Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Drugs over here and over there

So I just listened to an NPR report on organized crime’s move into the marijuana industry. The report said the drug generates $35 billion annually in the US, making it the nation’s number one cash crop. The story went on to detail federal busts in suburban California communities, and illustrated with little room for argument how those busts point to organized crime. Before I get to comparing the US’s view of marijuana to Hungary’s view of the drug, I want to say something more general.

I don’t like organized crime. I think people who make a living off the black market do harm to the rest of us. This is a view I didn’t have when I lived in the States, but since moving to Hungary where the black market is doing visible harm to honest people who work harder then they should considering the wages they make, I’ve come to view organized criminals as weak-minded parasites. If there are two things I have grown disdainful of, they are organized crime and corruption. The two often go hand in hand, but right now I’m mostly concerned with the dickless goons who think they’ve beat the system because they control the liquor market, the casinos, the high-end dance clubs, and the strip clubs without paying a penny in taxes. Sounds like a sweet gig, but they’re dragging down the rest of the country. There are a few people who see the damage being done, but whether it is through threats of violence or through their connections to corrupt officials, the small-minded goons in charge of the whole system have secured their strangle-hold and won’t be happy until Hungary has no more money left to steal.

That said, I think it would be in America’s best interest to keep the marijuana market out of the hands of organized criminals. And considering the country’s understanding/acceptance of the drug, I think the only way to do that is decriminalization. The NPR report features a police officer pointing out that the busts being made did not involve the hobby home growers or the groovy gardeners. These bust involved criminal rings looking to cash in on a widely accepted, yet illegal commodity. The criminals in California are taking advantage of the drug’s status as a risky investment. The state of California has all but agreed to look the other way, but the Federal government is riding around on their high horse and kicking in pot-growers doors. The small-time growers can’t afford the risk anymore, but the demand persists. Who will supply the market? Well, it will be people who can afford to invest in an operation that uses economy of scale to make up for the occasional loss. It will be people who can hire someone willing to go to jail for a while. It will be people accustomed to flagrantly breaking the law. The Federal government is all but handing them the market.

Marijuana is easy to grow. It is called weed for a reason. It should be dirt cheap. Even the good stuff can be grown on a small scale with minimal investment. If growing a plant or two for personal use means jail time, however, the value goes up and the criminals move into the market. So, attempting to control the supply with harsh law enforcement not only fails to achieve its goal, it fills the pockets of the worst kinds of people.

So, can America do anything about the demand side of the equation? In short, the answer is no. I’m over here in Hungary where the Soviets did a bang up job brainwashing the population. If you ask anyone over forty about marijuana, they will tell you that the stuff will kill you, give you herpes, make you impotent, and put a curse on your family line for generations to come. Of course that same person will also tell you that being gay is a disease you can catch by watching too much Western television (someone actually told me that). America, while it doesn’t say nice things about the drug, does allow a healthy exchange of ideas to take place among its citizens. If you like pot, you don’t feel bad telling your best friend about it. When the Soviets were here in Hungary, however, even if you thought marijuana was harmless, hell if you were going to tell your friend at work. He’d get a promotion for reporting you. In the States we don’t have that kind of paranoia to deal with, and over time people have come to realize that pot isn’t all that bad. Sure there are a number of drawbacks, but overall the harm is nowhere near that of harder drugs. It has gotten to a point where people are okay with marijuana. They don’t want to see it sold in gas stations, but if someone keeps a little wooden box stocked with rolling papers and an ounce or two, no harm no foul. Without an expensive public “education” campaign aimed at un-learning America’s three to four decades of experience with the dreaded marijuana, there seems to be few choices other than decriminalization. And so my question to you, dear reader, is: Does that sound like, totally, really like the most awesome plan ever, or am I just soooo stoned?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dog debate

The correct word order, I finally decide, would be canine menstrual blood not menstrual canine blood, but since it’s come up, let me take this opportunity to say that this is a defining moment for me in that I never could have predicted my life taking a path that would lead to a debate over the proper adjective order necessary to describe the rust-colored stain left on the day bed by my young dog Szóda. It would be trite to point out that my move from Midwestern America to Central Europe came as a surprise to even myself. Perhaps equally so to say that I never saw teaching English rhetoric to Hungarians as a source of income I would one day tap. What makes this moment poignant, however - what highlights the disparity between what I am and what I was before my arrival in Hungary, is a memory of the famed host of “The Price is Right”, the peerless Bob Barker. For those in the know, you’ll remember the public service announcement Mr. Barker made as “The Price is Right” came to a close. The credits would start rolling. The family and friends of the Showcase Showdown winner would be storming the stage. The Barbie doll presenters would be comforting the contestant who came in second place, and then Bob would say it: “Remember folks, help to control the pet population. Spay and neuter your pets.” For those of you who didn’t know, this was how a very popular American game show would come to a close nearly everyday at 11:00am Central Standard Time.

Bob Barker had me convinced that, if you had a dog or cat, the humane thing to do was to take away its ability to procreate. I accepted his word as gospel. Why would that man lie to America?

Well, I realize he wasn’t lying. He was simply using the soapbox he’d helped to construct in an effort to convey a message he believed in. The man believes the pet population is out of control, and spay/neuter clinics are the answer to that problem.

Now that I live in Hungary, however, I’ve come to question Bob’s belief. Most people here do not clip off their pets’ reproductive organs. It is simply not common practice. Throughout the year I meet many dog-walkers in the street who ask me if Szóda is a girl or a boy. Some are worried about two boy dogs getting into a fight, but many are worried because their female dog is in heat. You don’t want to allow a male dog’s nose too close to a menstruating female’s behind. Just trust me on that.

I will admit, getting Szóda fixed would make things a bit easier. I can’t let her run around willy-nilly when she’s in heat, not unless I want puppies. Beyond that, however, there isn’t much of an issue. It’s not as messy as you might think. In fact it's not messy at all. And there is no stray dog problem in Hungary, at least not as far as I can see. I’ve lived in the city and in the countryside, and I have yet to see more than one or two strays. So I am left with a question: do I take Bob Barker’s advice or do I allow Szóda to keep her ability to reproduce? Let me know what you think.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The passing of a legend

Just something brief today, something about the passing of a football legend. Ferenc Puskas was a Hungarian footballer (soccer player) who won the respect of every football fan in the world during his career. I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was before coming to Hungary. And I certainly didn’t realize his status as a national hero until he passed away. There was a national day of mourning; we’re talking black flags hung in the capitol and praise from the Prime Minister.

Now, if you understand the game and have a look at the man’s record, there’s good reason for Hungary’s adoration of Puskas. He earned his status as a legend. It’s not just the Hungarians who feel that way, as he also played with Real Madrid after defecting in ’56, a move that did not please the communists whatsoever. They branded him a traitor. Of course, Hungarians welcomed Puskas and his family back in the 80’s, showing that there are a few things more powerful then politics in this country.

So why, if I didn’t know much about the man, did I choose to write about him today? Well, it seems to me that nearly the entire world pays close attention to this game football (soccer). The passing of great players is marked by days of mourning. The issues of the Cold War are put to one side for one footballer’s desire to return to his homeland. It’s astounding how much people care about the game. And while I don’t doubt Americans have the same devotion to the sports we follow, I’m still left wondering why we don’t show much interest in this game. I’ve read a lot of theories: the rhythm of the game doesn’t jive with Americans (then how can one explain a love of both basketball and baseball?), there are too many American sports already (What? Maybe 3.5 with football, baseball, basketball, and the non-Canadian half of hockey), or a lack of talent (but with a population around 300 million and more money than… anybody else, that excuse falls short).

I think, however, that the most interesting reason behind it might be the real one. I don’t think America wants to compete on the world stage in a team sporting event. Aside from the team events at the Olympics and in track and field, we don’t like to play with others. And let’s face it, without a cold war, the Olympics and track and field are not exactly big draws anymore.

So what do you say about a country that doesn’t play well with others? I don’t know, but I thought I’d pose the question.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Like a rolling stone

I was writing to John Burns, an old friend, today. I was excusing my failed e-life: no person emails in months, no blog entries, no messenger... nothing. But in responce to his question about Hungarian politics, I just couldn't stop writing. Here's some of that message.

And as far as Hungarian politics is concerned... Wow, it's a lot to explain. The protests and the ensuing riots are filled with a couple hundred years of issues: loss of territory after WWI, anti-Semitism, communism vs socialism, xenophobia, police brutality, police incompetence, failed revolutions in 1848 and 1956, and more.

It's so hard for us as Americans to comprehend, the people here consider their whole history political. I've been here a while, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it. Imagine an American politician invoking his party’s triumphs during the Civil War. It wouldn't happen outside a strictly academic conversation.

As a people, we Americans favor issues over context. I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I'm over here, however, and learning that most people in the world think the tendency makes Americans look stupid. Yet they acknowledge that we’re productive. They fail to understand the mechanism behind it, because divorcing themselves from their history is such an impossible concept.

Sounds like a good thing, right. But when there's been a peaceful change in regime and the nation is expected to move at the pace of the world economy, there’s a need for people to step back and look at the now – even if only for a couple of years. The Hungarians want a free-market economy, but they want to blame the government for any and all problems. They want the lower taxes of a full-fledged capitalist economy without losing the benefits that came with socialism. So the amateur politicians over here lie to the public while pushing through legislation aimed at one side or the other.

It’s a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. And in a moderately poor country full of people who enjoy revolutions, when the rock rolls back downhill… well you saw the news.