Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment.

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A GOP Bill to End the War on Pot

| Sat Apr. 20, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

Few ideas have more support from voters and less from national politicians than legalizing marijuana. While major polls now show that most Americans back the concept, the president and leaders in Congress won't touch the issue except to laugh it off.

Like pothead soccer dads in the sitcom Weeds, however, some of the biggest backers of legalization are turning up where you'd least expect them. Take, for example, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who last week introduced a bill designed to prevent the feds from arresting pot growers and tokers in states where the drug is legal. "This approach is consistent with responsible, constitutional, and conservative governance," the 13-term congressman from California's ultraconservative Orange County told me.

"The federal government's total prohibition of marijuana has been neither effective nor efficient."

Until recently, Republicans who supported ending pot prohibition were about as common as unicorns. There were US Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and, well, some prominent former Republicans such as New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. After ditching her Alaska governor job for a Fox News gig a few years ago, Sarah Palin finally stuck her neck out: "If somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else any harm," she said on Fox's Freedom Watch in 2010, "then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in, and try to clean up some of the other problems that we have in society."

Back then that was crazy talk. Now it's mainstream enough that Rohrabacher's new marijuana bill has already attracted two other Republican cosponsors: Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Don Young of Alaska.

Rohrabacher got turned on to marijuana activism about 10 years ago, when he had to spoon-feed his dying mother because she'd lost her appetite. He learned that medical marijuana might help her eat. "My interest has evolved from there," he says.

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Charts: Challenging the Myth That Guns Stop Crime

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

One of the gun lobby's favorite talking points is that America's arsenal of 300 million civilian firearms makes us safer by preventing millions of crimes. This contentious idea has taken fire as of late for relying on bogus stats and ignoring that most criminal shootings involve people who know each other, not gun-toting homeowners and midnight intruders. A new report from Violence Policy Center shoots even more holes in the argument that a well-armed society is a safer society.

The report finds that less than 3 percent of gun-related homicides are committed in self-defense (mouse over charts for the raw numbers):

The gun lobby often claims that firearms are used for self-defense an estimated 2.5 million times a year. But according to the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey, the actual number is just a fraction of that:

Guns are used for self defense (both successfully and unsuccessfully) by less than 1 percent of all violent crime victims:

The typical gun is more likely to be stolen than to be used in an attempt to stop a crime:

*Average per year, 2007-2011 / **Average per year, 2005-2010

In another twist on the self-defense argument, the NRA likes to claim that women in particular need guns to guard against bullies and rapists. But crime statistics unearthed by the Violence Policy Center indicate that only about 10 percent of those who shoot people in self defense are women:

Smart-Taxi Smackdown: Regulators Ponder the Future of Uber, SideCar, and Lyft

| Wed Apr. 10, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Lyft's pink moustaches have become a meme.

If you don't live in the San Francisco Bay Area or a handful of big cities, you probably haven't noticed the revolution in the taxi and livery cab businesses. In the Bay Area, local startups Uber, SideCar, and Lyft have made it a breeze to snag a ride in a taxi, a limo, or even your neighbor's aging Honda Civic. All it takes is firing up one of their apps on your smartphone. These companies' GPS-based dispatch systems allow almost anybody with an Android or iPhone and a clean driving record to make money as a quasi-legal gypsy cab driver. This ride revolution has made getting around town cheaper and easier, but has sapped the livelihoods of traditional cabbies and raised safety and security concerns.

Uber now operates in dozens of cities, and SideCar isn't far behind, having expanded its gypsy cab (or "ride-sharing") service last month to Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC. Lyft's trademark pink mustache, meanwhile, has become a pop culture meme. But the success of these alt-taxi firms may ultimately depend on whether California regulators put the kibosh on them—since other cities and states could well follow California's lead.

Today, the California Public Utilities Commission will hold a workshop aimed at drafting new regulations for the companies, which it deems "new online-enabled transportation services." Up for discussion will be whether these services must play by the same rules as traditional transportation companies—which include hefty insurance requirements, handicap accessibility, and set safety standards. 

Many taxi and limo drivers, and even some of Uber's own "partners" (drivers) think they should. I caught up with both sides at Uber HQ, where an ad hoc group of UberBlack drivers calling themselves Limounion was holding a protest, claiming Uber was taking a cut of their tips—a skirmish I wrote about here.

Texas Woos "Persecuted" Gun Companies

| Mon Apr. 8, 2013 2:00 AM PDT
Ted Nugent and US Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) Office of Rep. Stockman

Various parts of America have at different times served as refuges for the persecuted. The North was a popular destination for freed and escaped slaves. San Francisco attracted gays. The Emerald Triangle and Appalachia became havens for pot growers and bootleggers.

Now Texas wants in on the action.  

On Friday, US Rep. Steve Stockman, a Republican from Friendswood, sent the following message to "all persecuted gun owners and unwanted manufacturers":

Come to Texas!!! The state which believes the whole Bill of Rights should be followed, not just the "politically correct" parts. Your rights will not be infringed upon here, unlike many current local regimes [sic].

Texans who may want abortions or same-sex marriages will doubtless celebrate their state's newfound support for "the whole Bill of Rights." But will gun companies relocate because of it? Their executives want us to think so. After Colorado signed a gun control package last month, two makers of firearms accessories said they'd leave. The weapons makers Beretta, Colt, Mossberg, and Stag Arms have threatened to yank factories from Connecticut and Maryland if those states make good on new gun restrictions.

Of course, any Texan who actually knows guns will tell you that the complainers are all hat and no cattle. State laws requiring background checks or banning certain types of weapons won't crimp manufacturers, who sell their guns nationwide and globally. Just take the example of Beretta and Mossberg: These companies are headquartered in or source their guns from, respectively, Italy and Turkey, where highly restrictive firearms laws haven't slowed down some $150 million in yearly exports of rifles, pistols, and shotguns to the United States.

Stockman's open letter is really more about shooting off his mouth than defending the rights of shooters. It's about burnishing his reputation as "the new Michele Bachmann," a comparison that, in all fairness, is kind of like calling Madonna the new Lady Gaga.

During a scandalous and painfully brief congressional stint in the mid-1990s, Stockman earned infamy for defending the militia movement in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and suggesting that Bill Clinton raided Waco's Branch Davidian compound in order to build support for gun control. Now back in Congress after wandering the political desert for 15 years, Stockman, a bespectacled born-again Christian, has threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against President Obama if he enacts gun control measures. In February, Stockman brought has-been rocker/offhand racist/wannabe presidential assassin Ted Nugent to the State of the Union address. (We caught Nugent's performance—or was it performance art—in San Francisco not too long ago.)

None of which is to say that Stockman won't succeed in getting some gun nuts to move across the Red River. Heck, he might even make the rest of us safer.

It's Official: A Majority of Americans Wants Pot Legalized

| Thu Apr. 4, 2013 1:44 PM PDT

For the first time in more than four decades of surveying national attitudes towards marijuana, the Pew Research Center announced today that a majority of Americans believe that pot should be legal. Pew's latest phone survey, conducted over the course of five days last month, found that 52 percent of Americans support pot legalization and 45 percent oppose it.

The most surprising support for tokers' rights came from some of the most socially conservative parts of America. Among residents of the 26 states that have not decriminalized pot or enacted medical marijuana legislation, a whopping 50 percent backed legalization in the poll, compared to only 47 percent who opposed it.

Shifting views on cannabis have a lot to do with changing demographics. The gigantic Millennial generation supports legalization at a rate of nearly 3 to 1. Yet Boomers' views have also shifted, or, you might say, boomeranged: In 1978, 47 percent of Boomers favored legalization, but their support plummeted to 17 percent by 1990 before slowly inching back up, finally hitting the 50 percent mark just this year.

As memories of Reefer Madness and the '60s culture wars continue to fade, more Americans are divorcing pot smoking from notions of morality:

Instead of a crusade against the devil, Americans increasingly view the war on weed in economic terms—and they don't like what they see. A full 72 percent of poll respondents agreed that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more then they are worth."

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