War on Drugs needn’t be a bust

In the 1800s Americans could legally smoke opium. Then Chinese people came to California and started taking jobs from native-born Americans. California couldn’t kick out the Chinese, but they could take away their their opium, and that’s when the state banned opium.

Until the 1900s, Americans could legally smoke marijuana. But when Mexicans started moving to the United States and taking jobs from native-born Americans, government got involved. It could’t kick out the Mexicans, but they banned marijuana, which many Mexicans used.

Heroin and cocaine were low on the radar until blacks began moving in large numbers from the South to the North, where they took jobs that white folks might want. Crackdowns on cocaine and heroin soon followed.

Ditto the much harsher punishments required for crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine. Crack cocaine is just a form of powdered cocaine, but it’s associated mostly with black people while powdered cocaine is used primarily by white people.

These tidbits are contained in “The House I Live In,” a documentary that looks at the twisted course taken by America’s War on Drugs.

When President Richard Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs more than 40 years ago, the documentary points out, only one-third of the money was to be used for law enforcement. The other two-thirds wen to rehabilitation programs.

But politicians and cops know you get better headlines for putting people in prison than for providing rehab, so the money soon migrated to the law enforcement side.

The documentary tells us something we all know: The War on Drugs is a bust.

“Our insane regime of drug laws have caused us to spend $1 trillion over 40 years, conducting 45 million drug arrests, and with what to show for it? A complete record of failure. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available now, and used by younger and younger people than ever before,” says  the movie’s director, Eugene Jarecki, in an interview with Forbes.

His comments are seconded by many people, on the right as well as the left.

But who will do something about it?

Not Florida’s politicians. It might cost them votes and campaign donations.

But the citizens can do something: Put measures on the ballot to amend Florida’s laws.

California voters did that just last month, approving a measure that could lead to the release of 10,000 nonviolent prisoners. Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be reduced to misdemeanors. In addition to those released, an estimated 40,000 defendants will be eligible for misdemeanor rather than felony convictions.

It’s about time; California is locked in a long-running and expensive dispute with the courts over its jam-packed prisons.

The savings – hundreds of millions of dollars – will be used for education, mental health and addiction services, an acknowledgement that drug abuse is a health problem.

California is far from alone. Other states also have taken action, with mixed results, as fivethirtyeight.com shows.

But at least the results are better than Florida’s approach of lock ‘em up and leave ‘em there.

Arkansas: In 2011, the state began allowing nonviolent offenders to be sentenced to work with the Department of Community Corrections rather than be incarcerated. The prison population dropped, but then bounced back after the state enacted tougher rules on parole violators.

Georgia: A 2012 law allows alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders. The state’s prison population fell 14 percent and its crime rate dropped 4 percent.

Kentucky: Since 2011, the state has let minor drug offenders be sentenced to probation and treatment. The prison population increased by 9 percent in 2012, but the The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project reports that Kentucky saved $29 million and a net 872 prison beds annually by the end of 2013 because of the law. Kentucky’s crime rate rose 3 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Texas: The state’s 2007 budget allocated $241 million for treatment-oriented programs for nonviolent offenders, which resulted in a 4.5 percent decrease in the state’s incarceration rate by 2008. The state has since saved an estimated $2 billion; its  crime rate dropped 11 percent between 2007 and 2012.

There are plenty of examples of what works elsewhere; Florida needs to adopt the best practices; we could be saving lives and money.

Mark O’Brien is a writer who lives in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

4 lessons learned in 3 years of self-employment

Since I opened markobrienwritingservices.com in December 2011, I have written all sorts of material, primarily for various businesses and individuals. 

This is my first time being self-employed after working all my career for newspapers and public relations agencies that took care of “the paperwork” — Social Security, taxes, insurance, paid vacations and other stuff I barely considered before I went to work for myself.

I have ghostwritten books for other people — on marketing and social media as well as a man’s memoir. 

I have written short stuff, too — a postcard mailer that needed some zing for an insurance agent, Twitter and Facebook campaigns for events. I’ve researched and written blogs on insurance, audio and fire safety systems, cranked out electronic brochures on chemistry, news releases for numerous organizations, and scripts for business videos. I’ve also provided plenty of public relations advice and donated my services to several nonprofits. I’ve enjoyed it all. 

My biggest challenges have come in cases that I never anticipated, perhaps because I went into this venture with little forethought.

Some things I have learned since I went into business for myself three years ago:

•Lots of people say they will call you, often without you even soliciting their business. But few do.

Don’t take it personally. People do this because they have dreams of improving their website or writing a book, but then they get back to reality and forget their goals. Or maybe they think they’re being polite by saying they will call.

Should I call them? It makes me feel so needy, and it leads to awkward encounters. 

I wrestled with this issue a lot, and now I send them a simple email saying, “You said you want to talk. Here’s my contact info. Get in touch when you’re ready.”

Hardly anyone follows up, but the few who do have been great clients.

•Be grateful for small clients.

I know the maxim is that it’s more efficient to work for a few big clients than a bunch of small clients, but I like little guys.

They’re down-to-earth, their causes are interesting, and they tend to pay promptly, perhaps because they know firsthand the squeeze that slow-payers can put on a business. 

Being a big client too often means never paying a bill in less than 45 or 60 days.

Must. Budget. Accordingly.

•I need to spend more time “Marketing Mark.” I enjoy research, writing and editing, but I need to mingle more with people in business so I can attract more work and build stronger relationships. For instance, I do a lot of tourism work, which I like, but it’s seasonal. More clients would mean both more continuity and more writing challenges.

•Always do your best work. When a client is being troublesome or cheap, the urge may be to cut corners, but I force myself to do my best anyway.

Ultimately, I’m my own boss and I have to answer to myself.

What do you think? Do you have any advice for me as I enter my fourth year in business for myself?

Please contact me at markobrienusa@gmail.com

O ROMEO, ROMEO, quit whining

I see these groups everywhere I go in Florida.

They take over tables in restaurants for breakfast or lunch, muttering here, laughing there, flirting with waitresses a third their age.

I’m talking about those gangs known as ROMEOs — Retired Old Men Eating Out.

Their membership varies widely — ex-business tycoons sit with former ditch-diggers, military lifers and car salesmen.

I’ve been watching them from afar, wondering what they had in common besides their addiction to Fox News and endless conversations about the weather.

Recently, I summoned my courage to infiltrate some of these groups. (No great job of acting by me, says my wife, noting that I too am the age of many a ROMEO.)

Anyway, I was able to pass myself off as a ROMEO in good standing by grumbling about young people these days, denouncing the Affordable Health Care Act and repeatedly saying, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”

Eventually, after attending enough meetings, I obtained an agenda that serves as a blueprint for almost every ROMEO meeting.

Meeting begins:

Item A. General griping: Drivers these days, “rap music” and the need for a bigger automatic cost-of-living increase in Social Security checks.

Consensus: World’s gone to hell. Because? Obama.

Sergeant-at-arms restores order as Geezers A and B talk a little too long and a little too intimately to the waitress, who secretly hopes that one of these ROMEOs will leave her a ton of money in his will.

Real soon.

Item B. Subcommittees meet to review the same ground they plowed at the last ROMEO session: Careers, golf games, high school experiences, what’s wrong with women golfers, dirty jokes from 20 years ago, grown children doing a poor job of raising the grandkids, biased liberal news media.

Item C. Medical report.

Stents? Hip transplants? Runny noses? Paper cuts? “Hey, they changed the size of my pills.” (Please limit your comments to 10 minutes. Other guys need to get home and take their naps.)

Item D. More general griping: Air travel, social media, investments, women, football season, last night’s dinner.

Consensus: All bad. Because? Obama.

Adjourn. To parking lot for more grumbling.

These meetings make me wonder why many old guys complain so much.

Sure, decline and death are on the horizon. Worse yet, they come with the prospect of long, lonely days in airless, understaffed, brightly lit hospital rooms and the realization that we made mistakes and didn’t accomplish all that we set out to accomplish.

Still, most of us have had great lives, and we’re still alive and kicking, as the old folks say.

The glass is half-full, gentlemen. Enjoy!

Mark O’Brien is a writer who lives in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida. Dec. 2, 2014.

Raise smoking age to 21, save lives and money

Here’s an interesting debate that I would love to see played out in Florida.

In their desire to save lives and improve health, some communities elsewhere have raised to 21 the minimum age for anyone to buy tobacco. It’s led to a reduction in teenage smoking, although some folks worry that it’s another case of the Nanny State run amok.

Tobacco is one of those slippery slopes that can be tricky to navigate for liberals and conservatives alike.

Conservatives want to let folks smoke if they wish — provided we don’t have to pay for their almost-inevitable medical bills. And liberals want to protect us from ourselves, second-hand smoke and other people’s health care costs, and so what if you lose a bit of personal freedom to do something stupid.

Imagine if tobacco had just been created in 2014 and people were about to begin smoking. Today’s scientists would have soon detected the poisonous effects and called for a ban on tobacco, and most Americans would readily agree to bar a product that, as they say, kills you when used legally.

But the cow is out of the barn on that issue, and about 19.3 percent of adult Floridians today use tobacco, according to worldlifeexpectancy.com, which has a state-by-state comparison.

Kentucky is the weediest of all states, with 29 percent smokers, while Utah is a mere 11.8 percent.

Of course, Utah has issues of its own, what with its attitudes toward social issues. We now know that the beard is officially dead among hipsters; Brigham Young University is considering a rule change that would allow its students to wear beards.

Beards, but not mustaches, have been banned on campus since the 1970s lest people think BYU was one of those radical hippie college campuses where students protested against war and in favor of equal rights for women and minorities and other craziness.

There are many good reasons to raise the age to 21 for people to buy cigarettes. It’s a legitimate health issue. Remember the wave of teen drunkenness that swept states when they lowered the drinking age to 18, only to raise it back to 21? Many young people aren’t any better equipped to handle cigarettes than they handle alcohol.

It would force communities to debate health issues and focus on a behavior that costs society many billions of dollars each year. Figure out the cost of a pack-a-day habit from age 18 to age 55, for example, and you will be amazed how much more wealth a nonsmoker enjoys than smoker. A pack was $7.13 today at my local Circle K.

Even if communities don’t care about health, they should care about the dollars and cents of smoking. In the Greater Pensacola area alone (Escambia and Santa Rosa counties), there are more than 98,000 smokers. The cost to employers from those employed smokers exceeds $490 million in the two counties each year, according to Partnership for a Healthy Community, which is leading a tobacco-cessation effort.

That’s a lot of money going up in smoke.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Cheer up, Florida, other states have problems, too

On a chilly Florida day, there’s nothing like catching up on the last few issues of “Government Executive,” which bills itself as “the premier website for federal managers and executives.”

It’s not as dry as you think, especially in its “State and Local” section. And it’s a morale-booster for those of us worn down by Florida’s national reputation for dumb people doing dumb things.

Here’s the latest from Pennsylvania, where four workers in the state attorney general’s office have been fired and 11 others suspended without pay for involvement in the email exchanges of pornography.

Yes, that’s the state ATTORNEY GENERAL’s office.

What don’t these guys get? Work is supposed to be a porn-free zone, and don’t tell me all you guys were on the job doing “research” into the porn industry.

Yet they’re hardly alone: A state Supreme Court justice and a member of Pennsylvania’s cabinet already have resigned as a result of this scandal.

See, you’re already feeling better about Florida.

Also, our current brushes with cold weather are trifles compared with stuff happening elsewhere, Government Executive tells us.

In Portland, Ore., local government crews spent nine hours putting chains on buses because a major snowstorm was expected. Hardly any snow arrived, but the chains on the buses dinged up the roadways.

They should have hired the city manager of Marquette, Mich., who was featured a few days earlier for his city’s ability to plow snow. Up to 3.5 feet of snow fell one day recently, yet the city had 100 miles of streets clean and passable within four hours.

See, there is good news out there, and I exaggerate when I mock this publication. In fact, it’s a very good source of even-handed reporting on issues that are important to many governments. Florida leaders probably could find some solutions for their communities’ problems by reading “Government Executive.”

Still, there’s always a chuckle to be had somewhere. Like the article about the 3,323-foot tunnel being built under a lake near Dallas. The tunnel will carry up to 120 million gallons of sewage per day. Now that’s a Texas-sized sewerage system.

And while Florida’s governor won’t even let us say if we want the Affordable Health Care Act, people in Idaho had a different problem. Their state allowed them the choice to sign up — and 76,000 people did, an unusually high percentage.

Yet Idaho couldn’t get its own exchange up and running, so the Idaho residents had to make do with the federal system that had such a horrible rollout last fall.

At least Gov. Rick Scott has spared us that indignity which, ahem, involved some less than “premier” federal managers and executives.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

3 Ps to give you a new ride

The pickup truck isn’t what it used to be. Trucks used to be used for work, but now eight out of 10 trucks fly past with beds empty, their liner unsullied by dirt except maybe from errands once a year. Otherwise, the typical truck bed is saying, “Hey, look at me, I do nothing!”

Dogs already went that way.

“Working dogs” in the South earned their keep by hunting animals, guarding property and biting nosy Yankees. Today’s dogs, however, sit inside in climate-controlled temperatures, chowing down on designer dog food and scowling at dogs they see on television.

The world has changed, but many folks still want to drive pickup trucks, even though they guzzle gas, take up too much space and decrease visibility for other motorists.

That’s why I am working on a new idea: Convince the good ol’ boys and girls to buy a Prius or other gas-sipping hybrid that gets 40-plus miles per gallon.

I make this proposal from the bottom of my heart. You see, I too drive a truck, so I am one of the many modern men who wants to pilot a manly machine but please, no heavy lifting lest I get calluses.

This idea offers the best of both worlds — economy plus style.

We can modify the Prius so drivers feel like they’re still in a truck. Put a gun rack in the back window of the Prius, leopard skin covering on the steering wheel, and plenty of space on the bumper for faded “Mc- Cain-Palin” stickers.

Hybrids are also very quiet, which is heresy to a pickup person. There’s nothing like the deep grumble of an exhaust system to tell the little lady I’m home for dinner.

We can adapt the sound system to emit a throaty vroom vroom to let everyone know your truck is within a five-mile radius. This is the essence of the modern pickup — lots of bark, little work.

You’re probably saying, “Mark, this is just another one of your daffy ideas,” but I’m simply a man ahead of the times. Let’s be patient with this idea and my other inspirations, too.

• People inevitably will adopt my idea of butt transplants. For many women of a certain age, their derrieres expand significantly. Men, meanwhile, lose their seat, so to speak. So let the doctors whittle a pound or two from her and attach it to him.

• It’s a cinch that men will flock to my Wing Dog store.

That’s where I will rent dogs to men who otherwise can’t get women to talk to them. Once they’re equipped with one of our cuddly wing dogs, the men will have plenty of opportunity to talk with women. (And my dogs will be all-American. No German shepherds, French poodles or Mexican hairless dogs will be taking work away from American wing dogs!)

Back to the Prius pickup truck, which is the proverbial win-win: gas economy, pickup truck style. We take the basic Prius, a bland lump of nerdness, and make it sound and look like a pickup, all while it delivers 40 miles per gallon.

Pensacola Prius Pickup, coming to Car City real soon.


Published in Splash magazine, November 2015


How my writing will help your business

You must tell the story of your business quickly, clearly and in an appealing way.

Many business people can do this verbally; after all, they know their business and feel a passion for it.

But many of these same folks don’t do so well when it comes to expressing their story in print, which is where most business is conducted in these days of the Internet.

Here’s where my 30-plus years of experience can help you, whether it’s making your website more appealing to potential customers, crafting an effective brochure or contacting people vie email and other media.

I will make it simple yet enticing by focusing on the value in your products and services.

I will tell the story of your business, and you will see results — in sales, in website visits and in your bottom line.

Let’s talk.

I’m markobrienusa@gmail.com, and I have 30-plus years in writing. For my clients, I have written everything from postcards to books to get their messages to the audiences they wanted to reach.


Kids keep us driving straight


The truck was traveling more slowly than the rest of traffic in the erratic way of a distracted motorist. “Proud of my Eagle Scout,” the truck’s bumper sticker said.

I passed the truck and saw a man eating a sandwich while he drove.

A few minutes later, I saw the truck again. This time the driver was talking on a phone in one hand while using the other hand to pick something from his mouth, perhaps the sandwich he had been eating.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “he’s proud of his Eagle Scout, but would his Eagle Scout be proud of him at this moment of bad driving and poor manners?”

That’s one of the things about children. The driver probably would have been much more attentive if the Eagle Scout had been in the truck. He’d have been conscious of the need to set a good example, all the better to inspire those parental lectures that we so easily dispense, even if they make us sound just like our parents sounded to us.

Children often make us better people.

They come home from school talking about the value of safety belts and good diet, the dangers of tobacco, and information on other sensible stuff, not to mention juicy gossip about the neighbors.

Smart parents heed their children’s warnings. Once you’re responsible for a child, you need to dial back the partying, work hard to provide a good home and just generally act more wisely than you did B.C. — Before Children.

It feels virtuous, all this good, clean living. You’re a hero, putting Bandaids on boo-boos, buying the newest toy and making the kids laugh with your silly jokes. When they’re little, you’re their hero because you can fix almost any problem — or change the subject when they ask you a tough question.

Eventually, however, you fall from the pedestal. The kids get older and realize you can’t solve every problem, sometimes you’re just flat wrong, and you duck tough questions by changing the subject or dispensing those aforementioned lectures. At that point, there’s no chance they will ever put a “Proud of My Parent” bumper sticker on any vehicle.

But you soldier on and things get better over time. Your kids grow up and realize you did the best you could, and the statute of limitations on old complaints hopefully falls by the wayside. Then they become parents and get a taste of Fatherhood and Motherhood 101, and maybe they appreciate what you endured. Vindication is nice, but here’s what you really enjoy: the grandchildren.

This is a chance to have real fun with kids. You tickle them and help them learn to walk. You take them to zoos and buy them treats and take them home jazzed on a sugar high, giddy and fatigued. When you babysit, you’re supposed to put them to bed at 8 p.m., but you let them stay up until 9:30 because you’re having so much fun.

But you still must set a good example, even if you’re more relaxed now that the mortgage and the career are in the rear-view mirror.

So you eat vegetables and get your exercise to stay healthy, you worry about the schools, you take every opportunity to see the grandkids while you can. After all, they’re human smile-dispensers with their questions, jokes and observations.

And you drive more attentively than the guy with the “Proud of My Eagle Scout” bumper stickers. Grandparents want to make the good times last.

Medicaid opposition is all wet

Eventually Floridians will look back at today’s politicians and say, “What were they thinking? What were they smoking?”

I’m talking about Florida’s refusal to accept millions of dollars in federal Medicaid money that would have improved life for thousands of people.

Forget about the way the Rabid Republicans spurned the money because Uncle Sam would eventually stop reimbursing the state at 100 percent and drop the reimbursements all the way to … 90 percent!

Forget about the access to health care and insurance for thousands of people, just so the Republicans could say “Nyah nyah” to Barack Obama.

Forget about the bitter irony of Floridians now paying for Medicaid for people in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states that took the money.

Forget about the lost job opportunities in a state where “Do you want fries with that?” is a question too many workers ask.

Just look at what it has done to the future of hospitals, which are like mini-cities with their need for infrastructure and technology.

The loss of the Medicaid money means hospitals must scrap ideas for improvements that would lead to lower costs, better service and long-term improvements.

It’s not just the latest whiz-bang medical device. Take a mundane example like laundry, for example.

It’s a significant factor at hospitals and other large health care institutions — an estimated 2 to 3 percent of a hospital’s budget.

Modern new laundries can reduce labor and water costs, reducing overhead, improving the environment, increasing sustainability and helping hospitals function more efficiently.

But hospitals may have to cancel or delay plans for major functional upgrades that would improve life for their patients, employees and owners. It’s similar to the refusal to maintain highways and schools, always pushing off long-range improvements just to make a short-term political point today.

No need to be sensible and make the best of a deal we question. It’s smarter politics today to thumb our noses at Obama and his health care program than to make the best of a situation we might not like.

This is because the Republicans have a better plan, right? It’s uh, what is the Republican plan for health care?

Put this example of blindness on the list of errors by fearful conservatives, who have been wrong on all the big issues of this era, opposing women’s rights, gay rights, minorities and pretty much anything else.

They can’t see beyond the end of their noses, which they’re biting off to spite their faces — and Florida’s future.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Hooker sting shows tricks to governing

A little controversy in my town shows how government is tugged in different directions.

Transpose it to your community and you can see the forces at odds in so many Florida cities as people disagree about what should be government priorities.

It was a fairly routine prostitution sting in Pensacola. An undercover police officer approaches an apparent streetwalker, they talk, she offers her services for a fee, and he arrests her. Or a woman is approached by a man who makes a proposition, only to learn that she’s wearing a badge and probably a tape recorder under her clothes. Busted!

Those arrested included nine alleged wannabe customers; the gossip quotient rose when the media published the names and mug shots and the town discovered that one of those arrested was a 72-year-old surgeon who has operated on half the residents.

Officers also arrested six people for soliciting for prostitution — five women and a man with long, wavy blond hair. (Warning: Don’t judge a hooker by his or her cover.)

This crackdown has been a periodic law-enforcement practice in Pensacola for more than 40 years, with mixed results. After a sting, illicit activity dwindles for a while, but then resumes, and the sheriff’s department makes another sting and catches more people, or the same people again. (Incidentally, despite our many churches, Pensacola is not a prudish place. Until the Navy cracked down for health reasons during World War II, brothels operated openly, old-timers say.)

Some critics say prostitution should be legalized, licensed and taxed. That’s a simplistic solution for a complex problem. Do we want to encourage this activity, as government has tempted people to gamble via state lotteries?

“Yes, honey, in America any little girl can work hard and grow up to be President, a physicist or a prostitute.”

Legalization wouldn’t be a cure-all, either. Some people will prefer the time-tested method of cruising dark streets and lurking on street corners because they will be unable or unwilling to follow the rules about licensing, health tests and taxes. The only difference is the legal prostitutes will be demanding the cops do more about their competitors, the illegal prostitutes.

The hooker sting also was criticized because it took a week to conduct. Critics said the cops’ time would have been better spent on more serious crime.

That may be true unless you live or work in the neighborhood where the prostitutes and their customers meet. Alcohol and drugs also are often involved.

Just because people live or work in a downtrodden area doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to a decent quality of life and stable property values.

So that’s the dilemma, not so easily solved. Government feels the heat either way.

It’s one more reason prostitution seems sure to forever hold its title as the world’s oldest profession.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida. Sept. 2, 2014