US House Panel Backs Marijuana Decriminalization

A divided U.S. House committee approved a proposal Wednesday to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level, a vote that was alternately described as a momentous change in national cannabis policy and a hollow political gesture. The House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal 24-10 after more than two hours of debate. It would reverse a long-standing federal prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, while allowing states to set their own rules on pot. The vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy and is truly a sign that prohibition's days are numbered,'' Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement. Cannabis Trade Federation CEO Neal Levine called the votea historic step forward for cannabis policy reform.” State measuresThe vote came at a time when most Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form, and committee members from both parties agreed that national cannabis policy lagged behind changes at the state level. That divide has created a host of problems. Loans and other banking services, for example, are hard to get for many marijuana companies because pot remains illegal at the federal level. The House bill’s future is uncertain. It wasn’t immediately clear if the proposal would be reviewed by other committees, nor was it clear when or whether a vote would take place in the full House. The proposal has better chances of passing in the Democratic-controlled chamber than in the Republican-held Senate. The House passed a bill earlier this year to grant legal marijuana businesses access to banking, but it hasn’t advanced in the Senate. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee complained that the proposal to decriminalize cannabis had never had a hearing and lacked the bipartisan support needed to become law. It's going nowhere,'' said Representative Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican. Sales taxAmong its provisions, the legislation would authorize a 5% sales tax on marijuana products to fund programs aimed at assisting people and communities harmed in the battle against drugs, such as job training and legal aid. It also would require federal courts to expunge prior marijuana convictions. Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said the nation has for too longtreated marijuana as a criminal justice problem, instead of a matter of personal choice and public health.” Arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust,'' he said.The racial disparity in enforcement of marijuana laws has only compounded this mistake with serious consequences, particularly for minority communities.” 

Spain Has Permits to Build Giant Telescope Blocked in Hawaii

The director of a Spanish research center says a giant telescope, costing $1.4 billion, is one step nearer to being built on the Canary Islands in the event an international consortium gives up its plans to build it in Hawaii.
                   
Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute Director Rafael Rebolo has told The Associated Press that a building permit for the telescope has been granted by the town of Puntagorda on the island of La Palma.
                   
He said “there are no more building permits needed according to Spanish legislation.”
The international consortium backing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope wants to build it atop Hawaii’s tallest peak. But some native Hawaiians consider the Mauna Kea summit sacred and their protests have stopped construction from going ahead since mid-July.

Australia Searches for African Swine Fever Vaccine

Australian scientists say it could be another five years before a vaccine is developed to protect pigs from African swine fever.  It is estimated that a quarter of the world’s pig population has died this year, following the deadly outbreak of the virus in China. African swine fever, or ASF, has yet to reach Australia, but it is close.  The virus has been spreading rapidly through Asia, and outbreaks have been reported in East Timor, one of Australia’s closest neighbors.Hong Kong Reports a Case of African Swine Fever

        A case of African swine fever has been detected in a Hong Kong slaughterhouse, prompting the culling of all 6,000 pigs at the facility.

Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in a statement Friday that the incurable virus was found in a single pig imported from a farm in Guangdong province in mainland China, where the monthslong outbreak has devastated herds.

Pork is China’s staple meat and its price and availability is considered a matter of national concern.

The disease is devastating pig populations in several countries.  It is highly contagious and there is no cure.Scientists have been working on a vaccine for 60 years, but because the African swine fever virus is so large and complex it is an immense task.At the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in the state of Victoria researchers are hopeful of a breakthrough, but concede an effective treatment for ASF could be at least five years away.China Reports Outbreak of African Swine Fever in Hunan

        China has reported a new outbreak of African swine fever that is threatening the country’s vital pork industry.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported Friday that the disease had been detected on a farm in Yongzhou in the central province of Hunan, where 4,600 pigs were being raised.

Although 171 of the pigs had died and 270 were found sick, ministry regulations require all pigs on an affected farm be culled and disposed of and the area quarantined and decontaminated.

1 million pigs…
The laboratory’s director is Dr Trevor Drew.“I do not think I really expected African swine fever to spread with such ferocity,” said Drew.  “I think we will not be able to control African swine fever until there is a vaccine available.”Without a vaccine, Australia will rely on traditional methods of disease control should ASF reach its shores.  Infected pigs would be culled, their carcasses buried and farms disinfected.Australia’s multi-million dollar pork industry includes about 2,700 producers, which employ 34,000 people.US Halts Polish Pork Imports Over African Swine Fever

        The United States suspended imports of pork from Poland Thursday because of an outbreak of the highly contagious hog disease African swine fever in that country.

African swine fever has spread rapidly in Eastern Europe and China, the world’s largest pork producer, where new cases are appearing and the disease is traveling far distances.

The United States is free of the disease and eager to keep it that way because infections in U.S.

There are concerns the disease could spread through Australia’s large feral pig population.  It numbers about 25 million, and the animals are spread across almost half the country.Scientists say the most likely way ASF could enter Australia is through infected pork products that are then fed to pigs.Under new bio-security laws, Australia is deporting tourists who fail to declare illegal pork products.

Nigerian Authorities Launch Campaign Against Open Defecation

Baba Awolu reports for work at 5 a.m. each day at a local toilet and washroom facility he owns in the Jahi district of Abuja. The facility, known in the native Hausa language as “Gidan Wanka,” was built to serve poor people without access to bathrooms.Awolu says he has to arrive early so he can attend to users who are preparing for the day.Gutters and byways in the heart of Abuja covered with feces. Nov. 18, 2019. (Timothy Oviezu/VOA)”What we’re doing is helping people and the government,” Awolu said. “Instead of going to nearby bushes to defecate, they can use our facility and pay a token.” In  October a survey by the U.N. Children’s Fund named  Nigeria as the country with the most people practicing open defecation, passing India, which outlawed the practice.About 25 percent, or more than 47 million Nigerians, lack access to toilet facilities. The majority are in rural areas, where many poor people can’t afford to install toilets in their homes.The result is defecation in bushes and fields, leading to contaminated water supplies and the spread of disease.At an event in Abuja this week, Nigerian authorities said they are determined to end open defecation and achieve U.N. sanitation goals by 2025, five years ahead of schedule.Only 14 out of the 774 local government areas in Nigeria are open defecation-free, authorities say. The practice is more prevalent in north-central states, including Abuja, the capital.  Muhammad Mahmood is Nigeria’s environment minister.”This commitment is demonstrated by the president’s declaration of state of emergency on water, sanitation and hygiene in the country,” Mahmood said. “With just 11 years to go with the 2030 deadline, we must re-double our efforts to provide universal access to toilets, leaving no one behind.”An open defecation site in Abuja close to houses. (Timothy Obiezu/VOA)Some 87,000 young children in Nigeria die each year from illnesses linked to open defecation, poor sanitation and hygiene.That number may fall, however, as more places like Baba Awolu’s open across Nigeria, giving people regular access to working bathrooms and a boost to public sanitation. 

Bei Bei, Washington’s Eligible Bachelor Panda, Heads to China

After a month of preparations and goodbyes, Bei Bei, the Washington National Zoo’s most eligible giant panda bachelor, was on his way to China on Tuesday, where scientists hope he will help increase the population of his species.The departure of 4-year-old Bei Bei to his parents’ homeland had been pre-arranged and was announced last month by the zoo, where giant pandas have always been a visitor favorite.Bei Bei, which means “precious treasure,” munched his last American breakfast of bamboo and leaf eater biscuits early Tuesday before entering a custom travel crate that was loaded onto a truck for the trip to Dulles International Airport, the zoo said.From there, he began the 16-hour direct flight to Chengdu, China, aboard a dedicated Boeing 777F flown by FedEx and stocked with his favorite snacks, such as bamboo shoots, pears, and cooked sweet potatoes, it said.Workers look at a FedEx’s crate where Bei Bei, the giant panda, has been placed before his departure to China, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019.”Today is bittersweet,” zoo Director Steve Monfort said. “We’ve cared for Bei Bei, and along with millions, watched him grow into a true ambassador for his species.”Visitors have spent the past few weeks getting their last looks as zookeepers got Bei Bei accustomed to his travel crate, first by training him to walk through it, then spending time inside with the door closed.Breeding programs are key to efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild. Thanks to reforestation to expand habitats in which the species can survive, pandas have been reclassified from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild.Mei Xiang and Tian Tian Bei Bei is not the first in his family to travel abroad. His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, arrived from China in 2000, and his older siblings Tai Shan and Bao Bao both packed their bags for China when they came of breeding age.Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the zoo’s only remaining giant pandas.Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson did not rule out another breeding attempt, but added in an email that “Mei Xiang is of advanced maternal age so it is highly unlikely that she will have another cub.”An artificial insemination last year of Mei Xiang, who has been at the zoo for 20 years, failed to produce a cub.The zoo has collaborated with Chinese scientists on a breeding program since it received its first pandas in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China.
 

US Military Aims to Telepathically Control Drones in Four Years

DARPA, the main research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is funding researchers to develop wearable devices that would have military applications such as using the mind to control unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, commonly known as drones. Instead of using brain implants to achieve this, DARPA is looking for non-invasive to minutely invasive ways of interfacing with the machine. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee got a close-up look at one team’s work at Rice University. 

Google’s Do-Good Arm Tries to Make Up For Everything Else

Google’s head of philanthropy says the company is having “a lot of conversations” internally amid worries about the tech giant’s bottomless appetite for consumer data and how it uses its algorithms.
                   
Vice President Jacqueline Fuller wouldn’t comment on specific data privacy controversies dogging Google lately, but says she shares other concerns many have about Big Tech. Cyberbullying. Hate speech amplified online. The impact of artificial intelligence on everything, from jobs to warfare.
                   
“As a consumer myself, as part of the general public, as a mother, it’s very important to understand what am I seeing, what are my children seeing,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press in Paris, where she announced new grant winners Tuesday for projects aimed at teaching digital skills to poor, immigrant, rural or elderly users.
                   
The philanthropic arm she runs, Google.org, is like the company’s conscience, spending $100 million a year on non-profit groups that use technology to try to counteract problems the tech world is accused of creating, abetting or exacerbating.
                  
“Across the world we want to make sure we’re a responsible citizen,” she said.
But can Google’s do-good arm make up for everything else? At least it’s trying, she argues.
                   `
“The company is having a lot of conversations around things like access to information and access to data and making sure there’s no algorithmic bias,” she said.
                  
Public outrage has grown over Google’s use of consumer data and domination of the online search market, with governments stepping up scrutiny of the company.
                   
Just in the past week, nine groups called for the U.S. government to block Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition of fitness-gadget maker Fitbit, citing privacy and antitrust concerns. Then Google came under fire for a partnership with U.S. health care system Ascension that the Wall Street Journal says gives the search giant access to thousands of patient health records without doctors’ knowledge. Both companies say the deal is compliant with health-privacy law.
                   
Fuller wouldn’t comment specifically on either case, but said, “We take our users’ trust very seriously.”
                   
She also insisted that the company has a very vibrant discussion'' internally about sexual misconduct, human rights and other problems that have tarnished Google's reputation.
                   
Its philanthropic arm is focused lately on using artificial intelligence to help society, for example by providing better access to health care and more effective emergency services. It's also working on ways to limit the damage of the breakneck developments of AI, notably after employee departures and public pressure over a Pentagon contract pushed the company to pledge it wouldn't use AI in weapons development.
                   
Among projects Google.org is funding are those that help users create and share digital resumes or map job opportunities, as the company tries to figure out “how can we anticipate some of the impacts of AI in an economy, and understand how can we make sure that everyone has access to jobs that are not only interesting now but jobs that are going to be here in the future,” Fuller said.
                   
Google is also holding a competition this year in Europe for projects on “how we can keep children safe,” she said.
                   
Digital literacy is crucial, she said:
All of us need to discern what is truthful of what I see online. How do I ask the questions of who is sponsoring this content.”
                   
In Paris, Fuller announced the winners of Google.org’s latest “Impact Challenge,” contests it holds around the world for non-profits using technology for good. Ten groups won grants worth a total of 3 million euros for projects helping the millions of people in France who lack the basic digital skills that are increasingly crucial for everything from paying taxes to finding a job.
                   
Despite its philanthropic efforts, Google’s critics remain legion _ even within the tech universe.
                   
Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris argues technology is shortening our attention spans and pushing people toward more extreme views. He couldn’t get Google to tackle these problems when he was there, so he quit and is pushing for change through his Center for Human Technologies.
                   
He says companies like Google won’t change voluntarily but that the tech world has undergone a “sea change” in awareness of problems it’s caused, thanks in part to pressure from a frustrated public. 

Climate Change Puts North Africa in a Hot Spot

BIR SALAH, TUNISIA — Samira Sghaier and a group of friends prune moringa trees under a searing sun, dropping fistfuls of leafy branches into plastic tubs. Prickly acacias edge the plot of land, protecting bone-dry soil from further erosion.Sghaier’s father once grew olive and fruit trees — varieties that mostly shriveled and died under her watch. “There hasn’t been enough rain in recent years,” says the 52-year-old farmer.Her tiny farm in eastern Tunisia is a bellwether for the dramatic environmental changes already reshaping North Africa, which threaten to intensify with climate change.A farmer in Bir Salah checks acacias, hardy plants which produce gum arabic. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)Sandwiched between an encroaching Sahara and a warming Mediterranean Sea, the region has seen a sharp drop in rainfall over the past half century—a trend experts say will likely intensify in the coming decades. Indeed, over the course of this century parts of North Africa as well as the Middle East might become uninhabitable, according to the German research and policy organization, the Max Planck Institute.“We’re seeing higher temperatures and increasing water stress,” says Essia Guezzi, climate and energy project officer for conservation group WWF North Africa, summing up some of the regional challenges. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten the region’s largely coastal populations, she and others note.A farmer in Bir Salah checks bark of an acacia tree, which produces coveted gum arabic. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)These and other issues will come into sharp focus during next month’s climate summit in Spain, a fellow member of the Mediterranean region that is considered a climate hotspot—more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than other parts of the world.
While Morocco has earned praise as a climate-change leader, the North African region overall needs to do much more to counter an otherwise grim future, experts say. Also hampering efforts: some countries are buffeted by conflict and civil unrest, while fossil fuels continue to drive Algerian and Libyan economies.Samira Sghaier checks out dead trees at her farm. The project has not been entirely successful. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)Trying to turn the tideIn Tunisia, fresh groundwater reserves are shrinking rapidly. Roughly two-thirds of the land is threatened by desertification. The effects of climate change are likely to slow the country’s growth, hitting two major revenue drivers—tourism and agriculture—according to a 2018 report by the Netherlands Foreign Ministry.While Tunisian authorities have outlined ambitious targets — including cutting emissions 41 percent by 2030 compared to 2010 levels—they have been slow to match words with action, critics say. Nor did the issue figure high on candidates’ priorities in recent legislative and presidential elections.A women farmer prunes moringa trees, which are sought after for their nutritional and medicinal properties. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)“It seems like the environment and the impact of climate change is the last concern of many Tunisian politicians,” says Hamadi Gharbi, WWF North Africa Climate and Energy project manager, who says the country also needs more climate financing and expertise.In the village of Bir Salah, Sghaier is trying, at least locally, to turn the tide. She and other area farmers began planting hardy acacia trees to help reduce erosion, along with moringa, a fast-growing plant prized for its nutritional and medicinal properties.The idea was to help fight climate change and earn a profit doing so. The reality has not been so easy.Samira Sghaier (2nd left) and a group of women strip leaves from moringa branches to use for powders and oil. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)“Everyone likes new products,” Sghaier says, showing a visitor her storeroom packed with moringa oils and powders, along with bags of moringa-based bsissa, a Tunisian breakfast drink, which a group of growers have made and packaged.“The problem is selling them,” she says. “It’s hard to find a market.”Regional fightAcross the Sahara, the African Union has spearheaded an ambitious ‘Great Green Wall’ initiative aimed to restore degraded land across a swathe of the Sahel, while also offering income-generating opportunities for communities living there.Moringa products made by Samira Sghaier and other local farmers are seen on display. They’re having a hard time marketing them. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)“The goal is to replant trees, to return the Sahel to what it was about 60 years ago, when there was a lot more forest cover,” says anthropologist Gilles Boetsch, director of a French scientific team working with Senegalese researchers in the region.   There are plenty of setbacks he says. Many trees die and need to be replaced, while conflict in some Sahel countries makes areas inaccessible.“It doesn’t work 100 percent, but it works,” Boetsch says, adding a similar regional initiative could also work north of the Sahara. “The first problem is water. The second is getting communities to accept the projects.”Samira Sghaier arranges a shelf with her moringa products. She’s had a hard time finding buyers. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)In North Africa, some national projects to fight climate change are making a difference, and Tunisia will reportedly present a regional oases protection project at the Madrid climate conference.Local farmers in northern Algeria are getting Mexican expertise to plant prickly pear, a cactus that offers a raft of nutritional and money-generating benefits and needs little rainfall. Algeria is also trying to revive a massive ‘Green Dam’ reforestation project that previously had disappointing results.In Tunisia’s southeastern Gabes region, Dhafer Guezguez worked with the local government in a French-financed project to restore oases and re-introduce native date palm species. The plants are hardy and nutritious, he says, but not as sweet as popular commercial varieties. Attracting consumers will need serious marketing.Samira Sghaier is seen pruning her moringa trees. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)“They need to be showcased as a product that’s rare and good for you,” Guezguez says. “The same kind of effort we saw in Europe and the United States to get people to eat organic products.”The oases preservation initiatives have helped to boost local economies and restore depleted soil, he says. Women dominate the workforce. The projects have continued even after French financing ended. Participants are also making tourist handicrafts like palm leaf bags and hats, to earn extra revenue.“I think this is how, little by little, we can save the oases,” Guezguez says. “When local communities realize it’s in their interest to do so. 

US Asks Federal Judge to Toss Out Nevada Plutonium Lawsuit

The federal government wants a judge to reject Nevada’s request for a court order to remove weapons-grade plutonium from a site north of Las Vegas, arguing that officials have already promised that no more will be shipped to the state.
                   
In documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Reno, the federal government brands as “conjectural” or “hypothetical” state claims that residents are harmed by radiation from the one-half metric ton of plutonium secretly trucked a year ago from South Carolina to Nevada.
                   
The decision cannot be undone, the material is already in the state and the federal government has sovereign immunity, meaning the state can’t force the federal government to act, the motion contends.
                   
The Department of Energy “routinely and safely transports nuclear materials into and out of Nevada and stores classified amounts of plutonium in Nevada,” it added.
                   
State Attorney General Aaron Ford is pressing for the court order, saying the state was not informed of the shipments until they had already been made and can’t trust the federal agency to abide by after-the-fact promises.
                   
“While we appreciate the Department of Energy’s new position that it will not ship additional plutonium here, a court order to this effect will hold the department accountable,” Ford said Monday in a statement.
                   
The state maintains the Energy Department failed to conduct proper environmental reviews, and that an accident transporting, handling or storing the highly radioactive material could permanently harm Las Vegas, home to 2.2 million people and host to more than 40 million tourists a year.
                   
“The long-term storage of this plutonium has exposed, and will continue to expose Nevada’s property, lands, water, air and citizens to greater radiological pollution and increased risk of ecological and economic catastrophe,” state attorneys said in documents filed Oct. 23.
                   
The Energy Department disclosed last January that the plutonium had been taken in late 2018 to a specialized facility at the vast Nevada National Security Site, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The site was used to conduct nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1992.
                   
The U.S. government had been ordered by a federal judge in South Carolina to remove a metric ton (2,204 pounds) of plutonium from the Savannah River nuclear weapons refining complex by 2020, and to remove another 5 metric tons (11,020 pounds) in future years.
                   
The Energy Department says it plans to eventually move the plutonium to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry in April promised to send no more plutonium to Nevada and to remove the amount already delivered by 2027.
                   
A spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Catherine Marie Cortez Masto of Nevada said last week that Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Perry, said he will abide by the department’s promise to remove the plutonium.

New and Old Drugs May Offer New Ways to Fight Heart Disease

Novel drugs may offer fresh ways to reduce heart risks beyond the usual medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.One new study found that heart attack survivors benefited from a medicine long used to treat gout. Several experimental drugs also showed early promise for interfering with heart-harmful genes without modifying the genes themselves – in one case, with treatment just twice a year.The research was featured at an American Heart Association conference ending Monday in Philadelphia.”There’s a lot of excitement” about the new gene-targeting medicines, especially because they seem to last so long, said Dr. Karol Watson, of the University of California, Los Angeles.Scientists have been exploring gene therapy – altering DNA – to attack the root cause of many diseases. The new drugs essentially accomplish the same thing without tampering with genes, said the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Daniel Rader, who has consulted for some makers of these drugs.The medicines work by silencing or blocking messages that genes give to cells to make proteins that can do harm, such as allowing cholesterol to accumulate. The first few of these “RNA-interference” drugs recently were approved for other conditions, and research is also targeting heart disease.Farthest along is inclisiran, tested in 1,561 people with heart disease from clogged arteries who still had high LDL, the bad form of cholesterol, despite taking standard drugs. They were given a shot of inclisiran or a dummy drug when they joined the study, three months later and then every six months.The drug lowered LDL by 56% without serious side effects. More testing will show whether it also lowers heart attacks and other problems, not just cholesterol. Inclisiran’s maker, The Medicines Company, plans to seek federal approval for it later this year.Two other RNA interference drugs aim at a different target – triglycerides, another fat in the blood that’s elevated in one quarter of Americans. Treatments include very low-fat diets, weight loss, fish oil and drugs, but doctors say more and better therapies are needed.Each RNA interference drug was tested at various doses in 40 people. A single shot lowered triglycerides by 30% to 67%, and the benefit lasted for at least four months. The studies were just intended to show safety; Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals is developing both drugs.Other research found new benefits from older drugs. AstraZeneca’s Farxiga, originally developed to treat diabetes, also lowered the risk of heart problems in heart failure patients who did not have diabetes. Among 2,605 of such patients treated for 18 months, about 9% of those on Farxiga had worsening heart failure or heart-related death versus nearly 13% of those not given the drug. That worked out to a 27% lower risk, without extra serious side effects.Surprising benefits also were seen in a Canadian study of the decades-old gout drug. The anti-inflammatory drug colchicine – sold as Colcrys, Mitigare and in generic form – was tested in 4,745 people who recently had a heart attack.After about two years, colchicine users had a 23% lower risk of suffering a new heart attack, heart-related death, stroke, cardiac arrest or urgent need for an artery-opening procedure compared with a group given dummy pills. The benefit came mostly from preventing strokes and artery-opening procedures, and some heart doctors would rather have seen more difference in heart attacks and deaths.Colchicine is being tested in several other studies, and more evidence is needed before using it routinely to lower heart risks, Dr. L. Kristin Newby of Duke University wrote in a commentary published with the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, a Northwestern University cardiologist and program chief for the heart conference, was more supportive.”When you have a safe drug that’s easily available, it’s going to be hard to hold this one back,” he said.