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Excerpts from recent Indiana editorials

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Indiana should take action against spice

As California considers legalizing marijuana to bring in needed tax money, some counties in Indiana are taking a different approach by protecting citizens from potentially serious health issues.

On Aug. 17, Boone County, followed a day later by Morgan County, adopted a ban on the sale of spice, a synthetic marijuana alternative. Law enforcement officials will say that spice, also known as K23, is a potentially addictive packet of herbs coated with a chemical that gives the user a marijuana-like high.

Spice was created by an organic chemistry research professor at Clemson University. He was studying ways to use THC to treat nausea and glaucoma and to use as appetite stimulants.

The sale of spice has remained legal in Indiana although the trend has begun turning after the Indiana Poison Center reported that some users have been hospitalized. As of today, spice can be purchased for $20 in a tin at tobacco and convenience stores, among other outlets. Retailers will say they thought the packets were as innocent as incense. Spice is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, a fact that should send smoke signals as warnings to Hoosiers. No one is monitoring spice’s ill effects; no one is monitoring what dosage is safe, if any.

The effects are similar to a drug overdose with a racing pulse, severe headaches, nausea and hallucinations. In Boone County, 11 juveniles recently tested positive for the chemical. By the way, if you see someone experiencing these symptoms, call 911 or the poison center at 800-222-1222. If parents aren’t keeping an eye out for spice packets in their child’s possession or disregarding warning signs, then they may well learn by January.

That’s when a ban on spice is expected to come before the Indiana General Assembly, though the debate may be short. State Rep. John Barnes, D-Indianapolis, a high school teacher, says he will introduce legislation that would ban the sale of spice. If passed, Indiana will join at least 11 states that have prohibited or are moving ahead in banning the substance. …

The state should quickly take action and ban its use, sale and production in Indiana. If the state does not seem forthcoming, then the Madison County Board of Commissioners should move ahead with an ordinance. There has been just one death nationally linked to spice; an Iowa teen who shot himself to death in a panic attack. Other tragedies may never come. But with access so available for a dangerous synthetic drug, the state must ban the sale and use of an unregulated chemical that, if left uncontrolled, could lead to stroke, heart attack and other debilitating conditions.

The Journal Gazette. Aug. 29, 2010.

Lax oversight of Indiana’s nursing homes

In 2000, Indiana Attorney General Karen Freeman-Wilson reviewed 300 inspection reports of nursing homes and forwarded 92 of them to a state board for review. At least 40 of the reviews resulted in a fine, reprimand or other discipline.

In November of that year, nursing home owners and trade groups representing them contributed almost $11,000 to her Republican opponent, Steve Carter. He was elected, and the number of reports resulting in complaints fell dramatically. Of 463 reports forwarded by health officials during his two terms, Carter filed only 38 with the Indiana State Board of Health Facility Administrators.

Greg Zoeller, who served as Carter’s chief deputy and succeeded him in 2009, received 40 inspection reports last year. Not a single report resulted in a review by the state.

Those are the troubling findings of a recent Indianapolis Star investigation, one that should have Hoosiers concerned about nursing home safety. Zoeller told the Star his office vigorously investigates every inspection report, while one of his deputies said the office files a complaint only when responsibility for a problem can be traced to the nursing home administrator.

Some troubling incidents over the last few years suggest the high standard for forwarding complaints has created an atmosphere of lax oversight. …

In forwarding a complaint to the state board, the attorney general simply calls for a review. It becomes the state board’s responsibility to follow through and determine if action is warranted.

The connection between Indiana’s abysmal record for nursing home performance and what appears to be lax oversight can’t be a coincidence. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that in 2007, nearly 90 percent of Indiana nursing homes were cited for violations of federal standards. Thirty-five percent of the facilities _ almost twice the national average _ were cited for causing actual harm or placing patients in jeopardy.

It’s a dismal record the state must correct, beginning with a commitment from the attorney general to exercise full authority in ensuring nursing home administrators protect residents from harm.

South Bend Tribune. Aug. 29, 2010.

Will swimmers learn from this tragedy?

It is too late for Scott and Lorenzo. So we’re shifting our thoughts to the three or four (maybe five?) people likely to drown yet this summer after being pulled underwater by rip currents in Lake Michigan.

We don’t know who they are, and we hope we never do know. If we don’t learn their names, it will be because they made the wiser choice and avoided the risk of swimming in dangerous waters. It is our hope that people will learn from the many tragedies off Lake Michigan beaches this summer.

Fourteen-year-old Scott Hoover and 17-year-old Lorenzo Greer died recently in rip currents at Washington Park in Michigan City. The two St. Joseph County boys were just having fun on a warm weekend afternoon. They didn’t think anything bad could happen to them, despite rough waters, red flags flying and closure of the park’s designated swimming area.

The fact that strong northerly winds were piling up 6-foot waves _ a classic rip current recipe _ didn’t keep beach-goers out of the water on Aug. 22. From Indiana Dunes to Saugatuck, they defied the risk.

Swimmers long have failed to take seriously the threat from rip currents, despite evidence of the danger they pose. This blase attitude was much in evidence. Even while officers searched for the bodies of the two missing boys, others continued to swim.

As a Coast Guard officer observed (in the understatement of the day), “For some reason, it’s a hard message to get across.”

When the swimming season ends in a few weeks, we won’t know the names of those who considered braving rip currents but then remembered the danger and thought better of it. That’s because there will be no sad accounts of their untimely deaths. On the chance that there still could be some folks who haven’t heard of the rip current toll this summer, we keep beating this drum _ hoping that people will take care.

We hope, also, that local, state and federal safety officials will do everything in their power to prevent beach visitors from making deadly judgment errors. …

The average number of fatalities annually from shark attacks in U.S. waters is 0.4. The average number of deaths annually from rip currents is about 100, with a substantial number of those on the southern and eastern shores of Lake Michigan. There have been 23 Lake Michigan rip current deaths so far this summer.

So there you have it: Statistically, overall, Americans are more than 200 times as likely to be killed by rip currents as by sharks. And, of course, Lake Michigan swimmers are infinitely more likely to be killed by rip currents than by sharks. But do they run from the water in a panic when someone yells “Rip current!”? Hardly.

Even though rip currents are far more dangerous than sharks, it seems that sharks are scarier. And common sense has nothing to do with it.

The Indianapolis Star. Aug. 31, 2010.

Lawmakers need to find an alternative to increased prison populations

If Indiana is out-performing its neighbors when it comes to government budgeting, as Gov. Mitch Daniels proclaims, there’s at least one glaring exception to the rule.

While prison populations in surrounding states rose between 13 percent and less than 1 percent between 2000 and 2008, Indiana’s inmate count skyrocketed by 41 percent. The cost of running the correction system leapt by 76 percent, to $679 million a year. By 2017, state officials say, the tab will be $1 billion.

It’s no coincidence that a get-tough legislature has passed 117 laws since 2000 that serve to lengthen prison time, and not a single one that reduces sentences. Or that the Indiana criminal code hasn’t been revised since 1974.

Determining what works, what conflicts and what’s at odds with reality in the code is a major part of a county-by-county study by state government along with the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments. Those groups helped several states, including hard-nosed Texas, with efforts to reduce costs while improving public safety. As The Star’s Vic Ryckaert pointed out in a recent report, Texas saved $2 billion in one shot by abandoning a plan to add 17,000 prison beds.

The keys to fighting inefficiency without surrendering to crime are realistic sentencing and alternatives to incarceration. Both will require hard study and political courage as lawmakers and the governor confront a public conditioned to throw-away-the-key rhetoric.

The signs are encouraging. No less a hard-liner than Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says something has to give because the state simply can’t build any more prisons. Meanwhile, Department of Correction chief Ed Buss warns that maximum-security beds will have to be increased unless alternatives are found for nonviolent offenders.

Nonviolent offenders happen to be the majority of those who run afoul of the law. Diverting them into community correction centers, mental-health treatment and other alternatives has worked in various states while saving money. In Indiana, that share of the penal dollar has not been nearly on a par with states where Pew has worked. Yet Indiana has had success as well, most notably with the juvenile inmate population, which has been cut nearly in half in two years.

With the project now under way, which enjoys $100,000 in state money and an anticipated $500,000 to $1 million from Pew, more change surely is in the offing. Leaders must ask, in more than one sense, what is the alternative?

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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