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John Whipple

Team Green

OK, so it wasn’t the real Toxic Avenger, but whoever the hell that guy was, he made an appearance on the steps of the Capitol Building Oct. 18 with Stanley Aronowitz, the Green Party gubernatorial candidate. Aronowitz and the avenger were joined by Green lieutenant governor candidate Jennifer Daniels and Green state Senate candidate Cathy Curtis as they announced the party’s environmental agenda. The proposal calls for a revamping of the state’s energy plan, including the closing of all coal and nuclear power plants, while investing in renewable-energy and conservation measures. The group criticized Gov. George E. Pataki’s environmental record, saying he had consistently put the interests of big business, corporate polluters and his campaign contributors ahead of the environment and taxpayers.

What a Bunch of Dopes

In case you haven’t noticed, in New York state these days, pot is all the rage. Almost all of New York’s gubernatorial candidates are pushing it—for medicinal purposes, anyway.

Last week, both Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate H. Carl McCall and Independence Party candidate B. Thomas Golisano announced that they supported the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It was just a decade ago that association with marijuana was such a taboo that former President Bill Clinton, fearing for his political reputation as he made his first run at the White House, skirted his recreational encounters with the pot. Today, however, the New York politicos’ weed-friendly campaign rhetoric is far from the cutting edge.

“The American Bar Association, the New England Journal of Medicine and New York State Nurses Association, among others, have all endorsed the controlled use of marijuana for medicinal purposes,” said Joe Caruso, director of polling for the Siena Research Institute. “This is not groundbreaking stuff. And now eight states plus Washington, D.C., and British Columbia all allow it.”

In 1995, the state nurses association endorsed marijuana for its medicinal applications as a pain reliever in treating glaucoma, reducing nausea in chemotherapy patients and stimulating the appetite of AIDS patients.

But Caruso said New York politicians did not take medical marijuana seriously until just recently, when the issue was highlighted by the Marijuana Reform Party. Thomas Leighton, gubernatorial candidate for the MRP, agrees.

“I attribute it to my campaign, and the efforts of the Marijuana Reform Party,” said Leighton. “Number one, we got on the ballot. And two, since my appearance in the debate, McCall came out, and Golisano did the other day when he was asked. But it’s just “Me, too” politics. To me they are just Marijuana Reform Party candidate wannabes.”

While Leighton said that McCall and Golisano were “grabbing at issues in a desperate attempt to get votes,” with their announcements supporting medicinal marijuana, other candidates who have supported the issue in the past took the news differently.

“We welcome everyone to join on board,” said Mark Dunlea, vice chairman of the New York state Green Party, speaking on behalf of Green gubernatorial candidate Stanley Aronowitz. “Politicians love political cover and company, and they have that on this issue. Medical marijuana is a no-brainer. With increasingly widespread opposition to Rockefeller Drug Laws, more mainstream politicians feel more comfortable speaking out against other irrational drug laws.”

Alan Chartock, political analyst and executive director of WAMC, agrees that review and reform of the state’s laws prohibiting medicinal marijuana are long overdue, but disagrees with Leighton’s overprotective tack.

“That is plain old stupid on his part: ‘This is my issue and you can’t have it,’” said a scolding Chartock. “The whole history is that good ideas eventually get adopted to the whole platform. He should consider himself the victor if he gets a major party to adopt it and he ought to be damned ashamed trying to take exclusive possession of the issue.”

Although legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes has been adopted by most of this year’s gubernatorial candidates, the most notable exception also happens to be the candidate leading in the polls, incumbent Gov. George E. Pataki. Reform on the issue may have to wait, as the latest Siena poll of potential voters shows Pataki leading McCall by 43 to 30 percent.

“Pataki will be elected,” said Dunlea. “However, perhaps the Greens or other groups can find some legal ways to push the existing law, and maybe the Assembly Democrats will be forced to deal with the issue.”

—Travis Durfee

No Head Start

Gov. Pataki’s highly touted “universal” prekindergarten program has not been funded for all school districts

Joyce Thyrring, principal of Indian Lake Central School in Hamilton County, had no idea if her school district was eligible for funding from New York’s Universal Prekindergarten program.

“That’s a good question,” Thyrring said. Indian Lake runs its program independently and manages to come up with the funding out of its own budget, she said. Thyrring has never sought state funding. For many schools, it is too much trouble for too little payoff.

And the state did not go out of its way to offer Indian Lake the funding it promised all schools five years ago when it passed ambitious legislation to provide pre-k for all 4-year-olds in the state.

“The governor certainly has not wholeheartedly put his support behind the universal program,” said Karen Schimke of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, part of a pre-k advocacy group called Center for Early Care and Education. “We really have a terrific program—it just has not been expanded and realized.”

In 1997, 39 other states sponsored programs that provide preschool-age kids with preliminary education, helping children to develop cognitive and social skills before entering kindergarten. All these programs had different eligibility cutoffs for schools seeking funds, and different standards for curriculum and the programs’ duration. But that year, New York was only the second in the nation to offer universal funding.

When pre-k passed, the state promised a total of $500 million after five years of phasing in the program, and universal eligibility. Currently, funding is stalled at $255 million, according to the state Division of the Budget. Critics claim that certain poor rural school districts are still told they are not eligible because the program does not have enough funding to take on many more.

“About 188 of 680 New York state school districts have universal pre-k,” Schimke said. “By this time, all school districts were to have been eligible to participate. That did not happen.”

According to Tara Mitchell, spokeswoman for the City of Albany school district, universal pre-k has a good record locally. Of the schools in the city that applied, all received funding, Mitchell said.

While the original idea might have been ambitious, critics said Gov. George E. Pataki has been much less so when it comes to putting pre-k money into the budget. Among Pataki’s critics is his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, H. Carl McCall, who made a pledge this summer to fulfill the original funding promise if elected.

“The funding for UPK has been a fight every year,” Schimke said, “except the first operational year, which was also an election year. Starting in 1999, the governor tried to block the grant and probably reduce the funding. It has been a continuing problem.”

Kevin Quinn, a spokesman for Pataki’s budget division, noted that pre-k funding has increased almost 400 percent since Pataki took office in 1995. The legislation for pre-k funding was not passed until 1997 though, so the funding level would be expected to have been much smaller in ’95.

Quinn also said many school districts simply turn down the funding.

“The most recent data shows that of 419 districts that were eligible, only 162, or 39 percent, chose to participate,” Quinn said. “Many districts that chose not to participate cited reasons that included space constraints, transportation difficulties and district preference to concentrate on K through 12 education.”

However, Schimke said many schools have turned down the funding or do not seek it at all because of the indecisive way the state handles it.

“Schools and others blame the uncertainty about the money, late state budgets, necessity for local share, and fear they will be left with an unfunded mandate,” she said. “The governor says he supports pre-k, but for poor children, not all children. The governor says that schools aren’t using the money.”

The Legislature and Gov. George E. Pataki signed off on pre-k funding as part of an educational package called Learning, Achieving, Developing by Directing Educational Resources. The program also aimed to reduce class sizes, pay for minor maintenance, and help schools to bolster their staffs.

Some opponents saw L.A.D.D.E.R. as costly to taxpayers and more the result of teachers-union influence than a good idea. They also consider pre-k as state-subsidized day care.

But according to local educators, pre-k is important in a child’s development.

“I think children who are involved in preschool at an early age do much better as they get to the upper grades,” said Lisa Craig, a Head Start pre-k teacher at Arbor Hill Elementary School, which does receive pre-k funding. “They learn good social skills; I think that’s the most important thing.”

Schimke said that children who have pre-k background are 50 percent less likely to need special education services later, and 20 percent less likely to be held back by the 3rd grade.

Much research backs up these claims. A study by the University of Arizona suggested that nearly 50 percent of a child’s brain development happens during preschool age. A study conducted by the Maryland Department of Education in 1991 found that their Extended Elementary Education Program participants scored significantly better on math and reading tests through the first, third, and fifth grades.

Robert White, Arbor Hill Elementary School principal, agrees that pre-k programs give kids an advantage.

“If the child doesn’t come here [for pre-k], then we just have to do it at the next level–kindergarten,” said White.

—David Riley

Here’s my beef: Tracy Frisch of the Regional Farm & Food Bank. Photo by Teri Currie.

Irradiated Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner

As x-ray-zapped meat arrives in the Capital Region, experts and activists debate the safety of the process

Two years after Federal authorities approved its sale to the public, irradiated meat has made its way to the Capital Region.

Last Tuesday, Price Chopper Supermarket officials announced that it will sell irradiated ground beef. Officials from Hannaford grocery stores said that they will soon to follow suit. Price Chopper’s irradiated meat will be supplied by SureBeam Corp. of San Diego. The ground beef will be irradiated at SureBeam’s facility in Sioux City, Iowa, and then shipped to the Capital Region.

“This technology is environmentally safe, using ordinary electrons,” said Mark Stephenson, vice president of public relations for SureBeam. “It is not creating radiation or treated with radiation.”

The irradiation method uses high-energy or ionizing radiation to decontaminate food of microorganisms, insects and parasites. The energy can come from radioactive material, electron accelerators or x-rays. SureBeam uses electron-beam technology, a process developed 10 years ago to sterilize medical equipment. Stephenson said that this process kills more than 99.9 percent of bacteria.

“This is a process similar to a microwave,” said Stephenson. “People should feel good and have some peace of mind when they go to their grocery shelves to purchase this product.”

Only a few years ago, many stores were reluctant to stock irradiated meat because they feared a backlash from many consumer groups who claimed that irradiation is an unsafe, understudied process. But since this year saw two of the three largest meat scares in U.S. history—including a 27-million-pound recall of Pilgrim’s Pride cooked sandwich meat—consumers seem to be warming up to the technology, said Stephenson. Irradiation has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But these endorsements don’t impress everyone, and many advocates for consumer safety are up in arms over the latest announcement.

“The process of zapping food with the equivalent of 10 million chest x-rays has not been fully tested or analyzed to determine health risks,” said Russ Haven, New York Public Interest Group’s legislative council. “Consumers should not be unwitting participants in a field trial for this little-studied process.”

Haven, along with Monique Mikhail, organizer for Public Citizens, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration did not determine a level of radiation to which food can be exposed and still be safe for human consumption, which federal law requires. Further, Mikhail explained that the process is dangerous because it introduces new chemicals, called radiolytic products, into the food supply.

These chemicals, she added, do not naturally exist in food, and the FDA has never studied them for safety. She points to a study done by a German research team, which found that the chemical 2-DCB in irradiated food causes cancer, genetic damage and cellular damage in human and rat cells.

“There has not been nearly enough research into the long-term health effects of consuming irradiated foods,” said Mikhail. “There have been no long-term studies done, and there have been a number of studies in the past indicating problems with these products.”

Eileen FitzPatrick, an instructor in the Nutrition Science Department of the Sage Colleges in Troy, countered that this is a reasonable option to have in the marketplace.

“People hear the term radiation and they think the food is radioactive,” said FitzPatrick. “But all the information that I looked at shows the change in food is similar to what you would get with heat treatment, such as in the canning process.”

Further, she added, there is no radiation left in the meat because the radiation is absorbed similar to an x-ray.

“You are not made radioactive by an x-ray,” said FitzPatrick. “The electronic beam passes through the meat and in passing through it kills the bacteria.”

But Tracy Frisch, executive director of the Regional Farm and Food Bank, said that this process is just a band-aid approach to the root causes of meat contamination, such as dirty processing procedures and unsanitary practices at ranches and slaughterhouses. She explained that part of problem is that the slaughter lines are moving so fast, with far too many animals, that there is no time for people to react when problems arise, such as feces that end up in the lines.

“If there is a problem with an animal, it gets everywhere,” said Frisch. “We need to clean up the process much earlier rather than come in the end and try to fix it.”

FitzPatrick agrees that the speed in which the cattle are being processed is an issue. But she said that in any type of slaughtering there are going to be problems—especially since it only takes a small amount of bacteria to spread and contaminate all the meat.

“From a food-safety perspective,” said FitzPatrick, “when it comes to ground beef, irradiated ground beef is safer to the consumer.”

But not everyone is convinced.

“If there are feces in the meat and then they irradiate it, what you basically get is sterilized feces,” said Mikhail. “But the feces are still in the meat, so people are still eating that. The problem is that it shouldn’t be in there to begin with.”

—Nancy Guerin

STAR Search

Advocates for the disabled join together in hopes of improving the region’s public transportation system

Donna Suhore has identified her issues and is ready to roll, even if the public transportation she uses to get around the Capital Region is not.

“The current system is strained, and there are different problems for different people,” said Donna Suhore, who uses a medical scooter and is chairwoman for the Capital District Coalition for Accessible Transportation. “The buses are in bad shape. People complain that some of the drivers don’t know where to go, some drivers are rude and intimidating. Right now these problems just need to be known.”

Suhore is one of about 5,500 individuals living in the Capital Region whose disabilities prevent them from using fixed-route public transportation. Suhore and the others currently have one option, the STAR (Special Transit Available by Request) buses. People confined to electric wheelchairs or motorized medical scooters can schedule these buses to pick them up from their homes, but many people, even representatives of the Capital District Transportation Authority, have said the system needs improvement.

“In our perfect world, every request can be accommodated when and where it is requested,” said Carm Basile, director of marketing and information for the CDTA. “That is the ultimate objective, but getting there is difficult.”

The unreliability of rides is one of the major problems Suhore and others have experienced using the STAR system. Would-be STAR riders are often stranded as buses sometimes are not available or don’t show up when requested. This dilemma stems from an overall shortage of vehicles: The CDTA has 20 working STAR buses serving 5,500 customers, Basile said.

“These people have to wonder day to day if they’ll be able to have transportation to go and do the things they want and need to,” said Marianne Taylor, a service coordinator with the Center for the Disabled. “They have places that they need to go, but may be told that they are on standby and are not able to do things.”

The CDTA is aware of some problems caused by the scarcity of STAR buses, Basile said, and is planning on expanding its fleet by five buses in the coming weeks.

As the system stands now, people who rely on STAR buses must call to schedule a pickup at least 24 hours in advance, but no more than two weeks ahead of time. Critics of the system said that sometimes buses don’t show up even with that much preparation. While this experience can be frustrating, CDCAT’s Jay Steinhardt said that some of the STAR customers he has dealt with feel like they can’t change a thing.

“People are afraid to exercise their rights because they don’t know they have them,” said Steinhardt, who uses STAR transportation. “They say they can’t complain because they’ll lose their rides. CDTA tells riders all the time about their responsibilities, but not their rights. It tells them what to do, but not what they can do.”

But the CDTA’s Basile said the notion that STAR riders will lose their rights if they speak up is misguided.

“That is simply and completely not true,” said Basile. “We encourage people to speak out and let us know what they are experiencing. If someone has an issue, we ask them to call us and deal with it directly rather than waiting and letting it fester.”

Basile said the CDTA holds STAR meetings twice a year with the sole purpose of addressing the concerns of its consumers. While the accessible transportation coalition met last week in preparation for the next STAR Town Meeting, to be held Oct. 28 at the Colonie Community Center, Taylor said she has reservations about it.

“The STAR meeting in May wasn’t very helpful,” said Taylor. “I saw STAR reps taking a lot of unnecessary time talking about anything but the real issues, answering commonly asked questions rather than addressing the concerns of the riders.”

Suhore also said she was disappointed with the last STAR meeting, but is not yet ready to give up trying to reform her only means of travel throughout the region.

“It is possible,” said Suhore. “We want to work with these people. Instead of starting out screaming and banging our heads and protesting, we figure we’ll ask. We’re reasonable. It’s not a perfect world, but some things are unacceptable.”

—Travis Durfee

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