Editorial Roundup: United States
Sep 18, 2023, 12:40 PM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on federally reclassifying marijuana
The Department of Health and Human Services has recommended removing cannabis from the federal government’s list of drugs that have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Known as Schedule I, this group includes substances such as heroin and LSD, bad company in which cannabis, whose recreational and medicinal use is being legalized or decriminalized by many states, no longer belongs — if it ever did. This is a wise and overdue change, which, not incidentally, fulfills one of President Biden’s campaign promises.
The HHS recommendation now goes to the final decision-maker, the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has historically opposed rescheduling cannabis (as recently as 2016, the DEA said there is “no substantial evidence” to remove marijuana from Schedule I). But now there is an opportunity to recalibrate U.S. drug policy. The question is precisely how.
HHS’s suggestion was to move cannabis to Schedule III, which is for medically useful drugs with a middle-range potential for abuse; the current list includes ketamine and testosterone. Putting cannabis in that category would be a defensible judgment — albeit one whose detailed rationale HHS has not yet publicly described. (News of its recommendation letter to the DEA leaked; the agency then confirmed it. ) Much has changed since the last formal review in 2016. There is evidence showing cannabis is effective at treating chronic pain, according to a 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Millions use it for that purpose, often with a doctor’s recommendation in the 38 states where medical marijuana is legal. The National Academies also reported that certain orally administered cannabis derivatives can help multiple sclerosis and cancer patients. A move to Schedule III would allow even more research to occur.
Public opinion has also shifted. A majority of the public no longer views weed usage as a problem. Nearly 70 percent of Americans support legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use, a dramatic shift from the late 1990s, when fewer than a quarter held that view. This is a key reason 23 states have legalized recreational marijuana use. There is a growing disconnect between state and federal policy. The DEA’s scheduling system technically does not address the legality of a drug, but the schedule number does impact federal policy on production, distribution and scientific research of the drug. Moving marijuana to Schedule III would effectively condone more widespread use.
And yet there is still much controversy about both the medical usefulness and the addictive potential of cannabis, which is today available in high concentrations of its psychoactive ingredient, THC. The Food and Drug Administration has never approved cannabis per se — as opposed to a few chemical derivatives — for medical use. The report by the National Academies also notes that heavy cannabis use might increase the risk of driving accidents and mental health disorders. A 2015 peer-reviewed study reported that nearly 30 percent of cannabis users develop a use disorder, defined as an inability to stop despite negative consequences.
In short, while cannabis doesn’t belong on Schedule I, incomplete information about it means it isn’t a slam dunk for Schedule III, either. Another strong option is a move to Schedule II alongside cocaine and Adderall. This would enable more research on marijuana and acknowledge its potential medical uses, but it would stop short of allowing cannabis companies to easily advertise across the nation and take advantage of tax breaks. Given the risks that remain with marijuana consumption, it seems preferable to be cautious on expanded marketing. No one wants a repeat of the tobacco youth advertising fiasco.
Improved lawful access to the U.S. banking system is a more legitimate short-term priority for cannabis businesses, which could be accomplished by passage of a bipartisan bill pending in the Senate. Also, the entire subjective scheduling system is overdue for reform, as the ambiguities and conflict over rescheduling cannabis show.
HHS made its recommendation pursuant to instructions Mr. Biden gave last year; at the same time, he pardoned everyone with a federal conviction for simple possession of marijuana and asked governors to do the same at the state level. This message from the White House moved the United States toward a more rational and humane policy, albeit incrementally. Yet incrementally is how U.S. social policy has often advanced. Rescheduling marijuana would be another nudge in the right direction.
The New York Times on supporting Ukraine beyond the presidential election
The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.
A heated and sometimes nasty debate is raging over how to end the war in Ukraine, intensified by the less-than-hoped-for advances of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and shifting American support for continuing aid to the country. A CNN survey released on Aug. 4 found that among liberals, 69 percent back more funding, but only 31 percent among conservatives do.
Proponents of seeking a cease-fire say an outright military victory by either side is highly unlikely, and they argue that the sooner the carnage and destruction end, the sooner Ukraine can start building the sort of democratic, prosperous state that would amount to a moral victory over Russia.
The hawks argue that a cease-fire would effectively reward Russia’s aggression with substantial territorial gains and that only a decisive military victory over Russia can prevent Vladimir Putin or his successors from future land grabs. The debate has been complicated by Donald Trump’s claim that if elected, he would end the war “within 24 hours” and by opposition to continuing aid for Ukraine among other Republican presidential candidates. That gives Russia a strong incentive not to negotiate until after the 2024 election.
Any talk of a cease-fire or negotiations is premature; neither side is ready to negotiate, and the United States is in no position to compel them to come to the table. Mr. Putin, who chose to wage this war, could end it today simply by calling back his troops. Yet he continues his claim to nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and has shown no interest in a cease-fire. He has gambled from the outset that time will erode the Western commitment to Ukraine, and he would most likely read any push toward a cease-fire as confirmation that his strategy is working.
And so long as Russia is not ready to talk, neither can Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, whose publicly declared goal is to drive the Russians out of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and the Donbas. Ceding any territory to the Russian invader is anathema to Mr. Zelensky and the Ukrainians, and they would not agree to a cease-fire that might be used by Mr. Putin to regroup and attack again.
The moment when both sides conclude that they have nothing more to gain on the battlefield, most likely the prerequisite for negotiations even to be considered by either side, still appears a long way off.
President Biden’s position from the outset of the war, shared by America’s allies, has been to give Ukraine the weapons and resources to defend itself, so that when the time comes, it would be “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” But the decision on negotiating belongs to Ukraine, as Mr. Biden wrote in a guest essay in The Times in May and has reiterated many times: “I will not pressure the Ukrainian government — in private or public — to make any territorial concessions.”
While this board has questioned some specific decisions by Mr. Biden, such as supplying the Ukrainian Army with cluster munitions, we agree with him that it would be “wrong and contrary to well-settled principles” to pressure another country to negotiate over its sovereign territory.
Ukraine deserves full support against Russia’s unprovoked invasion, and it is in America’s national interest to lead its NATO allies in demonstrating that they will not tolerate Mr. Putin’s revanchist ambitions. It is a demonstration of America’s commitment to democracy and leadership that other would-be aggressors are watching.
Firmly backing Ukraine, however, does not preclude an open debate on the scale and extent of America’s support, or on how the war might end. On the contrary, a commitment of this magnitude and consequence requires debate to justify public support, especially in today’s sharply rived politics.
The divide will come to a test soon when a $40 billion supplemental funding request, with $24 billion earmarked for Ukraine, comes up before Congress, and it is certain to become more pronounced as the presidential race quickens.
The Biden administration has already set some constraints around its support for Ukraine in this conflict, and it’s necessary to continuously calibrate support against those limits. The administration has rightly insisted, for example, that it will not assist Ukraine in attacking Moscow or in any other way that could draw NATO into a direct war with Russia.
But there are other questions to wrestle with: Would a massive rout of Russian forces drive Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons? What would be the ramifications of allowing NATO allies to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets? While the F-16s would greatly enhance Ukraine’s ability to counter Russian missile attacks, the highly sophisticated planes represent a qualitative escalation of Ukraine’s military reach, so NATO will have to carefully consider which of the jet’s lethal capabilities to include in the deal.
Mr. Biden and his advisers should also be more candid with the American public about what they don’t know about the duration of this conflict and its outcome. Wars are unpredictable, and this one has taken many surprising turns, from the Russian invasion itself to Ukraine’s success in rebuffing Russia’s initial drive. Most recently, the mutiny by the Russian warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin and his subsequent death in a plane crash exposed the cracks in Mr. Putin’s military and the ruthlessness he needs to maintain his reign of fear. Now there are reports that Russia is preparing a new offensive of its own.
It is also incumbent upon the administration not to let Ukraine waver in its commitment to democracy and in the fight against corruption, especially in its military institutions and industries. Ukrainian anti-corruption groups and journalists and other civil society groups have done brave and essential work in holding their own leaders to account, and these institutions deserve continued American support.
Open discussion about the war and its progress need not indicate weakness or a wavering will to Mr. Putin. That is something President Biden and leaders of both parties — including Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leaders in the Congress — can make clear to the Russian leader.
“It’s certainly not the time to go wobbly,” Mr. McConnell said recently, urging his colleagues to support continued aid for Ukraine. “Now, with Ukraine bravely defending its sovereignty and eroding Russia’s capacity to threaten NATO, it is not the time to ease up.” He and Mr. McCarthy can continue to press that message with their colleagues in Congress no matter what is issuing from their fringe. As Nikki Haley reminded Vivek Ramaswamy in the first Republican presidential debate when he spoke out against any further aid to Kyiv, Ukraine is a “pro-American country that was invaded by a thug.”
Mr. Biden’s immediate challenge is to sustain support, not only from Congress and the American public but also from allies.
The leaders of the Group of 7 — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — issued a strong statement in July affirming their “unwavering commitment to the strategic objective of a free, independent, democratic and sovereign Ukraine” that would be “capable of defending itself and deterring future aggression.”
Each country said it would begin negotiations with Ukraine on specific, long-term security arrangements. These commitments are essential to preventing swings in public opinion or changes in government from causing abrupt shifts in support from Ukraine’s major Western allies.
Discussions between the U.S. State Department and Ukraine over long-term security commitments began in early August, with a focus “on ensuring Ukraine has a sustainable force capable of defending Ukraine now and deterring Russian aggression in the future.” The two countries are drafting a “memorandum of understanding” that will be especially important in view of the growing politicization of aid to Ukraine and the growing hostility to it on the right. Drafting an agreement should be a priority for the administration, and Congress should be kept closely informed of its progress.
In the end, there is no way to tell how long it will take for peace talks to reach the horizon. America’s duty is to help ensure that Ukraine reaches that point strong and free, and that support can be sustained only by an open discussion and an informed public.
The Wall Street Journal on pandemic fraud
You know a robbery is bad when it takes years to figure out how much was stolen. States have long known that they paid billions in fraudulent unemployment claims during the pandemic. But this week the federal government more than doubled its estimate in stolen payments to as much as $135 billion.
The new figure comes from a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The finding is a rebuke to the Biden Administration, which had previously put the fraud total as low as $45 billion based on surveys of state programs. Congressional Republicans suspected the estimates were low and asked GAO to conduct its own study.
The agency reached its estimate by assessing a sample of more than 2,500 unemployment insurance payments issued from 2020 to 2023. The Labor Department’s previous tally relied largely on adding confirmed fraud cases reported by states, but GAO auditors say that produced a massive undercount. The oversight agency assumed a higher, more plausible fraud rate by comparing unemployment insurance to similar federal programs.
The $135 billion finding places the pandemic unemployment program in a new tier of government disaster. Fraud claimed 11% to 15% of the nearly $900 billion that Washington paid out over three years. The theft rate is another demerit for a program that caused incredible harm even when it worked as planned. Federal and state governments provided an incentive for millions of people not to work with a $600 weekly jobless bonus in 2020 and up to 79 weeks of total unemployment benefits.
The GAO reports that states had recovered only $1.2 billion of stolen payments by May, out of about $56 billion of identified fraud cases. Recoveries have been sluggish despite $1.4 billion in federal aid to help states track and penalize fraudsters.
House Republicans passed a bill in May that boosts the incentive to recoup stolen payments, letting states keep up to a quarter of the federal cash they get back. Yet few Democrats signed on, the Senate hasn’t voted on it, and the White House blasted the bill as a threat to Washington’s “well-functioning UI system.”
Well-functioning? In a sane government, the fraud explosion would be a call to action. But in today’s Washington all that matters to politicians is how much money they can spend, not whether it’s wasted or stolen.
The Guardian on the Hollywood writer’s strike
Four months after the first one began, the strikes that have shut down many Hollywood productions are coming to resemble a fight to the death on a crumbling cliff edge between Goliath and a valiant crowd of Davids. On one side are the mighty studios, on the other are the writers and actors who feed them. Last month, the president and CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery, David Zaslav – no doubt pumped up by the box office success of Barbie – made the chest-thumping claim that the action had actually saved his company more than $100m. Others have painted a more dismal picture, with Disney reporting trading losses of more than $500m due to streaming reductions.
While the protagonists remain locked in mortal combat, $5bn is said to have been wiped off California’s economy, underlining that it is not only the combatants who are suffering but everyone who supports them, from the caterers who feed them to the chauffeurs who drive them around.
In an industry as global as film, the impact has inevitably been felt way beyond the US. A UK survey of 4,000 members of the technician’s union Bectu, many of them freelance, revealed last week that three-quarters of them were currently out of work. Nine out of 10 members said that they were worried about their financial security, and more than a third said they were struggling to pay household bills, rent or mortgages. Many had been laid off from productions under “force majeure” clauses, leaving them with little notice or pay.
The dispute, which kicked off with the Writers Guild of America in May and spread to the actors union, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists two months later, revolves around two issues of diminishing rates of pay and job security: contractual agreements that actors and writers feel allow streaming platforms to withhold fees that other industry sectors have traditionally paid, and protection against AI, which is already reshaping the way films are made.
The issue rolled into the TUC Conference in Liverpool this week, with the comedian Sandi Toksvig putting an ironic spin on a motion from the Writers Union of Great Britain: “Our motion, like many motions, is mad – let’s make sure people receive fair pay for the work they do. I know. It shouldn’t be a motion, it should be a given, but it’s not.”