Friday, June 17, 2005

Chaos, terror, madness … May Week

Ah May Week, ten days of post-exam revelry, in June.

But what have I, a continuing PhD, done to deserve to join in the debauched bacchanalian revelry of undergrads and completed M.Phil students? Passed my first-year viva is what.

Alright, so my supervisor had told me my first-year paper was fine; so my second examiner busted me crashing the LLM farewell buffet lunch and eating Masters students’ sandwiches and told me it was “basically unproblematic, I only have a few nitpicking points.” Threatening to fail me for sandwich-fraud, however, was … well, justified under the circumstances.

So passing was not unexpected. Indeed, passing is a formality provided you turn in a paper that shows some sort of thought and effort.

My big challenges? I need to find a criminological literature on drug smuggling to show why that aspect of my study is relevant. And I need to speak to the government lawyers of some shipping nations outside the Australia, UK, US triangle of my present research. And I need to speak to flag-States – Liberia and Panama, anyone?

Panama could be fun to visit, Liberia I think I’d rather find people to phone. Or stalk at diplomatic conferences.

Speaking of conferences – am presently trying to nail down a conference paper. I shouldn’t have got all enthused about submitted for a conference that’s tangential to my field. My paper is, so far, a horror. A shambling, re-animated monstrous wrack of a beast, stitched together from unhappy specimens that could quiet happily have been left dead or dying. One of those awful, banal conference papers people complain about.

Loudly. And throw things.

Okay, so that may not happen, but as usual I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Wise was the man who said, “never attempt to eat anything larger than your head.” The law of the sea is, indeed, larger than my head.

So, there are my liabilities. Assets: as of lunch today, I’m giving up work for a bit. I’ve got a black tie dinner tonight, my sister arrives tomorrow and we’re going wine tasting and punting, Sunday is wall-to-wall garden parties, I’ve May balls on Monday and Friday, theatre in London Wednesday and leave for Barcelona on Sunday next week.

I’m looking forward to seeing my sister immensely. But it may take a long procedure to decontaminate her after three days in Oxford. (She arrives in England and the first place she goes is Oxford – the base treachery of it all.) I forsee punts and champagne being involved.

Posting may be more erratic than usual in the interim.

PS The Queen owns an iPod. I'll be sure to toast that tonight.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Medical use of marijuana

In Gonzales v. Raich the US Supreme Court has held that a federal government law on inter-state trade and commerce, banning the possession and production of marijuana over-rules the Californian Compassionate Use Act. The Californian Act allows people suffering serious medical conditions to use marijuana where recommended by a doctor and allows them, or their carers, to cultivate it for that purpose.

Whatever your political views on recreational use, the medical benefits of marijuana for cancer sufferers are established. It is an effective form of pain relief and, just as crucially, is an effective means of regaining appetite after aggressive chemotherapy – weight gain after the wasting effects of chemo being important to survival.

The politics of the decision are bizarre: a number of politically liberal judges had to back the Federal ban to maintain their position on strong federal government; a number of conservative judges in the minority opinion would have preserved the Californian Act in order to uphold States’ rights.

Legally, though, I find the majority opinion not entirely credible.

The essential argument is Congress has the power to regulate inter-state commerce. This is a power to regulate the national market. It can thus decide there will be no national market for a product. This can only be upheld if there is no State-level market, therefore it can ban intra-State commerce in that product.

That is the majority found that: “Congress’ power to regulate purely local activities that are part of an economic 'class of activities' that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce is firmly established.” Further, considering comparable case-law, the majority found that “production of the commodity [in question] meant for home consumption, be it wheat or marijuana, has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity.”

I’m no economist, but this strikes me as odd. Sure, if everyone grew their own apples, there’d be no national market in apples. But the Constitutional power is to regulate “commerce”: which would seem to be a question of trade, not its absence. It seems odd that this power should extend to situations where there is no trade taking place, or where home-production's impact on demand means there will be less commerce to regulate.

More bizarre is the idea that home-grown (or even purely locally traded) products, even in small quantities have a “substantial effect” on the national market. The majority decision’s references to Congressional “rational” concern about “diversion into illicit channels” also seems simply puritanical. The average terminally ill person, it seems to me, is unlikely to start dealing in MJ for the hell of it.

Not that there’s anything the Court can do about it, of course, but marijuana is also classified as a Schedule One narcotic on the basis that, among other things, it has “no accepted safety for use in medically supervised treatment”, which is simply a factual error. Unfortunately, there’s no reversing a factual error entrenched in legislation judicially.

In the face of this, Justice O’Connor’s paean for Federalism is welcome:
One of federalism’s chief virtues, of course, is that it promotes innovation by allowing for the possibility that “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U. S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

Which I’m sure sounds familiar to any Australian who’s ever lived in the ACT or Northern Territory.

The minority has been criticized for being too pro-States’ rights: opening the door to a pre-New Deal era of ineffectual Federal regulation. I think this overlooks the emphasis in the minority’s reasoning on the need to find a “substantial” impact or relationship between the measure in question and interstate trade or commerce. It seems a much more nuanced approach to the case law than that of the majority.

The decision also contains a fascinating history of the legal regulation of marijuana in the US.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Porters and wildlife

My attempts to go for a short run each morning are, sporadically, continuing. My innate disinclination to exercise is battling with the endorphin rush of actually being able to go outside without freezing, being sliced to shreds by a howling Ural-fresh wind, or rained on.

So, Sunday morning I was out doing a few laps of the college sports ground. Pete the Porter (you couldn’t make these things up) was out on patrol with Sam. The Porters’ uniforms are a black jacket and slacks, white shirt and black tie with a pattern of white college shields. Sam is a dark, dark honey-coloured golden retriever. Seven years old and still wildly excited about tennis balls. Whenever Pete is on duty at the Wychfield site, Sam tends to come along.

I’m fond of Sam, but don’t really spend enough time playing with him. He reminds me of my family’s old goldie, a wonderful dog called Hunny.

I waved to Pete as I jogged past the fenced tennis courts. Pete was inside, checking on the nets and rounding up a few stray balls. Sam was on the outside, intently watching Pete for any sign he might bring a ball back outside the fence with him.

On my next lap I noticed Pete shooing Sam away from something and picking up a limp, black shape in his hands. At first I thought he had a dead bird in his hands. Something in the tall trees by the pavilion was cawing raucously. Sam was very quiet, but looking at the bird Pete was holding with an intensity normally reserved for tennis balls.

I jogged over. Pete had a black bird with white wing markings cupped in his hand, and was coaxing it to sit on one of his stout fingers.

“What have we got here?” I asked, puffing.

“Carrion crow,” answered Pete quietly. “That’s Mum and Dad up in the tree complaining.”

He looked at the bird a bit: “I should get you on a branch somewhere.”

I jogged off. It was a strangely compelling image: a big man with a weathered face, tending a juvenile crow; both in their black-and-white uniforms against the white of the pavilion wall.

Saturday, June 4, 2005

Absolutely priceless Posted by Hello
Batting for the other team … in pristine whites

So, I’ve caved. As the least sporting Australian I’ve ever met (even my female flatmates have spent more time martial arts classes), cricket is finally growing on me.

Of course, it’s a special team that accepts me as a player.

The type that needs bodies. Last year’s recruitment e-mail (see 6 April 2004) for the college team read:
“While some may chose to spend the summer lazing beside rivers and quaffing champagne, the more discerning amongst us elect for the greensward and the thrill of clattering wickets. To feed this passion there exists the Trinity Hall MCR cricket team. This august collective has a long and proud history of sending players boldly into competition, to be thrashed soundly by the other team.

“You too could be part of that tradition.”

Having sallied forth into the field, principally for the Pimms and scones at tea-time, I’m developing an affection for the game. If no talent.

That said, I detect a thread of improvement. I’ve even purchased some whites (slacks and shirt, a mere 15 quid at the cheapest sport’s stores 70% off sale) so I don’t visibly lower the tone.

In a bout of enthusiasm for self-development, I even went into the nets before today’s game to sharpen my skills as a tenth man. Which came in handy.

We opened bowling as the other team had only summoned seven players to our field, and as we were overstaffed with fielders I volunteered to sit out the first 10 overs at the scoreboard and rotate on at half-time.

(Not actually scoring, mind; just puddling about with the metal numbers.)

When the sixth wicket fell, our captain called out: “Doug, do you want to get some pads on and get out here? Let them finish batting?”

I responded a little alarmed to the opposition: “Um, I’m not sure you want me batting for you.”

“Well,” said the batsman then returning to the pavilion, “it’s not like you can score negative runs.”

Looking at the board, I saw the merit in his phlegmatic words. Their position couldn’t really be worse. Eight overs, six wickets, 15 runs.

I went to get my pads.

“Now, no rush,” said my fellow batsman, “it’s just you and me out here for 12 overs. Take your time.”


In my defence, I was last man out, blocked what would have taken my wicket and (more through luck than skill) left the others alone. For the visitors, I was part of one of the more successful partnerships – five runs, not that I scored any off my own bat.

Facing those of our team who genuinely can bowl was a bit scary at first, but like a good ninja assassin I just relied on my training. “Eye on the ball, top hand over, angle the bat down, step into it,” I muttered. They also took it a little easy on me.

From Andrew’s hand ball still whistled, literally hummed cheerfully, as it sailed by. The balls were curving a lot on the bounce, which saved me as often as it made trouble, frankly.

Fielding in my usual habitat (the boundary), I even managed to stop the odd ball that came my way, and caught one rather neatly on the bounce.

Not a bad way to pass an afternoon. Especially when your team wins its second game in a week.