings and subpoena witnesses, right?)

Funny enough, there is a libertarian case to make against the Colorado law, or at least to temper enthusiasm about it. One of the major selling points of decriminalization is that it amounts to back door sentencing reform. Get rid of pot laws and you eliminate an entire class of nonviolent offenders from prison – along with a less onerous police presence, another libertarian priority. But what if only the most privileged part of that class benefits? As Goldie Taylor put it:

When they tell you this is about lessening the strain of law enforcement, don’t believe them. It’s about advancing – even if unintentionally – institutionalized profiling. It’s a license to descend upon every street corner and alleyway in search of illegal weed peddlers. Aside from tourism and real estate, the prison industrial complex is among the biggest employers in Colorado. That will not change. Those metal prison beds, run by private for-profit companies, must still be sold. And we know who will not be sleeping in them.

Libertarians could easily say: let’s not get carried away, let’s make sure we aren’t being sold a bill of goods, let’s see if this really works out as advertised. It might well fall way short of what was promised. It might have a negligible effect among people of color and the poor, and just give better off white folks an official pass on the risk they had only marginally borne anyway.

We aren’t hearing that; what we are mostly hearing is crickets. If this really meant as much to libertarians as they’ve always claimed, they should be shouting the news from the rooftops – but that would not sit well with the GOP establishment. Or: They can either act as gadflies or as slightly heterodox Republicans. Most are choosing the latter. While that’s a little disappointing I can’t honestly say it’s surprising.
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by danps

Testing water and building community

4:52 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Last summer I wrote about the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program for testing water. Our town’s anti-fracking activists have been using it at their homes for a while now, but around the time of my post we also began free monthly water testing for the community. We are careful to emphasize several caveats, though. The most important is that the testing is not comprehensive or EPA certified; it is not meant to be a substitute for a certified test. It measures a handful of items and is only meant to give a basic idea of water quality. Similarly, the testing would almost certainly not be admissible in a court of law; anyone with an eye on future court cases should go with an EPA certified lab.

That said, the tests are a good way to look for changes. If, say, your chlorine level is stable for six straight months and then suddenly triples, something might be up. Prior snapshots are among the crucial missing pieces in assessing the impact of fracking. At the moment there are few institutional incentives – private or public – to establish baselines prior to fracking. Industry players certainly have nothing to gain. They have gotten their favored legislation passed and are moving right along. The best result they could get would be to continue at their existing pace.1

As for the state, it is failing miserably. There are several possible reasons for that. It could be that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) is woefully understaffed and simply not up to the task. It could be that decades of conservative rhetoric on how faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats are strangling free enterprise with regulations has had its intended effect: regulators are now too timid to be useful. It could be the pernicious (and logical) outcome of an erstwhile conservative project on term limits. It could just be the revolving door, aka cognitive regulatory capture.

The actual reasons don’t matter though; all that matters for citizens is that there is zero support for the kind of preliminary investigation that is a crucial prerequisite for connecting any environmental hazard with fracking. As it is, industry can simply claim the current environment is unchanged. Your water was always like that; prove us wrong.

Colorado is grappling with that very issue right now. Reporting on a proposed water testing rule aimed at discovering spills, Bruce Finley writes: “Unless such spills are near wellheads…state regulators would lack before-and-after data that could be used to assess damage to try to hold companies accountable.” While no testing at all is bad, testing at a handful of spots (selected by whom?) might be even worse if it gives the public a false sense of security. Better that people know they are completely in the dark than to be fooled into thinking an ineffectual agency is adequately monitoring the situation when it isn’t. (See here for additional reporting by Finley on before-and-after issues.)

This is the context for community water testing: essentially acting as the ODNR Volunteer Auxiliary, attempting as best we can to put together a “before” picture for residents. This past Sunday we had a steady stream of people showing up, thanks in part to a couple of larger media outlets unexpectedly picking up our press releases. (My camera did not like the lighting; it offered two options – no flash and dim, or completely washed out with flash.)

Samples were numbered and measured in order:

The results were recorded on a simple half-sheet printout with a carbon copy beneath (we are not a high tech operation). Residents got one copy, our group the other. Those who get the testing done regularly can use the papers to track changes, and our group is using them to slowly build a database. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than waiting for the state to take an interest in our community.

As it turns out, the community aspect is becoming important. In a semi-rural are like ours it can be difficult to get the word out. One of the people who showed up was surprised we’d been testing as long as we have because he’d only learned of it earlier in the week. In a place where there is no community center or regularly scheduled events that bring lots of people together, how do you publicize something? One way, as we are learning, is to keep active consistently over time. We test on the first Sunday of the month, and that message is slowly starting to make its way out.

Having people gather breaks up isolation. Many who are worried about fracking often feel alone because they don’t know anyone who feels similarly. This is particularly true in places where landmen have been pushing leases. Neighborhoods can – and have – become bitterly divided between those who have signed and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t might be preventing operations (and money) from flowing. Where fracking has started, those who haven’t leased often feel great resentment at having communal hazards and quality of life degradation2 visited on them against their will. One under-appreciated impact of fracking is the way it rips at the fabric of a community.

People in the middle of a situation like that might think they are the only ones going through it. Community water testing has provided a way to say to everyone who shows up: you are not alone. There are others who feel the same way you do, and who are going through the same thing you are. Come for the water testing, stay for the fellowship. While we don’t know what will ultimately happen with the former, the latter is already creating benefits.


1. Drillers sometimes do provide people with water tests, but the measure of whether those tests are a baseline comes when potential fracking impacts on water supplies are brought up. What we are seeing right now is a lot of hand waving at the initial test along with comments to the effect that the earth is a complicated place and who can say what might have caused that water to become flammable anyway? Rule of thumb: if there is no way for a testing regime to establish a link to subsequent activity, it is not a legitimate baseline.

2. Fracking makes a hell of a racket, and sound waves are not forbidden from leaving the property from which they are made. Fracking also requires a great deal of heavy truck traffic, but the wear and tear it creates on roads does not have to be compensated for by the companies that cause it. As the saying goes, privatize the profits and socialize the losses.