Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Author Dispels Myths of Marijuana Legalization at Fox Lane

The legalization of marijuana can engender an image of the drug’s laid back disciples who will tend their little plots around daily smokes circles, while lamenting the loss of the counterculture. Then waiting to exhale just after 4:20 p.m. every day, plenty of time shall be left to bag their haul to a local retailer who’s eager to dispense peace and contentment, while both remember to stick it to the man for old time’s sake. That is just one of the marijuana myths author Kevin Sabet was trying to dispel for students, staff and law enforcement this Thursday at Fox Lane High School as the nation seems poised to enact a retail sale legalization of marijuana.
“We are in the midst of creating the tobacco industry 2.0,” said the author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana.
This has Wall Street and large corporations providing the financial resources to achieve their goals. “Right now in Ohio the ten richest people in the state are spending about $20 million to write a ballot initiative to control, supply and distribute marijuana,” said the former Senior Advisor for the Obama Administration at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Thus a Wall Street profit motive will mass produce the model that any seller of addictive substances use. “Ten percent of all alcohol users drink daily and contribute to 75% of the sales,” said Sabet. “Without them, you wouldn’t have an alcohol industry.”
The power of Madison Avenue marketing certainly won’t be left behind either. “One company has already paid the widow of Bob Marley $50 million to use his name and image on their product,” said Sabet.
But the best way to create the ideal addictive client is by drawing from the young, which has its basis clearly stamped in science. Whether it’s the high of seeing a good friend or the artificial enhancements many people succumb to, the pleasure center of the brain is activated and our memory will implore us to continually seek that out. With the brain undeveloped up to the age of 30, he says, “The natural process of growth suffers when drugs are introduced, and one sixth of the people who become addicted to marijuana first began smoking at any early age.”
The writing is already on the wall. “When you walk into a Colorado marijuana shop, it looks like a candy store,” he said. “They have gummy bear pot, colorfully flavored drinks and advertising that is specifically targeted at young people.”
Even so, corporate greed receives an ally in attitudes that are established in the older generation. Boomers and beyond reason that many more people don’t succumb to addiction and fond recollections of smoking pot in their youth creates a deadly disconnect. “We’ve become better farmers, and THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) levels are so much higher now,” said Sabet who is the Director of the Drug Policy Institute and Assistant Professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Division of Addiction Medicine.
He likens today’s marijuana to the souped-up versions of tobacco. “The tobacco industry took their product, restructured the DNA and added numerous addictive properties,” he said.
In turn, marijuana actually comes in a form where the product is 98% THC. Sabet displayed ads and billboards in legal states where dealers are giving the pure product away for free. Thus, the chances of becoming addicted are significantly increased, according to Sabet.
Another aspect borrowed from tobacco is the promise of medicinal properties, and the opportunity for mass approval. Acknowledging the real possibility of medical use for marijuana, Sabet still provided slides from the late 1800s where tobacco was hailed as an elixir for various ailments. “That led to wider acceptance,” he said, “and then greater use – even though the claims were baseless.”
So the Wall Street movement is trying to discard the image of the 30-year-old stoner living in his mom’s basement. “He’s not the guy the politicians want to stand up for,” said Sabet.
They’ve replaced him with the 85-year-old terminal cancer patient who is in dire need of pain medication. But while medical usage is not a ruse, it’s the application that he finds troubling.  This has people going to the retailer rather than a doctor. “We need to harness the medical properties by putting it behind the counter,” he says.
But this entire discussion does not proceed under the assumption that the war on drugs and mass incarceration are a good thing. He just questions why one tragedy is being replaced with a freewheeling, free market policy that will pave the way for another tragedy. “We need a smart approach to marijuana legalization,” he concluded.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Katonah Resident Dispels Prison Myths through her Art Rehab Program

​From the perch of a marketing career in international business – like the one Katherine Vockins once occupied - or the freedom of descending the incline on Katonah Avenue, the daily difficulties of prison inmates really have no need to rise to a level that peaks our concerns. In accordance of the typical stereotypes most of us have of prison inmates, that perception abruptly changed for Vockins.

“I went into a prison,” she says. The myths dispelled, Vockins left her old life behind.

The Katonah resident founded and has been operating an arts program in five medium and maximum security prisons in New York State since 1998. “We started with theater – branched out to creative writing, poetry, modern dance and vocal training,” she says of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA).

But she definitely can’t take credit for making this ascent. Her husband, also a successful business person at an earlier time, was working on his theology degree at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining. The experience began him onto a road as an activist for prison reform and educator for inmates on the inside and out.  Nonetheless, says Vockins, “I wanted to go in and find out what was so interesting.” 

Then as she began volunteering at Sing Sing alongside her husband Hans Hallundbaek, Vockins rather spontaneously inquired whether a theater program might work, and soon enough, she was writing a proposal to the Department of Corrections in Albany. Vockins got approval and the first group of theater students at Sing Sing had a play produced within a year.  “They usually write about the hood – violence, drugs, HIV/AIDS, etc.” she says.

The drama or comedy aside, she says, “Participation is about hope and transformation.” 

In accordance, the program provides a vehicle for inmates to move forward and accept responsibility. “Inmates have to choose to change their life and stop blaming the system,” said Vockins.

And that attitude has a definite effect inside. “A study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice proves that people who are in our programs have less disciplinary problems and better coping skills,” says Vockins.

A second study by SUNY Purchase shows that RTA students are more likely to finish their GED and enter college while still in prison. Providing a leg up upon finally getting a foot out the door, RTA’s recidivism rates for alumni far outclass peers. “Our approximate average is 10% and the national rate is above 50%,” says Vockins.

The inmates prefer not to see the results so mathematically. “They say the workshops give the opportunity to see themselves in a different light and build self-awareness,” she conveys.

Even so, there must be times when the walls don’t seem so safe for an outsider. “The first time I went into a women’s prison, a correctional officer put me in a room with twenty women I had never met, walked out and closed the door behind her. That was the only time I was ever scared,” she says.

Otherwise, the program provides a security all its own. “The trust and relationship that is built is mutually exclusive, and people in our program will always cover your back,” she says.

Hopefully, more of us can return the favor on the outside. It’s simply a matter of allowing the myths to fall in favor of reality and possibility.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Another Walk by Valley Edge in Katonah

Documentary and Film in the Works on the Life of Bruno Sammartino

Facing George “the animal” Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, Bobo Brazil or being the last one standing in the 22 man Battle Royal in Los Angeles are instances that all amount to just another day in the life of Bruno Sammartino. On the other hand, fleeing to the Italian mountains from the Nazi’s during WWII made everything that followed seem like child’s play. But it still may be fair to ask, as the bombs were falling and his village being leveled, how much sense could a boy of nine actually make of this.

Including four of his siblings, “people were dying,” he says, “you’re damn right it made sense.”

Surviving 14 months of that and rheumatic fever, the fight of his mother exemplifies the strength Sammartino lived his life with. Otherwise, the family emigrated to America and Bruno certainly looked the part of the tragedy. “You heard of the 97 pound weakling,” he says. “I was 80 pounds.”  

The slight frame and the bullying endured of his broken English sent him to the weight room and got him into high school wrestling. “I loved both sports,” he says, and began training with the University of Pittsburg Wrestling Team in 1959

Typical for wrestlers of that era to have an amateur background, the professional pioneers of the sport understood they needed to create a market for their passion. “You cannot have professional wrestling with the same rules as amateur because it would never be a spectator sport,” he says.

He went onto sell the garden out 187 consecutive times, held the heavyweight title for nine years, while navigating the pitfalls of his association with Vince McMahon Sr. and the eventual formation of the WWE.

In retirement, after years of self-imposed exile from professional wrestling’s main body, Sammartino recently accepted induction into the Hall of Fame because the shift he sees in regard to steroid use. Hiring Joseph Maroon, a world renowned neurosurgeon, Sammartino feels the WWE has finally gotten serious.  “I give them credit because they’ve decided they have to do something about this problem,” he says.

Having fought all the battles, a feature film is in the works, while a documentary is already in the can. “We’re just looking for the right distributor. I wrestled all over the world, and we want it to be distributed in all the places I was,” he says.

But for his still huge following, learning how he rose to win his first fall will knock all those other places of the map.

Times Square(TS): Tell me about your flight to the mountains?

Bruno Sammartino(BS): We were occupied by the SS and literally had to run for our lives. That’s where we spent the next 14 months, and it was hell because there was no food, no nothing. My mother would go down the mountain in the middle of the night to steal food – even from our own home. We had made provisions in our basement, and while the Nazis were asleep upstairs, she would go through the back and return with anything she could find.

TS: When did you come to America?

BS: 1950. We had to wait a few years because I was deathly ill and only the care and love of my mother pulled me through.

TS: When did you first wrestle?

BS: In High School. After training at the University of Pittsburgh, I got my first professional contract.

TS: How was wrestling different back then?

BS: Since most guys had that amateur wrestling background, the matches were closer to that form. The guys today are great athletes – especially the lighter guys, doing all those flying, acrobatic moves.

TS: Could you see yourself doing that?

BS: I was 275 pounds. I was known for my strength and stamina. If I was around today, what the lighter guys do – flying around the ring, doing back summersaults, I couldn’t do that.

(TS): I have to ask you. How much of all that wrestling was scripted?

BS: As far as scripted – zero. As far as, were there matches that were prearranged – yeah. Promoters always did what they did. The thing about it was in those days, you had so many different territories and promoters. The top guys were protective of themselves when promoters tried in many cases to talk them off their pedestal.  They would simply protect their positions. I know myself, I did the same thing. I wouldn’t cooperate, and I got blackballed, literally. So I wound up going to Canada for a year and a half.

TS: So wrestlers were just looking to protect your livelihood?

BS: Absolutely.

TS: You sold out the garden 187 consecutive times?

BS: Some people dispute that but if you ask me, I couldn’t tell you because I wrestled all over 3,4 times a week. Who keeps track?

TS: How about the show of wrestling, all the talk?

BS: Whenever we had the TV shows we would do interviews. They would have wrestling of course, but we would talk about the upcoming match.

TS: Was there this whole exchange with the audience that goes on today in the ring?

BS: No. You’d wrestle and go home.

TS: But you obviously had the ability to connect with people beyond what you did in the ring.

BS: When I did an interview, I was just being me. I’m wrestling Kenny Patera, and I think it’s going to be a great match because he’s a tremendous wrestler…That’s it. Then, of course, after I got through talking I would ask if I could speak to my fellow Italians. I’d basically say the same thing. I wanted Italians to know I was proud of my heritage because I thought that was important.

TS: Tell me about this 22 man cage match?

BS: You mean the Battle Royal. You win the match by being the last man standing. So everybody is trying to throw each other out of the ring. You can’t do that with a cage. Where you going to throw them?

TS: Sounds pretty dangerous.

BS: It is dangerous. Let me tell you, in my day, we used boxing rings. Those things were concrete, and there were no mats or anything. So when you’re flying over the top, you landed on cement.

TS: You broke your neck once.

BS: I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down, and I’ve had a number of serious injuries.

TS: Most people would stop after breaking their neck.

BS: I kept going because in my day we didn’t make a lot, a lot of money. I came from the old country and barely got through high school. I wanted to go as long as I possibly could so my kids got the chance to go to college, and I had enough money to support me and my wife after retiring.

TS: What did your mom think of your career?

BS: She never watched it become she was scared to death to see me get hurt. I didn’t like to put her through it because I loved my mom but that was my living. That’s what I did.

TS: Were you ever afraid to get into the ring?

BS: No. I was never afraid. I had too much confidence in myself. I mean I wasn’t cocky, but in my heart I knew I could go against anybody. Plus, if you go in there with fear – forget about it.

TS: After you retired, you very critical of Vince McMahon Jr. and the WWE.

BS: Yes, I was.

TS: You wouldn’t promote for them either?

BS: No. I saw what was going on with steroids. I was appalled by it and started speaking up. When I was asked to join the Wrestling Hall of Fame, I rejected it. On the other hand, I had always said, if they changed, I would reconsider.

TS: And you recently did accept?

BS: Yes. They hired Dr. Maroon and the wrestlers look like great athletes, but they don’t look like the big muscle guys from that era anymore.  They’ve changed and I’ve accepted their invitation.

TS: Tell me about the movie?

BS: The screenplay is completed, and a couple of studios are interested.

TS: Who do you want to play you?

BS: I have no idea.

TS: This must make you proud.

BS: I’m more excited about the documentary for the simple reason that it’s all factual. We went back to the mountain and interviewed people who were also there at the time.

TS: Had you been back there before?

BS: No. I never wanted to go back because the memories were too harsh, but the filmmakers made it clear that is was necessary to go back and relive it.

TS: How hard was this?

BS: It was a nightmare. We buried a lot of people up there, but I’m glad I did because it definitely did something for me and I have no regrets.

TS: Nice to talk to you. Thank you very much

BS: Nice to talk to you.

A Walk through Tarrytown