23 October 2003

10 October 2003

Tommy Chong's going to jail

On Sept. 11, 2003, the second anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks carried out on American soil, the U.S. justice system struck a blow for public safety by convicting actor and entrepreneur Tommy Chong for selling marijuana paraphernalia over the Internet.

Chong, now age 65, gained fame for the mildly amusing, but mostly dreadful comedies he filmed with sidekick Cheech Marin. Police and Drug Enforcement Administration agents snared him in a sting operation and confiscated a cache of pipes and bongs he sold via the Internet.

A headline-writers dream, the conviction spawned headlines like People Magazine’s: “Chong gets bonged,” and the Pittsburg Post-Gazette’s (a local paper in the city of Chong’s trial): “Tommy Chong Gets the Joint.” Even the usually staid Globe and Mail let loose with: “Chong’s Bongs” on its Web site.

Chong became one of the first victims of “Operation Pipe Dream,” an ambitious program undertaken by the United States Department of Justice to snuff out the billion-dollar drug paraphernalia business.

The conviction suspended his fledgling acting career and plans for another sequel in the Cheech and Chong movie franchise went up in smoke. A judge slapped him with a $20,000 fine and sentenced him to nine-months in prison.

Down the road in Shanksville, Pa., where rebellious passengers overran hijackers, crashing their doomed flight into the tranquil countryside two-years ago, mourners gathered to remember the terrorist attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.

While zealous drug warriors doggedly pursued the star of such cult classics as Up in Smoke and Still Smoking for supplying dope smokers with paraphernalia, Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and his confederates remained unpunished and unaccounted for.

At first glance Tommy Chong and Osama bin Laden share little in common except for unruly facial hair and gaining notoriety on the same date in different years. But the intimate connection between the War on Drugs and the more recent War on Terrorism dates back decades.

As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum explained in a Reason magazine column published during the dark days following Sept. 11, 2001:

“Prohibition delivers to armed thugs around the world a handy stream of revenue. Every dollar spent intercepting cocaine, heroin, or marijuana is a dollar that could be spent intercepting bombs.”

While President George W. Bush asked the U.S. Congress for $87 million to prop up nation building efforts in Iraq, he and his drug-fighting predecessors hand their enemies a steady stream cash generated in a black market of illicit drugs at home and abroad. The United Nations pegged the worldwide drug trade’s value at $400 billion.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, the Shining Path in Peru, Hezbollah in the Middle East and FARC in Colombia, traffic drugs to finance their nefarious activities.

Prior to the NATO bombing of Kosovo, the KLA smuggled much of Europe’s heroin into the continent.

Australian officials recently seized a massive cache of heroin from a North Korean ship near Australian waters. Besides weapons, North Korean Kim Jong-il bankrolls his economically-backward state with drug smuggling and other black market enterprises.

Even the Mounties reported in 2002 that hashish smuggled from Afghanistan and sold in Canada funded terror activities abroad to the tune of $20 million.

The DEA changed its anti-drug advertising recently to reflect the fact that drugs fund terrorism. It aired a series of highly emotional ads starring thrill-seeking kids admitting to dirty deeds like killing judges and blowing up buildings by simply messing around with recreational drugs.

The ads depart from its previous attempts at tapping a nobler sense of self-respect or intellect in America’s youth. Past slogans included: “Winners don’t do drugs,” former first lady Nancy Reagan’s infamous, “Just say no!” and the often parodied, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs,” which featured and egg (representing your brain) frying in a hot skillet.

While the DEA fingers drug users for America’s woes with terrorism, four fingers point back at an agency caught in a 30 year War on Drugs, which has destroyed lives, swelled the U.S. prison population and thrown entire nations into turmoil.

Tommy Chong will rot in a federal lockup, one of 600,000 drug offenders incarcerated in America’s overflowing jails.

According to Timothy Lynch, a CATO Institute researcher, in a Washington Post column titled: “Population Bomb Behind Bars,” the U.S. prison population doubled from one to two million inmates over the past 25 years. The increased incarceration of non-violent drug offenders fueled the boom.

Instead of kneecapping terrorists and diminishing the prospects of another Sept. 11 magnitude attack by ending the war on drugs, U.S. drug warriors soldier on and protect society by locking up pathetic, but harmless people like Tommy Chong and his pot-smoking ilk.

Tommy Chong’s going to prison; is America safer?

Published in the Reflector.

19 September 2003

My reporting on hurricane Isabel made the front page of the Alberta and British Columbia editions of The Globe and Mail. I must thank my boss for keeping me at work instead of sending home at 11:00 a.m. due to the early closing of the Metro in Washington, D.C.

18 September 2003

My first byline in The Globe and Mail. It's on the lack of marketing at the upcoming Women's World Cup of soccer.

30 August 2003

£1bn contracts for firm linked to Cheney

I spent the summer interning in the Washington, D.C. bureau of The Daily Telegraph (London) under supervision - if you want to call it that - of correspondents Toby Harnden and David Rennie. Here's something small I wrote that hit Fleet Street on my final day.

£1bn contracts for firm linked to Cheney
By David Agren in Washington
Last Updated: 11:16pm BST 28/08/2003

An oil and construction firm that was headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney until three years ago has been awarded contracts worth more than £1 billion in Iraq and is poised to secure further lucrative deals without being forced to compete with other companies.

The size and scope of the contracts, reported yesterday in The Washington Post, are much greater than previously thought and prompted accusations of preferential treatment for Texas-based Halliburton.

Read the whole - short - thing at the Telegraph's website.

18 March 2003

Vancouver bids for the 2010 Olympics

Vancouver bids for the 2010 Olympics

By David Agren

In 1973, flamboyant Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau declared: "The (1976 Montreal Olympic) Games could no more have a deficit than a man could have a baby." The games lost over $1 billion and left behind a host of spectacular, but underused facilities. Montreal taxpayers will finally retire their Olympic debt in 2006 – 30 years after the Olympic flame was extinguished.

The Olympics rings lost its luster after the Montreal debacle and potential host cities soured on the idea of hosting the world’s largest sporting spectacle until entrepreneur Peter Ueberoth figured out how to make the games profitable.

As chairman of the 1984 Los Angeles games, he commercialized the Olympics and attracted sponsors that underwrote the games. A runaway commercial success, the games turned a $215 million profit despite a Soviet lead boycott. The federal government only contributed $75 million to offset security costs and the city of Los Angeles refused to commit public funds to build new facilities or infrastructure in support of the games.

Thirty years after Drapeau’s infamous remarks, Vancouver and the resort community of Whistler are bidding to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. International Olympic Committee shortlisted Vancouver and Whistler along with Salzburg, Austria and Pyeonchang, Korea as candidate cities and will decide the host city in July.

With Drapeau like enthusiasm, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell proclaimed a successful Vancouver Olympic bid would generate a $10.7 billion windfall and create 28,000 new jobs.

Proponents like Campbell view the Olympics as a gold medal proposition capable of lifting the province from of a 10-year economic funk and simotaneously thrusting the province into the international spotlight.

The province and federal governments will each spend $310 million to bring the games to British Columbia. The provincial government also promised to act as a guarantor – covering any losses the games may incur.

Estimated to cost $1.23 billion to stage, the bid committee proposes to host the host the Alpine and nordic skiing events in Whistler and all other events in Vancouver. The Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation also expects to generate a legacy (profit) to finance the operations of the Olympic venues after the games leave town.

Niels Veldhuis of the right-leaning Fraser Institute lambasted the premier’s economic figures, calling them “ridiculous” and pointed out no modern Olympic games except Los Angeles has turned a profit.

He also accused Campbell using the Olympic bid to “build political capital.”

Based in Vancouver, Veldhuis grew up in Calgary and attended many events at the wildly popular 1988 Winter Games the city hosted.

“I love the Olympics,” he said. “If you’re going to do it, do it without government funds.”

Trevor Miller, a spokesperson for the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation said the games will not jeopardize taxpayers money because the bid uses modest numbers in its forecasts.

While he downplays the premier’s figures, he expects the bid will cost “$3 per Canadian” and pay dividends of “$9 per Canadian.”

Many Vancouver residents share the premier’s enthusiasm for the hosting the Olympics – 64 per cent of Vancouverites endorsed the games in a non-binding plebiscite.

Still, a pesky, determined and vastly under-funded opposition group dubbed the No Games 2010 Coalition threatens to derail the Olympic bid.

A motley crew of social activists, environmentalists, leaky condo owners, fiscal conservatives and libertarians, the group united to oppose the games for a variety of economic and environmental reasons.

For many critics like the No Games 2010 Coalition, the games represent a five ring Olympic circus of civic pride and nationalism run amok. Consistently oversold as an engine of economic growth, they contend the Olympic games seldom deliver the promised benefits.

Lead by Chris Shaw, the coalition spent a paltry $3,000 to convince 36 per cent of plebiscite voters to cast ballots against hosting the games.

“If we had even 1/10 their budget we would kick their buts,” he jokes (the yes side had a $700,000 campaign war chest to contest the plebiscite).

Suspisicion of the alleged cost to taxpayers and supposed benefits the games would deliver motivated Shaw to research the experiences of previous Olympic host cities.

His research revealed the Olympics left host cities with a troubling legacy of debt, underused facilities, murky accounting and less than expected economic growth. Countless Olympic organizers promised a mother lode of economic and societal benefits, but instead struck a vein of fools gold.

Several host cities boasted amazing operating profits, but since Montreal, all bid organizers separated the operating costs of staging the games from the infrastructure costs – roads, transit, and security.

Organizers of the recently concluded Salt Lake City games boasted an operating profit of $110 million. The U.S. General Accounting Office scrutinized Salt Lake games and determined the federal government contributed $1.3 billion towards the event.

The Auditor General of New South Wales stated cost overruns plagued the 2000 Sydney Olympics and as the guarantor of the games, the state government spent $2.3 billion.

The 1994 Lillehammer and 1992 Albertville Olympics along with the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games ran multimillion dollar deficits.

Even Calgary – considered a model Winter Olympic Games – lost money. The International Olympic Committee claims Calgary turned a $90 million profit in 1988, but Thomas Walkom, a Toronto Starr reporter and columnist disputes those figures.

In 1999, he reported the organizing committee omitted the cost of building facilities from its figures. The federal, provincial and municipal governments contributed $461million towards the games – nullifying any profits.

Critics of the 1998 Nagano Olympics suspect the games lost money, but Sports Illustrated reported organizers burned some of the books, leaving the financial impact a mystery.

Chris Shaw expects the Vancouver games would cost at least $4 billion if organizers included infrastructure costs in their projections.

Blueprints exist to build a new Vancouver convention centre and light rapid transit line from downtown to the airport. The provincial government also plans to upgrade the accident plagued Sea-to-Sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler. Often subject to closure, both critics and boosters cite the perilous two-lane road as an Achilles heel of the bid because it could not handle the influx of Olympic traffic.

Shaw also expressed shock at the scant $177 million security budget.

He called it “absurd” to spend just $177 million to “defend Vancouver and Whistler seven years hence in an uncertain political climate.”

Security at the Salt Lake City Olympics cost $500 million dollars and the Canadian government spent $300 million to secure the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis and Calgary.

Trevor Miller of the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation defends omitting infrastructure costs from the bid finances saying the rail line and convention centre construction and Sea-to Sky highway improvements were “going to be done either way.” He acknowledged the games may hasten the decision to proceed with construction.

For Miller, Vancouver and British Columbia will gain most from the massive exposure of being in the Olympic spotlight.

The games will attract “billions and billions of viewers,” he says. “Had you ever heard of Lillehammar or Nagano before the Olympics?”

Economist Alan Greer questions why Vancouver would use a “risky venture” Olympics as vehicle to increase its international exposure.

“(There is) a failure to take stock of where we are in the world,” he says. “We’re not under appreciated or under exposed.”

He points out ski magazines consistently rank Whistler as the premiere ski resort in North America.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think tank, commissioned Greer to scrutinize the Vancouver Olympic bid.

Like the Fraser Institute’s Niels Veldhuis, he casts doubt on the economic merits of the bid. He also questions why the bid committee has yet to commission a cost benefit analysis to determine the true opportunity cost of hosting the games.

His analysis projects the Olympics will create only 1,500 - 5,600 jobs – few of them in regions plagued by high-unemployment.

“You can assume in a healthy economy most of those people would have been employed anyway,” he explains.

Greer believes the games could bring many intangible benefits to British Columbia like increased civic pride and the thrill of watching Olympic level competition. He just wants the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation to promote the games on that basis and not as an economic panacea.

This story appeared in the Reflector.

UPDATE: Quebec taxpayers are finally off the hook for the 1976 Olympics! Somewhat ironically, the news came around the same time as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a plan to compensate land owners who had their properties expropriated to build Mirabel Airport, a grandiose project that perhaps even tops the Olympic Stadium in its folly.

On a related note, the Guardian ran an excellent opinion piece on how the budget for London 2012 is rapidly ballooning. It's deja vu all over again. The author makes an apt comparison between the pricey 2012 Olympic Summer Games and costly Millennium Dome.