TIME LGBT

U.S. Military Takes Baby Step Toward Allowing Transgender Soldiers

Advocates hopeful the longstanding ban could be lifted after recent comments from top officials

The new Secretary of Defense may be ushering in a new era of openness in the American military. Recent remarks made by Ashton Carter and the White House have raised the hopes of advocates that the nation’s ban on openly transgender soldiers may be starting to crack.

Carter publicly reignited the issue Sunday during a town hall meeting with soldiers in Afghanistan. Asked about changing the longstanding policy, Carter replied: “I’m very open-minded about [it] provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”

On Monday, The White House sounded a note of support. “The President agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when he was asked about Carter’s response. “We here at the White House welcome the comments from the Secretary of Defense.”

To critics of the ban, the prominent backing is a sign that the military may finally be ready to scrap one of its last gender-based prohibitions. But experts caution that the likelihood of an actual policy shift remains uncertain.

“I’m hopeful that this means that the regulations will be brought into line,” says Joshua Block, an attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & AIDS Project. “But the ball is squarely in DOD’s court to move forward with this.”

Transgender people are prevented from serving under Pentagon and military medical regulations barring people who have had a sex change operation and/or have “gender identity disorders.” Advocates for transgender service say these policies, which date to the early 1960s, are out of touch with the current medical thinking. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic bible, replaced “gender identity disorder” with gender dysphoria, a recognition that transgender people do not suffer from a mental illness.

Indeed, though the army does not provide hormone therapy to transgender soldiers, it approved the treatment for Chelsea Manning, the former army private convicted of leaking national security secrets, after she sued the federal government for failing to provide the treatments.

There are no official statistics on the number of transgender people in the military. A 2014 report from the Palm Center, a research institute that aids sexual minorities in the military, estimated that there as many as 15,000 transgender troops currently serving.

As a practical matter, the transgender service policy would be relatively easy to change. It does not require an act of Congress or an executive order by the President, but could be changed by the Secretary of Defense. Experts said this process should follow a formal review soliciting military, medical and scientific expertise that could take a few months, and a requisite training period to follow.

Pentagon spokesman Nathan Christensen said “there is no specific review of the Department’s transgender policy ongoing.” But Christensen said officials did begin a routine review of the Department of Defense’s medical policy earlier this month that will cover 26 systems of the human body, which would include—but is not specific to—the policy on transgender service. The review is expected to take up to 18 months.

This is not the first time the Obama Administration has expressed openness to changing the policy. In May of 2014, Carter’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told ABC News that he was “open” to a change in the policy. To advocates of ending the ban, the lack of concrete action following Hagel’s remark is a reminder to keep their hopes in check.

“It’s significant that this is the very first time that Secretary Carter has spoken publicly on this issue, it’s significant that it was five days after he was sworn in, it’s significant that the question came from the field from an actively serving naval officer. It’s especially significant to have the White House chime in so enthusiastically,” says Allyson Robinson, a veteran and advocate for transgender service. “But I don’t have a lot of faith in the regular routine review process. We need a top-down intentional review of these particular regulations at the DOD and service level and the only way that happens is from an order from the Secretary of Defense.”

TIME Drugs

How Colleges Are Dealing With Legal Pot

SAFED, ISRAEL - MARCH 07: (ISRAEL OUT) A worker touches plants at a cannabis greenhouse at the growing facility of the Tikun Olam company on March 7, 2011 near the northern city of Safed, Israel. In conjunction with Israel's Health Ministry, Tikon Olam are currently distributing cannabis for medicinal purposes to over 1800 people in Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Uriel Sinai—Getty Images

The thorny issue of legal weed on campus

College administrators who have worked for years to snuff out marijuana on campus have a new problem: It’s going legal.

Or at least that’s the reality confronting schools in Colorado, Washington state, and soon Oregon. The legal sale of recreational marijuana to those over 21 will start in July in Oregon, thanks to a statewide ballot initiative last year. College deans won’t be among those celebrating.

Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and like most public and private colleges across the U.S., the schools in Oregon have no choice but to comply. Colleges must implement drug-prevention programs to be eligible for federal funding—and as long as its federally illegal, that includes marijuana. So, with the legal retail sale of marijuana in Oregon approaching, college administrators across the state are tinkering with policy language and testing out marketing campaigns to make sure that, come July, their students know that no matter what the state law says, pot is still not allowed on campus.

“Everyone is thinking about what this looks like July 1,” Dr. Erin Foley, dean of students at the Oregon Institute of Technology. “The bottom line is for the federal government marijuana is still illegal, so that trumps state law because we get federal funding. It’s straightforward. The bigger piece for us is to make sure students are aware of that.”

A public school with just over 4,000 students, Foley said the college known as Oregon Tech is tinkering with a light-hearted marketing campaign, using plays on the word “pot” to teasingly remind students that the drug still isn’t allowed on campus. Administrators will also amend the language of their policy, which already prohibits illicit drug possession, to explicitly state that pot is included in the rules. Portland State University, another public university with almost 30,000 students, will be incorporating messaging about pot in its anti-smoking campaign.

Though the campus bans are straightforward, some Oregon administrators are still weighing how the rules apply to housing off campus. Steve Clark, a spokesman at Oregon State University, a public university with almost 30,000 students, said off-campus fraternities and sororities will be subject to the campus rules, but the university’s general counsel and the provost are reviewing the policy to see how it should be applied to non-school sanctioned off-campus housing.

Oregon might look for guidance from Colorado, where legal recreational pot went on sale last January. Some school administrators there say that legalization hasn’t presented much of a practical problem on campuses where most of the students are under 21. Ryan Huff, a spokesman at University of Colorado, Boulder, says the only change has been that campus police now can’t give a citation to anyone over 21 in possession of less than an ounce on campus. Huff did acknowledge that administrators have had to re-jigger their housing policies a bit to give freshmen who need medical marijuana an exemption from the requirement to live on campus.

MORE: The Rise of Fake Pot

The biggest problem seems to be for the administrators who focus on prevention. It is hard to communicate realistically about prevention and use of a drug that is still classified as among the most dangerous and deserving of the stiffest legal penalties by the federal government—and it’s hard to talk to students about how to safely use pot when federal law says they shouldn’t be doing it at all.

“Our campus professionals do sometimes feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place,” says David Arnold, who lives in Denver and is the Director of Alcohol Abuse Prevention Initiatives at the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals

Another problem is that funds to support prevention efforts in Colorado are focused on K-12. “The tax revenue everyone is really excited about? None of it is in higher education prevention,” Arnold said. “We have a lot of students come from out of state who believe that one of the perks of coming to this campus is that they will be able to use marijuana.”

TIME Economy

How Walmart’s Pay Hike Puts Pressure on McDonald’s

A change in hourly wage could have ripples

Walmart just upped the ante on wages.

The announcement Thursday by America’s largest private employer that it will give half-a-million employees a raise could add to the pressure that a host of other low-wage employers are already facing to pay their workers more. Walmart has 1.3 million workers and is the dominant employer in many American communities, which means that it often sets the floor for wages locally.

“For that prospective employee looking at $10 dollars at Walmart vs. $7.25 at McDonald’s, it’s obvious where they are going to want to work,” said David Cooper, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for a higher minimum wage. “Walmart needs to think about raising wages to hang on to the best people, and to do this in a public way—that’s an added bonus for them.”

MORE Walmart Is Giving Half-a-Million Employees a Raise

The retailer said it would raise its minimum wage to $9 dollars an hour in April and to at least $10 by next February, both of which are above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The announcement follows months of protests from Walmart’s workers and many Democrats to raise the minimum wage, as well as a growing campaign to raise pay for fast food workers. In last year’s State of the Union, President Barack Obama called on Congress to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $10.10.

Walmart is not the first big retail company to raise its minimum wage. This time last year, Gap announced it would hike pay to $10 an hour by this year, and last summer, IKEA said it would raise minimum hourly wages to $10.76 effective Jan. 1. But labor advocates said the decision by Walmart, a company notorious for low wages, could put more pressure on employers and policy makers to follow suit.

“I think there will be people that will say: ‘Look, even Walmart, with its record of paying such poverty wages and its record of being opposed to wage increases has recognized that we have to do something raise wage floor,'” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.

The National Restaurant Association, an industry group that represents fast-food companies, declined to comment on whether Walmart’s decision would have any impact. “As an Association we can’t comment publicly on what our members plan to do within their own business models,” spokeswoman Christin Fernandez said. McDonald’s, which has been a primary target of advocates campaigning for and organizing strikes of fast food workers, did not immediately comment on Thursday. The median hourly wage at McDonald’s is $9.15, but 13% of employees make only $7.25, according to an analysis of data last year by the website FiveThirtyEight.

MORE Fast-Food Strike Progress Measured in Pennies, Not Dollars

Others said that while Walmart’s decision is certainly good news for works, it may amount to little more than a smart public relations move for a company that, for legal and economic reasons, would have had to raise wages anyway. By 2016, many states will already have raised their minimum wage to $10, meaning that Walmart will soon be legally obligated to pay that rate to many of its employees. And with low-wage jobs continuing to grow in number as the economy picks up steam, companies may need to raise wages to compete for workers and stop turnover in their workforces.

“It’s clever politics on Walmart’s part, ” said Jefferson Cowie, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The writing is on the wall on this question, given the social pressure. They’ll get a big PR payoff for something they’ll have to do in the next couple of years anyway—its already ticking up in the state level.” Cowie said the wage hike is also likely good business. “I think this is a move towards efficiency for them,” he said, “they want to keep the employees they want, so I think they are also making an investment in a stable and committed work force that’s been dragging them down recently.”

MORE The Wage Warrior

But the work isn’t over for organizers. Taking inflation into account, $10 an hour is still slightly lower than the federal minimum wage was in 1968. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart, an employee group fighting for higher wages, said Thursday that it was “proud” of the raise, but called for a continued push to get $15 an hour.

 

As for whether labor organizers should count this as a victory, Cowie said: “They should be celebrating and then they should immediately get back to work—this is far from over and they have a long way to go.”

Read next: Here’s How Long a Wal-Mart Employee Would Have to Work to Match CEO’s Salary

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Drugs

Judge Weighs Whether U.S. Marijuana Law Is Unconstitutional

Medical Marijuana
Colin Brynn—Getty Images Medical Marijuana

A decision about the constitutionality of a federal marijuana ban could heat up national debate

A federal judge hearing a case of nine men charged with illegally growing marijuana on federal land in California said Wednesday she was considering arguments that the federal government has improperly labelled marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs.

The U.S. classifies marijuana as a Schedule One drug, putting it in the most dangerous of five categories. Classification is determined by the drug’s potential for abuse and dependency, and whether the drug has an acceptable medical use. Cocaine, methamphetamine, and OxyContin are all Schedule Two drugs, meaning that they are treated by federal law as less dangerous and more medically appropriate than marijuana.

The marijuana growers’ defense argued that classifying marijuana as a Schedule One drug was unconstitutional because 23 states have made the drug legal for medical use, Reuters reports. “If I were persuaded by the defense’s argument, if I bought their argument, what would you lose here?” the judge asked prosecutors during a motion to dismiss.

If convicted, the men face up to life imprisonment and a $10 million fine.

MORE: The Rise of Fake Pot

Prosecutors argued that the drug’s classification was a matter for Congress, not the courts.

“We’re not saying that this is the most dangerous drug in the world,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick. “All we’re saying is that the evidence is such that reasonable people could disagree.”

[Reuters]

TIME Research

E-Cigs Weaken Immune Systems in Mice, Study Says

TIME.com stock photos E-Cig Electronic Cigarette Smoke
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Latest study underscores the need for more research into electronic cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes can weaken the immune response in mice, putting them at higher risk for infections like the flu or strep, a new study finds.

The researchers exposed mice to e-cig vapor at comparable concentrations to human users for two weeks. The researchers then exposed the mice to strep and flu, comparing their responses to mice that hadn’t been exposed to the e-cig vapor. The results showed that the mice exposed to e-cig vapor had weakened immune defenses in their lungs and were more susceptible to the infections. The mice exposed to the flu virus were more likely to contract the illness and to die from it.

MORE: What to Know About the Science of E-cigarettes.

The study looked only at mice, not at humans, but the results underscore the need for further research into the effects of e-cigarettes on humans. “E-cig exposure as an alternative to cigarette smoking must be rigorously tested in users for their effects on immune response and susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections,” wrote the authors of the study published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE. Lead author Thomas Sussan is a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

TIME Drugs

Drones May Soon Have a New Customer: Drug Cartels

A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015.
AP A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the Mexican city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015

"If it's not happening, it soon will," one expert says

A drone carrying 6.6 lb. of methamphetamine that crashed in a supermarket parking lot in Mexico close to the California border this week probably doesn’t signify a popular new method for transporting drugs, U.S. officials say. But it’s a reminder that cartels can use the increasingly popular aircraft just like any other business or government agency.

It wasn’t the first time drones have been used to smuggle drugs across the border. U.S. authorities who speak to TIME say they haven’t noticed a trend of cartels using drones. Carlos Lazo, a spokesman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, calls it “an isolated incident.”

But Matthew Barden, a special agent and spokesman with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says authorities are always on guard for new cartel methods and that drones might appeal to traffickers for a number of reasons. The most likely, Barden says, would be surveillance, not transportation. “They can be used to spy on border agents doing rounds,” Barden says, speaking about the issue generally but not the latest incident. “People can use them to set up an ambush.”

The drone that crashed was carrying a relatively small amount of meth — about 6 lb. worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. It wouldn’t make sense for a cartel to send millions of drones across the border carrying tiny amounts of any drug when they could transport hundreds or even thousands of pounds in a commercial vehicle, Barden says: “It’s like the post office sending one letter at a time.”

A DEA spokeswoman in San Diego says authorities are “aware of this smuggling technique.”

“While we would not call using drones a new trend in smuggling, we do know that drug-trafficking organizations will use any and all means to get their drugs [into] the United States,” says the spokeswoman, Amy Roderick.

The drone could have been sent by an individual trying to send drugs to a friend or contact, rather than by a cartel, Barden speculates. If it was sent by a cartel, it could have been by a low-level member looking to go out on his own, or as a kind of research and development mission by the cartel. The crash is still under investigation by the Tijuana Public Safety Secretariat.

And if cartels do start to use drones for surveillance, they won’t be along in the skies: the U.S. now patrols the airspace above almost half the Mexican border, according to the Associated Press. Customs and Border Protection says it has nine drones in its arsenal.

“If it’s not happening,” Barden says of cartels using drones for surveillance, “it soon will.”

Read next: CNN Just Got Permission to Experiment With Drones

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Research

What to Know About the Science of E-Cigarettes

TIME.com stock photos E-Cig Electronic Cigarette Smoke
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

A guide to understanding conflicting and ongoing research

Two Columbia University professors warned in a new study Thursday that the health fears over electronic cigarettes are hindering research. The very same day, another new study showed that smoking e-cigs, or “vaping,” can produce cancer-causing formaldehyde.

Clearly there’s some disagreement among scientists about the risks and benefits of a product that’s growing in popularity. Here’s what you need to know about the latest science.

What’s with the latest disagreement?

Columbia public health professors Amy Fairchild and Ronald Bayer argue in Science magazine that the staunchest opponents of electronic cigarettes are so concerned about the potential downsides that they advocate for an anti-e-cigarette regulatory and research approach that may be bad for public health. This approach of “deep precaution,” they argue, “has served as a kind of trump argument, hostile to the notion of trade-offs, seeing in them perilous compromise. Such a posture does not serve either science or policy well.”

MORE The Future of Smoking

It “may be years before the disagreements over the evidence” about the effects of electronic cigarettes can be resolved, Fairchild and Bayer wrote. On the one hand, electronic cigarettes may serve as gateway drugs for young people to start smoking cigarettes, and “dual” use of electronic cigarettes with tobacco cigarettes may stop some smokers from quitting. Electronic cigarettes may also carry unknown health consequences of their own. On the other hand, they may provide harm reduction for people who have been unable to quit any other way.

Given these two competing possibilities, the authors argued that the best formula for public health is to acknowledge the possibility for costs and benefits and to push for a regulatory scheme that is flexible enough to account for both outcomes. It is better to make public policy and execute scientific research under the assumption that e-cigarettes could bring good as well as bad.

But also on Thursday, the New England Journal of Medicine published a new study reporting that chemicals inside e-cigarettes—like propylene glycol and glycerol—can produce a type of the cancer-causing chemical called formaldehyde when heated during the vaping process. The researchers report that when testing samples of the aerosol from vaped e-cigs, they found that the e-cigs can contain formaldehyde-releasing agents slightly different from regular formaldehyde, and that the levels are especially high when a user vapes at high voltages. Scientists don’t yet know if formaldehyde-releasing agents carry the same risk as pure formaldehyde, but the researchers said in their report that if they assume the substances do carry the same risks, then long-term vaping could be associated with a significantly higher risk for cancer compared to long-term smoking. The researchers said formaldehyde-releasing agents may actually burrow into the respiratory tract more efficiently than regular formaldehyde, though the observation wasn’t confirmed.

Are there other reasons experts are concerned?

There’s also debate over the safety of the liquid nicotine inside e-cigarettes. In April 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report showing what they called a “dramatic” rise in e-cigarette-related calls to U.S. poison centers. Calls went from one a month in September 2010 to 215 calls a month in February 2014, and more than half of the calls involved children age five and under. Forty-two percent involved people age 20 and older. Symptoms of liquid nicotine ingestion are known to be vomiting, nausea and eye irritation.

Researchers are also wary of the long term effects of inhaling propylene glycol, one of the main ingredients in e-cigarettes. The jury is still out, but some physicians are concerned. “As for long-term effects, we don’t know what happens when you breathe the vapor into the lungs regularly,” Thomas Glynn, the director of science and trends at the American Cancer Society, told ABC News. “No one knows the answer to that.”

Are they really attracting young people?

Several recent—but fairly small—studies say yes. A December 2o14 study in the journal Pediatrics surveyed 1,941 Hawaii high school students and found that about 17% of the high schoolers smoked e-cigarettes only, 12% smoked both e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes, and only 3% smoked conventional cigarettes. The findings suggested that kids who smoked e-cigarettes scored lower on outside risk factors to pick up a conventional smoking habit. “The fact that e-cigarette only users were intermediate in risk status between nonusers and dual users raises the possibility that e-cigarettes are recruiting medium-risk adolescents, who otherwise would be less susceptible to tobacco product use,” the authors wrote. Numbers released in 2013 from the National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that the percentage of middle school and high school students who have tried e-cigarettes doubled from 3.3% in 2011 to 6.8% in 2012.

What’s the argument in favor of e-cigarettes?

Some smokers use e-cigarettes to help them curb their traditional cigarette habit, or even quit. An August 2014 study that surveyed over 20,000 Americans showed that among adults who used a product to help them quit smoking, 57% chose e-cigarettes. That’s compared to the 39% who used prescription drugs like Chantix and the 39% who used other over-the-counter methods like patches or nicotine gum. Another study from July 2014, which reviewed 80 studies on e-cigarettes’ safety and their effects on users, revealed that not only can e-cigarettes help smokers quit, but they are less harmful to smokers and bystanders’ health compared to regular cigarettes.

What’s the FDA doing about it?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only regulates e-cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes, though the agency has proposed a rule that would give it more regulatory power over e-cigarettes but that has not yet been implemented. The FDA has suggested a ban on sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and admits that there is a lot consumers don’t know about the product like whether they attract kids and teens or just how much nicotine is inhaled when a person vapes.

TIME Crime

Why UVA’s New Frat Rules May Not Make Much Difference

TIME.com stock photos Drinking Fraternity Frat Solo Cups
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Methods of enforcement remain few and far between

The University of Virginia has proposed new rules for its fraternity system after the uproar that broke out both on and off campus following a controversial magazine story late last year that depicted a brutal gang rape at a frat house.

The new rules include some strong reforms like the elimination of kegs and hard-alcohol punch. But the nature of the relationship between the university and the fraternities, many of which are privately owned, may make the rules hard to enforce.

The individual Greek organizations have until Friday to agree to the new rules. If they don’t, they risk losing formal affiliation with the university—the one bit of leverage UVA administrators have over the fraternities. Under the new rules, fraternities must furnish a minimum of three “sober brother monitors,” at parties, who must wait at each alcohol distribution point as well as the stairs leading to the residential bedrooms. Beer must be served unopened in the original can, pre-mixed punches would be prohibited, wine must be poured out of a bottle by a sober brother, and hard alcohol can only be served at large parties by a hired bartender licensed by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. A privately contracted security guard would also have to stand outside the front door and check names off a guest list.

MORE The Sexual Assault Crisis on American Campuses

The new rules come after UVA briefly suspended social activities at all fraternities on campus following the publication of an article in Rolling Stone that included a detailed account of a horrific rape that allegedly happened at a UVA fraternity. The story has since been found to have significant inconsistencies. After the Washington Post and other outlets identified problems with the story, Rolling Stone issued an apology and promised to investigate further. On Monday, UVA announced that it would reinstate the fraternity in the story, Phi Kappa Psi, after the Charlottesville Police failed to find any “substantive basis” to confirm the gruesome events described in the story.

Despite the inconsistencies in the article, UVA has decided to go ahead with fraternity reform. Though UVA President Teresa Sullivan was careful not to single out Greek organizations as the main culprits in the problem of sexual assault on campus during an interview with TIME last year, the rules do reflect a slightly softer version of the reforms she favored. “The days of the trash can full of punch have to be over,” she told TIME.

MORE UVA President: Eliminate All Booze Except Beer

Nonetheless, it appears that UVA may not be doing much to enforce the reforms—a reflection of the tricky nature of governing private organizations on campus. According to ABC News, UVA spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said the university would not provide staff to monitor the fraternities to because they are privately owned. “The University will work closely with Greek leadership to support them in seeking compliance with the new practices by their members,” de Bruyn told Time. “Should violations be brought to the University’s attention, as has been the case it the past, the Dean of Students Office will investigate, and any appropriate next steps would be based upon the details of each case.”

The lack of formal monitoring raises questions as to whether the reforms will have any teeth.

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