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The Pot Plank and Presidential Politics


The Marijuana Policy Project came out with its report card for 22 presidential candidates and hopefuls this week and the headline is that no one is sticking their neck out very far when it comes to the legalization of marijuana or the loosening of federal pot laws. Admittedly, this is not the biggest issue on anyone’s presidential platform but as more states jump on the bandwagon, voters will be demanding a pot plank as the 2016 race gets underway.

Republican Rand Paul stands out in the crowd for supporting the rights of states to establish marijuana policy and also for being a voice for decriminalization, legalized medical marijuana and access to banks for marijuana businesses. The MPP voter guide sends him to the head of the presidential class with an A-. On the other hand, the MPP gives Republicans Chris Christie and Rick Santorum an F for saying they will enforce federal laws to crack down on states that have charted their own course in legalizing pot.

Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb are taking a wait and see approach to the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in Colorado and other states. They get B grades from the MPP. Republican Rick Perry also gets a B for supporting state rights to establish their own policies and working to reduce pot penalties in his home state of Texas.

Republicans Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina get C+ grades for accepting the right of states to create their own policies despite opposing the legalization of the drug for any kind of use. New York Republican George Pataki, who also opposes legalizing marijuana for all purposes, still gets a C for saying he’ll keep the federal government from interfering with states that vote to legalize pot, as long as it stays away from kids and doesn’t upset neighboring states. Republicans Donald Trump and Lindsay Graham get C’s for supporting only medical marijuana. Republican Bobby Jindal gets a C- for only supporting limited medical marijuana and would be candidate John Kasich gets a C- for not even supporting that.

Continuing the “gateway drug” narrative has earned Democrats Martin O’Malley and Joe Biden a C- and D respectively. Republicans Scott Walker and Ben Carson also get D grades for not giving up on the theory. Florida Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Arkansas Republican Mike Huckabee, who oppose the legalization of marijuana for any purpose, get D’s as well.

According to Marijuana Policy Poject Communications Director Mason Tvert “voters should know which candidates support rolling back prohibition and which ones are fighting to maintain it. People are becoming increasingly wary of the federal government’s role in our nation’s marijuana policy.” Indeed, the disconnect between state and federal laws has been one of the biggest challenges dogging the young industry. “If states are to be our nation’s laboratories of democracy, our next president needs to respect their right to experiment,” Tvert said. “They should be committed to basing marijuana laws on science and evidence instead of ideology and politics.”


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Oil Spill: The Ripple Effect

I finally got to the Gulf coast to work on a story about the oil spill for the PBS Newshour. I didn’t see any oil but what I saw was a a boat load of fear. Correspondent Tom Bearden and I visited Bayou La Batre, Alabama to attend a town hall meeting with Ken Feinberg, the Massachusetts lawyer who must decide how to allocate BP’s 20 billion dollar compensation fund. He has done this kind of work previously for victims of 9/11 and Virginia Tech.  Feinberg was mostly reassuring people that help was on the way and was listening to the concerns among the folks who packed city hall at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning. What struck me was how far reaching this catastrophe is on the people who live in towns that dot the Gulf coast. Bayou La Batre bills itself as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama.”  The oil spill has rippled through the whole community disrupting the entire seafood chain.  Obviously the fishermen have lost the season, then there are the people who store and process the seafood like brothers Bruce and Delane Seaman who had to shut down their oyster shucking plant putting about 40 people out of work.  They don’t expect to ever reopen.  Their customers have gone elsewhere.  Then there are folks like Patrick and Lillie Kraver who own Kraver’s restaurant in Daphne, on the other side of Mobile Bay, that sells the seafood and have seen business tumble by about 40%.  When Tom asked them if they could survive they said “God would provide.”  These are people whose families have worked in the seafood industry for generations.  And then there are the more indirect losses. The man who has a candy and gift store on the beach and has seen his tourist traffic dry up, another man who has watched his real estate property values tank, even the local minister who has seen his offerings cut almost in half. He reminded Ken Feinberg that when everyone leaves the area it will be the churches and faith based organizations that care for fragile residents.  People came from as far away as Pensacola, Florida.  Everyone had a story of loss and hardship and a sense of skepticism deep as the Gulf about whether help was really coming or whether this was more PR.  Most have felt jerked around by British Petroleum and are hoping Ken Feinberg is really here to help make them at least partially whole.  He says he has received claims from 48 states so he has a huge task trying to decide who will be eligible to receive money and who doesn’t qualify.  Unlike a hurricane which comes and goes this catastrophe and its impacts could crush the community for years and everyone needs help to weather the storm and stay afloat.

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Animal Suicide: The Video

Can animals commit suicide?  Richard O’Barry, who starred in the Oscar award winning documentary “The Cove,” says they can and a dolphin named Cathy that he captured and trained for the TV show “Flipper” did just that.  Outrageous? Jennifer London traveled with him to Key West, Florida to look into this controversial subject for HDNet’s World Report. She also spoke to animal behaviorists, Dr. Ann Weaver in St. Petersburg, Florida and Dr. Lori Marino at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Animal Suicide from Vicky Collins on Vimeo.

Produced by Vicky Collins

Story: Animal Suicide

Network: HDNet – World Report

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Animal Suicide

Richard O’Barry gets misty eyed when he talks about Cathy. His beautiful girl died in his arms. Suicide he says. Cathy was a bottlenose dolphin, one of five he trained for the 60’s television hit, “Flipper.” Her death in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium changed his world and set him on a course of activism. “I knew she was tired of suffering,” O’Barry says. “She was living a miserable life and she was tired of being miserable.” Does O’Barry feel responsible? “Of course. I’m the guy who captured her. She’d have been better off if we left her alone.” According to O’Barry, Cathy chose to stop breathing, something dolphins are physiologically capable of, and he believes it was an intentional act brought on by her captivity. He doesn’t care if you believe him or not. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it. Since then he has spent his life crusading for a future where dolphins and orcas will never again see the inside of a tank.

We were out on the water off Key West, Florida, working on a story for HDNet’s World Report about this wild notion of animal suicide. Our correspondent, Jennifer London, was on a journey of discovery to see if it was indeed possible for an animal to commit suicide. O’Barry, who first floated this notion to raised eyebrows in the Oscar award winning documentary, “The Cove,” wanted us to see dolphins in the wild, frolicking in their natural environment, swimming 40 miles a day, speeding through the waves like torpedos in their watery world of sound and vibration. Afterwards, we went to the Miami Seaquarium on Key Biscayne to see how the other half lives, performing for audiences, swimming in circles in small, concrete tanks, begging for fish, away from their social circles and the rhythms of the sea. The contrast was striking.

But can captivity really cause a dolphin to commit suicide? They seem to be smiling, don’t they? What kid hasn’t been charmed by the dolphin’s toothy grin? Dr. Ann Weaver, who studies dolphins in Tampa Bay, calls it a frozen face and doesn’t buy the notion of animal suicide. She acknowledges that animals can get depressed (that’s well documented) but the leap to despair, which is a hopelessness that carries into the future, doesn’t occur. She speaks about a continuum from melancholy to the blues to depression to despondency to despair. According to Dr. Weaver, the final step to despair, which is a tipping point in suicide, is uniquely human. Then there is the powerful survival instinct. “I think everything they are designed to be is to keep on keeping on. So I think suicide is the curse of the human consciousness, but not other consciousnesses. I don’t believe they give up and that’s what suicide requires.”

Dr. Weaver tells us about a dolphin named Whitley who used to beg for food. She chokes up as she describes how the dolphin who had been turned into a beggar, then was maimed by a shark, still came to her looking for one last handout before sinking into the water for the final time. She mentioned a heron who had its bill ripped off yet still tried to catch lizards until it eventually starved to death too. Giving up, she said, is not in the DNA of animals. And suicide involves intention. How can you know what an animal is thinking? “How do we ask the animal if it intended to do this?” Dr. Weaver wonders.

Finally, we visited Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and marine mammal specialist at Emory University in Atlanta. In the animal behavior world she is a rock star for a mirror test study that showed dolphins recognized their reflections. Self awareness and a sense of past, present and future are essential if one is to commit suicide. She shows us a human brain and a dolphin brain and explains how evolved they both are. Such big brains indicate a high level of cognitive processes. In fact, Dr. Marino believes that humans and dolphins share emotions, that they are more alike than different. “I think the idea that other animals can’t commit suicide because they are hardwired to live is very old fashioned,” Dr. Marino explains. “Basically it says that we are aware of what we are doing and other animals are just driven by this hardwired red in tooth and claw to survive and there is no evidence for that.” So how would they commit suicide? There are examples of dolphins and whales beating their heads on walls and jumping out of their tanks. Hard evidence? No. Tantalizing information. Yes.

So at the end of the day did we find the answer to the question “Can Animals Commit Suicide?” You’ll have to watch HDNet’s World Report on June 8 for a deeper exploration. It’s a provocative inquiry and scientists agree it requires more research. But no matter what the science says it won’t change what Rick O’Barry saw when Cathy looked in his eyes and let herself go. “I lived with her for seven years. She commited suicide. She died in my arms and I experienced that.”

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Hurricane Season

William Gray, Phillip Klotzbach and their forecasters at Colorado State University have come out with their predictions for the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season which runs from June 1 to November 30.  It’s expected to be active with three hurricanes becoming major Category 3 storms.  In the press release they remark, “NOAA’s National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says there is a 70 percent chance of having nine to 14 named storms,  four to seven of which could become hurricanes, and one to three major hurricanes (winds 115mph or greater). If this comes to pass, these numbers would reflect an average number and intensity of tropical cyclones.”

Over the last years there have been extremely powerful hurricanes that have made landfall in the United States including Rita, Wilma and the apocalyptic Katrina which struck New Orleans during the deadly season of 2005.  Hurricane Ivan was the strongest hurricane of the season in 2004.  It wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and at one point was a Category 5 storm the size of Texas.

Hurricane Ivan approaches Key West

Hurricane Ivan approaches Key West

Correspondent Martin Savidge, the crew and I were dispatched to Key West, Florida to cover the storm for NBC News.  Driving 100 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico there was great tension as the storm approached, even more so than in other storms I have chased.  Traveling out to Key West that day I realized we were there to stay.  Once the winds started howling and the water started rising there would be absolutely no way to get off the remote key.  At one point forecasters predicted a direct hit on the low lying island.  A bullseye would put Key West under water.  When we checked into the hotel we had to sign a form saying we understood the risks and knew we were taking our lives in our own hands.  Even for seasoned hurricane chasers there was a feeling of approaching danger.  It rained like hell but at the end of the day Ivan skirted the island and saved its wrath for Gulf Shores, Alabama where it hit as a Category 3.  Once the storm passed by Key West there was a palpable sense of relief on the island.  Those who didn’t evacuate and hunkered down came out into the light and crowded into the bars.  Key West, which was all boarded up, returned to its merry ways.  I took this picture of a man who told me his name was Ca$h.  To me he epitomized the care free ebullience that returned to Key West, Florida after it was spared by Hurricane Ivan.  I have received more comments on this photo than any other I have taken.  I smile whenever I think of Ca$h.     

Ca$h in Key West, Florida

Ca$h in Key West, Florida

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Points from Poynter

As a young television producer working at KRON TV in San Francisco I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong seminar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It was one of the first times I was able to explore my craft with other like minded professionals and learn from some of the best in the business.  Among them was Rod Prince, one of the brilliant producers of NBC Network News who I eventually had the privilege to work with.  That week fired me up like no other and the skills I developed remain with me to this day.  The Poynter Institute is an amazing place to grow.  With the economy in a meltdown it is getting more difficult for aspiring journalists to get a first break.  A mom on the lacrosse field told me her soon to be college graduate was very discouraged by the prospects and another would be broadcaster decided to abandon television news altogether for a career in public relations.  Here is an article by the Poynter Institute’s Jill Geisler on why people should still hire journalists.  It speaks to the virtues and the myriad of abilities of those who report the news.

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Deborah Sharp’s “Mama Does Time”

Deborah Sharp (left) is the author of "Mama Does Time."

Deborah Sharp (left), author of "Mama Does Time."

My friend, Deborah Sharp, has just written her first book. “Mama Does Time” is a gentle murder mystery with colorful characters and a brilliantly developed sense of place. It is set in central Florida and is full of Southern wit and details. The caper begs you to keep turning the page. It reads like an Alexander McCall Smith novel. It won’t scare you or keep you up at night except that you won’t be able to put it down because you’re losing sleep trying to figure out who killed Jim Albert and stuffed him into the trunk of Mama’s car. You’ll be guessing until the last chapters when her daughter, Mace, puts all the pieces together. Deborah hit it out of the park with “Mama Does Time” and is enjoying well deserved reviews and accolades at book signings and parties in her honor.

This past week with my book in hand I visited Deborah and her husband Kerry at their home in Florida. “Mama Does Time” had risen to the top of my book stack and it was a coincidence that I was reading it when I arrived. Deborah was so tickled (I’m sure she would come up with some witty Southernism to describe her delight) to see someone holding her book, reading it and talking about it. She autographed it for me in a turquoise pen (the perfect touch since Mama drives a turquoise convertible.) She and Kerry spent alot of time putting labels on postcards that announce book signings (new authors do lots of heavy lifting in the sales department) and every time someone sent her a good review she danced around the house. She even bought a turquoise jacket to wear to her first book signing and modeled it for us.

I have heard that writing a book is the hardest work anyone can do. Even though Deb had 20 years of newspaper reporting under her belt it took a whole different skill set to crank out fiction. The first draft she sent to her publisher was about half as long as it needed to be. Once she got going she nailed the dialogue and ended each chapter with just the right line to keep the reader plowing ahead. Her writing is so vivid that I swear I saw Mama on my flight home. She was there with her platinum hair, turquoise sweater and silver cross around her neck. Deborah already has written the second book in the series, “Mama Rides Shotgun,” (out in July 2009) and is working on book number three. Hopefully more will come after that. You can read about Deb on her website at If you happen to boat by her house you’ll see her on her deck sitting in a chair with her avocado smoothie, a pencil and a notebook writing longhand (yes, longhand!) It’s an exciting chapter in Deb’s life.

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