Editorial Roundup: Wisconsin

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. September 19, 2021.

Editorial: Sentence doesn’t feel like justice

It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about the sentencing of John Stender last week. He wasn’t behind the wheel on Nov. 3, 2018, when Colten Treu drove his truck through a group of Girl Scouts cleaning up litter along the side of Highway P. But he certainly bore considerable responsibility.

Stender was with Treu earlier in the day, huffing right along with him as the pair got high. He was beside Treu when the latter started his truck and decided to drive. And he helped try to hide the pair’s involvement.

Judge James Isaacson’s comment about Stender’s responsibility was devastating and accurate: “You were with him huffing; you were with him when the carnage occurred. You knew the full extent of the crime that had been committed.”

But, as Isaacson continued, none of that places Stender behind the wheel. None of it puts him in the driver’s seat. While the moral weight may be much closer to Treu’s, Stender’s legal culpability is far lower.

That’s not a satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t feel right, when a few words might have changed everything. Simply saying “let’s wait until we get back home” might have been enough to save four lives and prevent numerous injuries, had Stender only said that. Had he held onto the can until they arrived, Treu might have been sober while driving.

Then, faced with the enormity of what had happened, Stender hid. He tried to avoid responsibility. He turned himself in only later, after spending time at someone else’s home and making a trip to the store. He was aware of his guilt, though his actions suggest he didn’t feel any.

Nor does it feel right that the sentence for Stender was so much shorter than Treu’s own. Treu’s assertion that Stender caused the crash by grabbing the wheel, an act Stender conceded took place, is remarkably convenient. So is Stender’s claim he hit his head during the crash and didn’t wake up until shortly before the pair arrived at Treu’s home.

So Stender will spend three years in prison and three under supervision after his release, one more of each than the pre-sentencing investigation proposed.

Less than a year behind bars for each life lost feels abysmally inadequate. Law isn’t based on feelings, though. Sentences are not based on the heat of emotion. In our society they are founded on the cold words written in the state’s legal code.

The part of Stender’s sentence that does feel right is the requirement Isaacson imposed for viewing an officer’s body camera video from the scene. When asked about it in court, Stender said he had not seen the video. That’s not a surprise given how closely held and sensitive the footage is.

Isaacson ordered Stender to watch the footage every year on the anniversary of the crash each year he is on extended supervision. Those who have seen it, including Isaacson, have rightfully been guarded about what they have said. It has clearly left a mark on those people. That is a mark Stender should bear as well.

There are other possibilities. Isaacson said he will suggest Stender clean the section of highway where the tragedy occurred each anniversary. We have mixed feelings about that. It is fitting, but those involved must also be mindful about the potential for conflict given that is a place and time at which the families of those killed may also be present.

Putting Stender at a known location on a known date may pose risks. The rage from families of those killed has, understandably, not abated. It is probably better for them if the temptation of a probable confrontation is not available.

The sentencing does allow us to do one thing, though. We’re not going to end this editorial by repeating the names of the truck’s driver or passenger.

Instead, we’re going to put the focus where it belongs, on the lives lost that day. We’re going to end by focusing on Jayna Kelley, Autumn Helgeson, Haylee Hickle and Sara Jo Schneider.

They paid the price for the callous negligence of others. They are the ones who lost their lives. And they are the ones who deserve to be remembered.

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Kenosha News. September 17, 2021.

Editorial: These psychedelic experiments at UW are for therapy

They’re experimenting with psychedelic drugs again over at UW-Madison.

Hooray!

No, we’re not talking about wide-eyed students in tie-dyed T-shirts walking along Picnic Point murmuring “Oh, Wow,” as they do their own “independent research” on spiritualism and self-actualization. That was the 1960s.

We’re talking about research, rigorously controlled clinical research, with human trials to see if long-banned drugs like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) can be used to treat depression or addiction. UW researchers are testing MDMA (think of the club drug known as Ecstasy or molly) to determine if it can boost psychotherapy for treating post traumatic stress disorder.

As chronicled by staff writer Preston Schmitt in the current issue of “On Wisconsin,” the UW’s alumni magazine, the door effectively slammed shut on psychedelics research in 1971 when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which declared psilocybin, LSD and later MDMA had “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

“It was highly unlikely that researchers would have received the necessary federal approvals to continue such studies,” Schmitt told us, “And in that climate, given the cultural and political backlash there was little willpower to do so.”

That head-in-the-sand approach to psychedelic research lasted for decades.

“That landscape shifted abruptly in 2006 when Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins (University) published a new psilocybin study titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” Schmitt told us. “Researchers at NYU followed it with a landmark study on psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients. The floodgates opened, since it was then clear that institutional review boards were willing to approve rigorous study proposals with psychedelics (deeming the scientific inquiry legitimate), and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) were willing to provide the necessary exemptions for researchers to access the drugs.”

The UW tip-toed back into psychedelic research with a clinical trial eight years ago.

In “On Wisconsin”, Schmitt wrote, “Half a century later (after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act), the UW’s research team is forging ahead. This fall the School of Pharmacy is starting classes for its first-of-a-kind master’s program in psychoactive pharmaceutical investigation. Over the summer, the UW launched the Transdisciplinary Center for Research in Psychoactive Substances, with more than a dozen affiliated faculty members across the humanities and sciences.”

And the clinical trials of psychedelics at UW and other institutions are showing promise. One such study, co-authored by UW researchers and reported in “Nature Medicine” last spring “reported that 67% of participants who received MDMA during three therapy sessions no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis after 18 weeks, compared to 32% who received a placebo with therapy. In the MDMA group, 88% of participants experienced a clinical meaningful reduction in symptoms.”

After decades of being shunned as a research opportunity to gain insights and knowledge, the UW is back on track to follow its pledge as expressed in the plaque on Bascom Hall that “the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

It’s difficult to follow the science when there is no scientific research.

As one UW scientist, pharmacy professor Paul Hutson, who spent much of his three-decade career studying chemotherapy drugs, said in the alumni magazine report: “It (psychedelic research) is going to save lives, quite honestly.”

That’s the hope. And it’s a good one. We hope the science bears it out.

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Wisconsin State Journal. September 20, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t hide bids to remake Alliant Energy Center

Dane County is planning one of the largest developments in county history — without showing its citizens three options for what’s possible.

That needs to change.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars and the future of the sprawling Alliant Energy Center on Madison’s South Side, where larger entertainment venues, new hotels, offices, commercial space and even housing would go.

The price tag is estimated at $300 million to $500 million. County officials claim that releasing the three proposals — which the State Journal sought through an open records request — could damage the county’s negotiating position.

But not releasing the three bids from developers will damage public trust and the public’s right to have meaningful input on how taxpayers’ money is spent and how their community grows. Releasing the three options also could allow the public to inform county officials about issues the county hasn’t considered. That could improve the final product and even save money, especially if the public prefers one of the lower bids.

The city of Madison routinely releases competing proposals for big public projects online for everyone to see. That good-government practice hasn’t hurt the city’s bargaining position, city officials say. So being transparent shouldn’t hurt the county, either.

Dane County’s chief financial officer Charles Hicklin says the county will release the three options only after it signs a contract with the developer it prefers. That’s too late for the public to influence the decision. It leaves the public in the dark while county officials debate the pros and cons of the three alternatives behind closed doors.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi should order the documents released now so the public can see the bids long before the County Board votes on the plan it prefers.

Respecting the public’s right to know can complicate the job of public officials. It can slow or even stop big projects if lots of people object. It can embarrass elected officials and their administrations if citizens raise potential problems county leaders missed.

But that’s how an open democracy is supposed to work, and it comes with important benefits. When the public is involved and has its say from the start, then the public is much more likely to accept the final decision — even when lots of people disagree. Projects also benefit from broader vetting, with more opportunities to improve details, based on citizen feedback.

Hicklin worries that if the county can’t reach an agreement with the developer it prefers, then public information about that developer’s proposal could strengthen the negotiating position of a second developer. But the State Journal, on behalf of the public, isn’t seeking the details of private negotiations — just the bids as originally submitted nearly four months ago.

A county task force in 2015 estimated the public cost for remaking the Alliant Energy Center could easily top $100 million, with hundreds of millions more in private dollars. Such an enormous public investment, with profound regional impact, demands an open process.

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