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A Big Part of Fixing Our Education System Is Simply About Its Price Tag

If you want a higher education in the United States, you need to have money. The average cost of a college education at a public university in the USA is over $20,000. That number balloons to nearly $35,000 for out-of-state students. With unpaid U.S. student debt topping $1.4 trillion, it’s easy to see how the price of college is out of control.

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Someone Invented a $50 EpiPen, When Will It Arrive? A Conversation with the Doctor Who Invented It

How much is a potentially lifesaving medicine worth? The question is easy to answer for number-crunching drug company CEOs: as much as they can get away with charging.

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Are We Moving Towards Reform? For the First Time in 40 Years, U.S. Prison Population Declines

 In two reports releases last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

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Poverty, Addiction, and Medicaid Cuts: A Former Addict's Call to Occupy Wall St.

This week the City of Philadelphia was awarded the dubious distinction of the nation’s "poorest large city," with one quarter of the adult population and one third of children living below the poverty line. Philly’s been big and poor for a long time now, but this is a significant uptick from previous census numbers, and the total economic impact of the ongoing Great Recession has probably not yet been felt. While attempts to de-stigmatize addiction by painting it as a disease that doesn’t discriminate by race, class or gender are well intentioned, the fact is that while addiction may not discriminate it certainly does tend to cluster geographically, and there is a correlation between urban poverty and elevated levels of addiction.

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On the First Anniversary of AZ's Harsh Immigration Law, States Are Discovering the Sky-High Costs of Bad Legislation

One year ago this month, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer put her star on the political map when she signed SB 1070, a controversial immigration law which required state and local law-enforcement officials to inquire about immigration status during any lawful stop, detention, or arrest. Some states learned from Arizona -- the numerous protests, Supreme Court challenge, costly litigation, economic boycotts that are still costing state businesses millions -- and rejected similar laws. Other states, however, are still pushing for immigration enforcement measures despite the continued outcry from businesses and local groups about how these bills will hurt their state.

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Bad Policies Are Really What's Driving California's Huge Prison Costs

Governor Schwarzenegger’s flippant remark last month that California could reduce prison costs by shipping 20,000 inmates to Mexico is a dangerous sign that he may be giving up on serious corrections reform – even as the dual crises of overcrowding and overspending intensify. His office has now rejected that off-the-cuff scheme, but the governor stands behind another questionable proposal to cut costs through privatization, signaling that he may be taking his eye off of real solutions in favor of political posturing.

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Cost of Occupation in Iraq: $3 Trillion Estimate Was Too Low

President Bush has tried to give the impression that the $3 trillion dollar estimate of the total cost of the war that we provide in our new book may be exaggerated.

We believe that it is, in fact, conservative. Even the president would have to admit that the $50 to $60 billion estimate given by the administration before the war was wildly off the mark; there is little reason to have confidence in their arithmetic. They admit to a cost so far of $600 billion.

Our numbers differ from theirs for three reasons: first, we are estimating the total cost of the war, under alternative conservative scenarios, derived from the defense department and congressional budget office. We are not looking at McCain's 100-year scenario - we assume that we are there, in diminished strength, only through to 2017. But neither are we looking at a scenario that sees our troops pulled out within six months. With operational spending going on at $12 billion a month, and with every year costing more than the last, it is easy to come to a total operational cost that is double the $600 billion already spent.

Second, we include war expenditures hidden elsewhere in the budget, and budgetary expenditures that we would have to incur in the future even if we left tomorrow. Most important of these are future costs of caring for the 40 percent of returning veterans that are likely to suffer from disabilities (in excess of $600 billion; second world war veterans' costs didn't peak until 1993), and restoring the military to its prewar strength. If you include interest, and interest on the interest - with all of the war debt financed - the budgetary costs quickly mount.

Finally, our $3 trillion dollars estimate also includes costs to the economy that go beyond the budget, for instance the cost of caring for the huge number of returning disabled veterans that go beyond the costs borne by the federal government -- in one out of five families with a serious disability, someone has to give up a job. The macro-economic costs are even larger. Almost every expert we have talked to agrees that the war has had something to do with the rise in the price of oil; it was not just an accident that oil prices began to soar at the same time as the war began.

We have been criticized, but for being excessively conservative, for including only $5 to $10 of the $75 to $85 increase in the price of oil since then. Money spent on the war -- on a Nepalese contractor working in Iraq -- does not stimulate the economy as much as money spent on hospitals or research or schools at home. These contractionary effects were temporarily covered up, hidden, by the flood of liquidity and lax regulations that led to a housing bubble and a consumption boom - with household savings plummeting to zero. But this simply postponed paying these costs - and increased them.

With the exception of a few lonely surviving supply-siders, most economists believe that deficits matter, and the huge deficits to finance the war will have their toll in the long run. Deficits matter in both the short run and the long. They help crowd out private investment that would have stimulated the economy far more than the war expenditures; and the reduced investments reduce long-run productivity. With 40 percent of the funds borrowed from abroad, Americans will be sending interest payments abroad -- lowering living standards at home. Finally, even Fed Chair Bernanke (formerly the president's economic adviser) admits that the deficits have reduced the room to manoeuvre -- the ability of the government to respond to the looming economic crisis.

Spending so much on the war has economic consequences, even if you don't think there is any connection between the war and the economy's current woes.

In adding up the quantifiable costs of the war, it is hard not to come up with a number in excess of $3 trillion. In putting a $3 trillion price tag on the war, we believe we have been excessively conservative - a $4 or $5 trillion tag would be more reasonable. And remember - this is just the cost for America.

Medical Marijuana Keeps on Rolling

When Assemblyman Richard Gottfried proposed a bill legalizing marijuana for sick people in 1997, his odds of success seemed slim. State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, vowed to defeat Gottfried's bill. And even Gottfried, a Democrat from Chelsea, admitted that turning his bill into law would be "an uphill battle." Back then, only two states permitted sick people to smoke pot legally.

Fast-forward seven years and the cause of medical marijuana has become a full-fledged political movement, with two national organizations running campaigns across the country. Medical marijuana is now legal in 11 states. And in New York, the cause has grown in popularity. Now even Bruno, who battled prostate cancer last year, has begun to sound much more receptive.

The battle over medical marijuana was back in the news again last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of two sick women from California. Their case seeks to stop federal law enforcement agents from arresting pot-smoking patients who are obeying the laws of their own state. A ruling is not expected for months.

Even if the court decides against the two women, the medical-marijuana laws in states like California would not change; they would still permit patients to smoke pot (though these patients would be vulnerable to arrest by federal agents). "Nobody ever expected this case to get this far," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which helped finance this lawsuit as well as medical-marijuana campaigns in eight states. "If we win this, it would be a very significant step forward. If we lose, it's just a tiny step backward."

Whatever the court's final decision, it will certainly affect the movement's momentum, and may determine the fate of Gottfried's bill in Albany next year.

For New Yorkers with long memories, the debate over medical marijuana may feel like old news. During the 1980s, New York was one of seven states in the country that distributed marijuana cigarettes. The pot came from a federal farm down South. Through a research program, it was dispensed at hospitals around the state to people with glaucoma or cancer. (According to doctors and patients, marijuana relieves eye pressure in glaucoma sufferers and fights nausea induced by chemotherapy.)

New Yorkers had former assemblyman Antonio Olivieri to thank for this program. In 1979, Olivieri discovered he had a brain tumor. He underwent chemotherapy, and smoked marijuana to battle the side effects. Along the way, he became an outspoken crusader for legalizing medical marijuana. From his hospital bed, he lobbied the chair of the senate health committee by phone. The bill passed in 1980, and Olivieri died shortly afterward.

Between 1982 and 1989, the New York State Department of Health handed out almost 6,000 joints, to more than 200 people. Eventually the availability of Marinol capsules – which contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana – decreased the demand for the cigarettes. (Many people do prefer marijuana, however, which they say is more effective.) At any rate, by the end of the decade, New York's medical-marijuana program had shut down, as had all the programs in other states.

California kicked off the recent wave of medical-marijuana victories in 1996, when Proposition 215 prevailed, with 56 percent of the vote. Now, with a doctor's recommendation, people in California who suffer from AIDS, cancer, or glaucoma can legally grow and smoke marijuana. Over the next four years, several states followed California's lead: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Colorado, Nevada. Each state put the issue on the ballot, and every time voters approved it. Last month, voters in Montana approved yet another medical-marijuana ballot initiative, this time by 62 percent.

Meanwhile, in 2000, Hawaii became the first state to remove criminal penalties for medical marijuana by using a different method: passing state legislation instead of putting an initiative on the ballot. Campaigns for ballot initiatives can be incredibly costly; given a choice, medical-marijuana activists usually prefer to achieve their goals through legislation. While it can be much more difficult to win over state legislators than regular voters, this strategy has begun to work. The Maryland state legislature passed a medical-marijuana bill in 2003, and Vermont did the same earlier this year.

A legislative victory in New York State – getting Gottfried's bill through the assembly and the senate, and then signed by Governor Pataki – would represent yet another substantial victory for the pro-pot movement. The Marijuana Policy Project, a national organization that spent $3 million on campaigns this year, will be targeting New York in 2005, as well as Rhode Island, Illinois, and a few other states. Already, the group has a lobbyist working in Albany.

Gottfried's bill would permit people to smoke marijuana legally with a doctor's certification if they have a "life-threatening condition." These include cancer, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and hepatitis C. Doctors who certify patients to obtain pot would be required to send a copy of their certification to the state health department. Patients would be allowed to receive a month's supply of marijuana at a time.

The bill has 45 sponsors in the assembly; seven are Republicans. One of the first Republicans to join the cause was Patrick Manning, who represents Dutchess County. A close friend of his has cancer, and has been smoking marijuana to battle the effects of chemotherapy. "If this could help someone make their life a little bit better, a little more pleasant, while they're going through such a horrible disease, then it would be wrong for me not to stand up," Manning says. "I started talking to my colleagues and asked them to join me, so we can really make it a bipartisan bill."

The talk show host Montel Williams traveled to Albany to lobby legislators in May. Williams, who uses pot to combat the pain caused by multiple sclerosis, met with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bruno, and others. In June, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau met with Williams, then announced his support for legalizing medical marijuana. A few weeks later, the New York City Council passed a resolution supporting Gottfried's bill. And in September, Williams returned to Albany to have a meeting about the issue with Governor Pataki.

For any state that does legalize medical marijuana, the crucial question is always: Where does the pot come from? The federal government grows marijuana on a farm in Mississippi, and supplies joints to seven patients across the country through a research program run by the University of Mississippi. But this farm does not supply pot to new patients in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. These patients must either grow their own weed, or else buy it on the black market.

One idea that has been floating around for years is to redistribute marijuana that has been confiscated by the police. In past years, in New York State, this pot has been handed over to the state health department. Workers placed it on a conveyor belt, which delivered it to an incinerator. (The process wasn't always seamless; in 1986, workers took 63 pounds of marijuana for themselves, lifting it off the conveyer belt.) Gottfried's bill suggests a few possible sources of medical marijuana, including the state's confiscated stash.

While some legislators will likely want to wait to make a decision about Gottfried's bill until the Supreme Court makes its decision, Gottfried is pushing for faster action. "I think the fact that the Supreme Court decision is pending creates one argument for passing a bill at this very moment, because state action helps send a message ... to the Supreme Court," he says. That message, of course, would be that the public wants to permit sick people to smoke pot without having to worry about a phalanx of police officers bursting through their front door.

Medical Pot Comes to Nevada

Pierre Werner has a (hazy) vision. He's a medical marijuana provider, and wants to create Nevada's first compassion club for the product's users -- and not even the law will get in his way of creating it.

"I've been doing this all my life -- providing medical marijuana even before it was considered medical," he says.

Werner is the president of Primary Caregivers and Consultants, a company he created to provide medical marijuana to patients and offer physician-approved recommendations. He also consults attorneys and physicians on Nevada's Medical Marijuana Program. Currently he services 15 patients, eight of whom are registered with the Department of Agriculture's Medical Marijuana Program.

"After seeing so many dying patients in pain, I felt obligated to do something," he says, adding that he is not considered a caregiver since the state only allows one patient per caregiver.

One thing Werner can be considered is ballsy. Even though compassion clubs are prohibited in Nevada, he's going to open shop no matter what. Through the club, Werner will recommend physicians, caregivers and recipes for growing medical marijuana, as well as provide the product. All he needs to get his compassion club started is more patients, which really means more money.

The way he's going to operate his club is what will make it work, Werner says. Instead of being located in one place, his operation will be mobile.

When the Nevada Legislature initially envisioned a state medical marijuana program, it considered using a single state agency to distribute marijuana to qualified patients (according to Nevada Lawyer, which is published by the State Bar of Nevada). But after examining the medical marijuana programs in California and Oregon, the preferred course of action the state decided on left the supply and distribution "in the hands of patients," meaning a patient's plant can be shared with other patients, Werner explains.

The problem California cannabis clubs had with raids by federal agents discouraged the creation of a single agency. So instead of taking responsibility for supplying medical pot to patients from a central location, Nevada just said it's fine to smoke up with a doctor's note -- but where a patient finds this medicine is the patient's responsibility. A patient can grow it, but the state can't provide.

That's where Werner comes in.

"Supply and distribution matters are left to us," he says. "So as a patient, I should be able to provide to my fellow patients. Instead of the streets, I want to provide a safe environment for these people."

One of the significant aspects of Nevada's medical marijuana law is that a person who is legitimately engaged in or assisting in marijuana's medical use may raise an "affirmative defense" to certain criminal charges such as possession or distribution, according to Nevada Lawyer. This applies to any caregiver or patient regardless of whether that person is registered with the DOA.

And that affirmative defense is what Werner says protects medical marijuana providers.

"Say I'm not a patient and just an average Joe selling marijuana. If I sell to a medical marijuana patient, I cannot be charged with selling to that patient because that is now medical marijuana," he explains. "The average Joe is protected from certain charges."

A patient has the right to grow marijuana; and Werner says that if a patient grows too much, that person should be able to sell the excess. Werner sells his medical marijuana based on stress. Mexican stress sells for $80 to $100 per ounce and hydroponic stress goes for $300 to $350 an ounce.

"That's a legitimate use of medical marijuana," Werner says. "I tell my patients that if they grow too much, they can sell to me and I'll sell to the other patients."

But Jennifer Bartlett, program manager of Nevada's Medical Marijuana Program, says there is a limit to how much a patient can grow, and what is grown can't be sold. Under state law, a patient can have up to seven marijuana plants, Bartlett says.

"A patient can have four immature plants, three mature plants and an ounce of smoke-able marijuana under Nevada law," she says, explaining that a mature plant by the state's definition is a plant whose bud can be seen with the naked eye. "What a patient grows is just for their use."

Bartlett made it clear that the DOA is not affiliated with Werner's operation. And Werner, a registered DOA patient with a bipolar condition, wanted it made clear that since a patient cannot be a caregiver, he isn't one. He's simply a provider.

So, what's the difference?

If a DOA-registered patient is extremely sick, the patient can opt to have a caregiver care for them and their medical marijuana. That person -- usually the spouse or a family member of the patient -- must also register with the DOA.

Successful registration occurs after the patient's physician approves the applicant, who can never have been convicted of selling a controlled substance. Also, the person must sign a waiver acknowledging an understanding of the program and that they won't hold the state responsible for any delirious outcomes (such as a car accident while under the influence). Currently, there are 216 patients and 24 caregivers registered in Nevada, says Bartlett.

Werner says DOA registration is unnecessary because of affirmative defense, which protects anyone distributing to a patient.

"Approval from a medical doctor is all a patient and caregiver need to be legally recognized by the state and be afforded the same protections under affirmative defense," he says.

But there is one thing Werner wants understood -- all his clients are doctor-approved.

"I don't mess with recreational marijuana. I only sell medical marijuana."

Medical marijuana patients can contact Werner at 702-328-4420.

Mike Zigler is a CityLife staff writer.