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Several hundred mostly bright people ascended Nob Hill last week intent on taking "immediate steps to confront the world's most pressing challenges." That, at least, was the overarching purpose of the State of the World Forum, the fourth annual such gathering of intellectuals and other elite from around the globe sponsored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit foundation of the same name.
Although generally overlooked by the local and national press, the forum afforded lofty thinkers -- some of whom paid $5,000 for the privilege -- six days of treading the rich carpets of the Fairmont Hotel, drifting back and forth between round tables, keynotes, dialogues, and plenary sessions devoted to dissecting some of the world's more intractable problems.
The serious work kicked off with a discussion on "Honoring the Sanctity of our Rainforest and Respecting the Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples." The forum wrapped up with a "Closing Celebration" featuring Bangladeshi youths modeling clothes fashioned by impoverished Bangladeshi villagers.
In between, discussants wrestled with war, poverty, nuclear holocaust, digital apartheid, the ethics of living, the economy of aging, investing in women, and a slew of "new paradigms."
Sporting color-coded badges, representatives from countless institutes, academies, funds, agencies, centers, and commissions rubbed elbows. A cheery Jane Goodall whisked down the hallways after her speech on interspecies communication. Bianca Jagger sat on a panel devoted to nuclear proliferation and the stalemate with Iraq. A former president of Panama and the current mayor of Belfast joined the former commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command and the current head of the United Nations commission on Iraq for the event.
With bottomless pitchers of ice water and plentiful supplies of freshly sharpened pencils on hand, bold thinking was inevitable. It was against this gilt-edged backdrop, in the sun-dappled Green Room on the lobby level, that Alan Cranston and George Zimmer forged a new vision for enhancing global security. Their solution -- legalize pot.
Cranston, of course, is the former U.S. senator from California, and he knows quite a bit about politics. Zimmer owns the Men's Wearhouse clothing store chain, and he knows quite a bit about money.
The two men's expertise merged during a discussion on the alarming prospect that material needed to make nuclear warheads, like plutonium and highly enriched uranium, is finding its way onto the international black market.
Tons of fissionable materials were in the hands of nuclear labs and weapons plants when the Soviet Union collapsed. Most of them are still sitting in relatively insecure storage buildings. Lately, desperate nuclear weapons workers -- some of whom have not been paid for months by the Russian government -- have taken to steal-ing the materials and selling them to any willing buyers.
The possibility that terrorist groups or countries like Iraq and Libya might be able to buy nuclear bomb components on the black market is downright scary, so the topic merited its own round-table discussion at the forum.
Various experts discussed lapses in Russian nuclear lab security, or proposed that the U.S. might buy the precious materials before they fall into rogue hands. But it took Cranston and Zimmer to home in on the crux of the problem -- the Mafia.
Their theory is that drug lords and organized crime rings -- principally the Italian mob -- are elbowing their way into the nuclear materials trade. Until now, most of the folks caught selling wayward plutonium and uranium have been amateurs, broke civil servants who were easily detected by authorities.
But recently, Italian Mafiosos were caught trying to sell a bar of highly enriched uranium. And once the mob gets involved, Zimmer figures, police and international authorities are going to have a much harder time catching culprits.
The key, then, is to stamp out the international drug cartels before they become proficient in smuggling nuclear material. And the way to do that is to legalize marijuana, and re-examine laws on other drugs, Zimmer and Cranston agree.
"It would not surprise me if several of these organizations have secured nuclear weapons and have them stored in the U.S. even as we speak," Zimmer said. He urged the U.S. and other countries to take a hard look at Amsterdam's laxer drug policies as a means of curtailing drug rings.
"I cannot guarantee that if we move immediately on this, we can prevent a disaster from unfolding," Zimmer said.
Cranston heartily signed on with Zimmer's analysis. "The threat is that some of these cartels will get nukes and use them," Cranston said in an interview after the panel meeting.
Although both men stopped short of calling for legalization of harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, they argued that the world's misguided war on drugs must be rethought if the potential nuclear-smuggling of the cartels is to be diminished.
The drug war, Zimmer argued, works to the advantage of today's drug lords, just as Prohibition helped give rise to organized crime in the U.S. to begin with.
The Cranston-Zimmer Manifesto, of course, ignores the notion that if crime rings can no longer smuggle drugs, they will have to find some other illegal material to sell at obscene profits. Like, perhaps, the components of nuclear weapons.
But then, it's easy to overlook the messy details from atop Nob Hill.