The unforeseen effects of pot; and a clunker that fails to qualify

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald August 28, 2009 11:58 am

If any reasonable doubt remained about the absurdity of the claim that smoking marijuana is a victimless crime, one toppled tree has crushed it.

The same tree that crushed the life out of Steven A. Uptegrove.

Steve was 52. He led a fire engine crew at Unity. He had worked for the Forest Service for 30 years.

And he died because somebody decided to grow marijuana in the woods.

Forget, for a moment, the wider implications.

Forget, even, legitimate matters such as the wisdom of our country deeming marijuana an illegal drug while allowing beermakers to peddle their products during pro football games.

Focus instead on Steve Uptegrove.

He willingly took the dangerous job of fighting wildfires.

Almost every year people die while doing that work.

But not Steve.

He died not because some careless kid lit a sparkler in the forest.

Not because a lightning bolt ignited a patch of pine needles.

Not because a gust of wind shoved flames across his escape route.

Steve was standing in the path of that falling tree because he was cleaning up the mess that some marijuana growers made.

That’s the only reason.

He wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

He wouldn’t have died.

I don’t know why that tree came down.

Investigators are trying to answer that question, as they should.

But nothing they learn will, as I see it, curb the culpability either of the people who paid to sow the marijuana seeds, or, by logical extension, of the people who buy what the harvest would have reaped.

Critics of our nation’s drug laws argue that we could avoid such tragedies if only we made marijuana legal.

What we ought to do, they say, is treat marijuana as we do tobacco and alcohol. That is, try to make sure kids can’t get the stuff, and by the way levy hefty taxes on it.

Making marijuana just another mainstream consumer product, the pro-pot people contend, would destroy the profit margin that entices people to risk prison terms by growing and selling the drug.

Perhaps they’re right.

Their case seems to me plausible.

For one thing, every time I’ve seen Pete Coors he’s been standing in the snow beside some picturesque brook in the Rockies, rather than wielding a Tommy gun to protect a shipment of his illicit, but lucrative, brew.

On the other hand, just because a substance is legal, and taxed, doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to flout laws in order to sell or buy it.

Google “cigarette smuggling” if you’re skeptical.

All of this makes for an interesting and worthwhile public policy debate.

But Steve Uptegrove wasn’t a piece of legislation.

He was a man, a husband, a father.

He was alive until 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 20, and he should still be alive right now.

He wasn’t killed by bad luck or bad timing.

It was the bad acts of people, not some unfortunate coincidence and not the existence of one law or the absence of another, that brought him to the place where that tree fell.


.        .        .

I don’t mean to boast here, but my car can out-clunk pretty much anything on the road.

It also groans and clangs.

Occasionally it buzzes so impressively that people on the sidewalk stare at me as I pass. Some of them looked scared.

Yet none of these noises, so far as Congress is concerned, qualifies my car as a true clunker.

I can explain this oversight quite simply: No member of the legislative branch has ever been in my car.

At least none has since my generous parents bought it for me six years ago.

I’m confident in claiming, though, that nobody who has ridden in my car — or even stood within a few blocks of it while the engine was running — would call it anything but a clunker.

Well, actually some people might call it something else.

I certainly have.

This newspaper’s policy on publishing profanity precludes me from indulging in specifics, but suffice it to say that any other likely moniker would be a suitable synonym for clunker.

Congress, though, doesn’t define clunker the way most of us do.

(Come to that, Congress doesn’t define most words the way most of us do. By way of example, when we say “taxes” they hear “revenue.” Also, Congress never “spends.” It always “invests.”)

When the Obama administration unveiled the “Cash for Clunkers” program earlier this summer, I suspect most people envisioned as the archetypal clunker a vehicle very much like my 1993 Mercury Topaz.

One with brakes which send the car into an epileptic shudder when applied at a speed greater than 30 mph.

With power windows which are locked, apparently permanently, in the closed position. Although I can sometimes coax the left rear window to wheeze down an inch or so, and then back up, by rousing the somnolent electric motor with a well-placed fist to the door.

(This predicament is, I admit, preferable to the alternative; fortunately, although I am more or less hermetically sealed inside the car, both the heater and the air-conditioner remain reliable, so I fear neither hypothermia nor heat stroke.)

Yet what truly defines my car as a clunker is its exhaust system.

Mainly there isn’t one.

Although a long section of corroded pipe, which I clumsily amputated with a battery-powered saw, still takes up most of the back seat. It’s a poor souvenir but I can’t seem to get rid of the thing, having been encumbered in my two decades of automobile ownership with a series of intact exhaust systems and thus deprived of any compelling reason to acquaint myself with the details of their disposal.

It’s been a sheltered life.

When I heard about Cash for Clunkers I felt that vague sense of hope mixed with uneasiness that infects most responsible people who detect the possibility of getting a good deal from their government.

I mean $4,500 was quite a bit more than I ever figured to realize from my Topaz.

It turns out, as you know, that the vehicles Congress wanted to scrap through the program, which ended Monday, needn’t be actual clunkers.

They just have to quaff gas the way Snoopy goes through a mug of root beer.

My Topaz doesn’t exactly sip fuel but it’s a trifle too thrifty to qualify for this latest example of federal largesse.

Three measly mpg too thrifty, to be specific.

Despite my disappointment, I have to admit that in my case Congress probably got it right.

If the limits had been liberal enough to entice me to trade my Topaz for a new car, I would have ended up driving the pristine model a lot more miles than I put on the Topaz, which hasn’t crossed the city limits for months.

It’s likely, in fact, that I would have driven so much that, even with my new, efficient car, I would have burned more gas than if I had just kept the clunker.

Which, as I understand it, isn’t exactly what Congress was trying to accomplish.

It seems to me that if the government really wants to save gas, then perhaps it ought to forget about giving people money to buy new cars and start sneaking around at night, hacking off mufflers.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.