Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What do Ron Paul, Jimmy Carter and Barney Frank have in common? Drugs!

In the days of divided American politics in which we find ourselves living, it is a rare issue that brings politicians on opposite ends of the political spectrum together to co-sponsor legislation. Somewhat surprisingly, federal control over marijuana happens to be just such an issue.

Last week, former President Jimmy Carter wrote a insightful Op-Ed piece in the New York Times urging the administration to call off the American led war on drugs launched under the the Nixon administration and reaffirmed by President Reagan. President Carter made reference to the "courageous and profoundly important recommendations" made by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes as its members former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, entrepreneur and Virgin founder Richard Branson, and former Presidents Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), César Gaviria (Colombia), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil). At its core, the Commission concluded that the "global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." While the finding is harsh, it is indeed hard to conclude otherwise.

The principal recommendation made by the Commission is that governments "end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others." This is a sensible recommendation that should be adopted. The escalation in rates of incarceration for non violent drug offenders is absurd. When President Carter left office in 1980, about a half million prisoners inhabited American jails. Today, nearly five times as many people are incarcerated and according to President Carter, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses has increasing more than twelvefold since he left office.

I recall a conversation I had with my judge, the Hon. Benson Everett Legg, United States District Judge for the District of Maryland, about a few policy issues related to drug sentencing. Judge Legg, who had seen many federal drug cases by the time I clerked with him in 2000 and has undoubtedly seen many more, shared his frustrations regarding the effectiveness of federal drug prosecutions. According to the judge, as soon as federal or state prosecutors cleared one Baltimore street corner of a drug dealer, another would surely pop up nearby. The inner city simply lacked opportunities for the young (and predominantly African American) men who were being convicted of selling drugs to the suburban (and predominantly white) consumers of those drugs. Supply and Demand 101: where there is demand, a supply will be available. These were not the musings of a liberal Democrat but rather a moderate to conservative jurist who had once been prominent in the Maryland Republican party. Judge Legg's views are hardly unique, however. Many federal judges are frustrated with drug policy and sentencing in the United States. (See generally articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Sentencing Project and

Judge Legg's observations about Federal drug prosecutions on the streets of Baltimore back in 2000 are mirrored in the Commission's findings that "apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers." The futility of the war on drugs on the streets of the US and the amazing surge in the number of people in U.S. prisons and the phenomenal incarceration costs thereof represent the tip of the drug policy iceberg. As President Carter and the Commission note, a growing number of Latin American countries have witnessed an appalling surge in drug-related violence, corruption and gross violations of human rights as a result of the US led and funded war on drugs.

Against this backdrop, Reps. Barney Frank (D), a Massachusetts liberal, and Ron Paul (R), a Texas libertarian, who are often not on the same page on policy matters, will introduce a bill in the House today that would effectively end most federal control over marijuana by deferring to individual states on such matters and only invoking federal authority in cases involving cross-border or inter-state smuggling. If passed, the bill would allow individuals to grow, use or sell marijuana in states where it is legal. While the bill is not a legalization measure, it represents a solid and wise first step in the rationalization of federal drug policy.

I have long endorsed liberalization of drug policy, especially with regard to cannabis, and I welcome this most recent, even if long-shot attempt to do just that. To sign a petition to your member of Congress urging his or her support for the Frank/Paul legislation, please click here.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, 1928 - 2011

Dr. Jack Kevorkian Dies at 83; A Doctor Who Helped End Lives
(NY Times)

I met Dr. Kevorkian through one of my closest friends at Michigan Law School, Nick Holmes, who along with his mother and sister were close friends of Dr. Kevorkian. Nick's mother and sister were integral parts of Dr. Kevorkian's legal team and were important in his several acquittals. I only met Dr. Kevorkian twice, once on the campus of the University of Michigan and once for Thanksgiving dinner at the Holmes residence. He was a brilliant man whose compassion and love for human dignity are made even more ironic by the "Dr. Death" title that the media gave him. I weeped for him the day of his conviction (though we all agreed that he had made several strategic and tactical errors in the positioning and defense of the Youk case) and felt such joy the day he was finally released.

Until I met Jack, I was unsure of how I felt about medically assisted suicide. My professor in law school, Yale Kamisar, is a leading advocate against the right to die. And while I think there are compelling arguments on both sides, I have come to conclude that the right to die with dignity is as fundamental as the right to live. If my difficulties with doctors and the medical system, as an able bodied middle-age man is any example, I can't imagine being afflicted with a terminal disease and in constant pain and at the mercy of an uncaring doctor and medical system. Dr. Kevorkian, was right.

Jack, the world never understood you but is better as a result of your brave and tireless work on behalf of those who were too weak to advocate for dignity, even in death. May you live in eternal peace.

For the NY Times obituary, please click here.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Loyalty Programs for Small and Boutique Properties (NYT)

Loyalty programs are the drugs that keep frequent travelers addicted to large hotel companies and brand systems. Whether for points or recognition, frequent travelers as a class have repeatedly demonstrated that they will pay more and be more loyal to a company if it belongs to a program that offers them benefits and/or points that become more valuable or accrue more rapidly as frequency of use increases. Best depicted in the recent George Clooney movie Up in the Air, loyalty programs have become an end, not merely a means, for the frequent hotel consumer

Big hotel companies such as Marriott, Hilton, and Starwood have built and are able to maintain a critical mass of hotels in their systems and therefore gain nearly automatic distribution for their rooms. With the exception of Starwood's W (which may not really be an exception), there has not been much in the way of loyalty programs for lifestyle and independent hotels. For the most part, having a loyalty program and running a boutique hotel have been mutually exclusive activities. With the growth in the importance of loyalty programs and the continued interest in the boutique or lifestyle segment, a new trend has emerged: the creation of consortium of independent assets tied to a common rewards system (see NY Times article). That development will most certainly aid in the development of innovative and independent properties, something we should all note.

As the larger hotel brands soften their sometimes stodgy images and products and open their own lifestyle and luxury hotels, it is important to note that loyalty and rewards programs, once viewed as a feature reserved for big chains, are fast becoming quite ubiquitous. Such programs, if available to boutique and independent properties, may no longer shield poorer branded products and services, like they have in years past. Branded products have long offered the promise of consistency and rewards. Creativity, passion, and excitement -- things we associate with lifestyle products -- have not been features we expect from the bigger brands. The availability of rewards and loyalty programs to consumers of those products may very well change the landscape of the industry by (a) further leveling the playing field between the independents and the brands and (b) altering the hotels that the large brand companies decide to build as a result. Stay tuned.

Click here for an article from the New York Times on loyalty programs being launched by small and independent hotel,.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Kelli Schaefer - Better Idea (Live at Ripcord)

This video is a great example of the transformative power of YouTube: upstart artist, strong video performance, ability to bypass the traditional recording studios/labels. Has changed the music business and its revenue model forever.

To watch the video on YouTube, click here.