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House votes to decriminalize pot

WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House on Friday approved a bill to decriminalize and tax marijuana at the federal level, reversing what supporters call a failed policy of criminalizing pot use and taking steps to address racial disparities in enforcement of federal drug laws. Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a hollow political gesture and mocked Democrats for bringing it up at a time when thousands of Americans are dying from the coronavirus pandemic. “With all the challenges America has right now, (Republicans) think COVID relief should be on the floor, but instead, the Democrats put cats and cannabis” on the House floor, said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “They’re picking weed over the workers. They’re picking marijuana over (providing) the much-needed money we need to go forward? to address the pandemic. McCarthy’s comment about cats referred to a separate bill approved by the House to ban private ownership of big cats such as lions and tigers, a measure boosted by the Netflix series “Tiger King.? That bill, approved by the House on Thursday, would allow most private zoos to keep their tigers and other species but would prohibit most public contact with the animals. Supporters say the pot bill would help end the decades-long “war on drugs” by removing marijuana, or cannabis, from the list of federally controlled substances while allowing states to set their own rules on pot. The bill also would use money from a new excise tax on marijuana to address the needs of groups and communities harmed by the so-called drug war and provide for the expungement of federal convictions and arrests.

Farmers rise up against Modi

NEW DELHI — A chilly breeze whirls through New Delhi in the mornings and the sun is partly obscured by toxic haze, a marker of another winter in the Indian capital. But along the city’s borders, this year is visibly and viscerally different. The perpetually busy arterial highways that connect most northern Indian towns to this city of 29 million people now pulse to the cries of “Inquilab Zindabad”“Long live the revolution.” Tens and thousands of farmers with distinctive, colorful turbans and long, flowing beards have descended upon the city’s borders, choking highways in giant demonstrations against new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. For more than a week, they’ve marched toward the capital on their tractors and trucks like an army, pushing aside concrete police barricades while braving tear gas, batons and water cannons. Now, on the outskirts of New Delhi, they are hunkered down with food and fuel supplies that can last weeks and threatening to besiege the capital if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government doesn’t meet their demands to abolish the laws. “Modi wants to sell our lands to corporates,” said one of them, Kaljeet Singh, 31, who traveled from Ludhiana city in Punjab, some 310 kilometers (190 miles) north of New Delhi. “He can’t decide for millions of those who for generations have given their blood and sweat to the land they regard as more precious than their lives.” At night, the farmers sleep in trailers and under trucks, curling themselves in blankets to brave the winter chill. During the day, they sit huddled in groups in their vehicles, surrounded by mounds of rice, lentils and vegetables that are prepared into meals at hundreds of makeshift soup kitchens, in enormous pots stirred with wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles.

More concerns of Google bias

Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google’s public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology. But internally, Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics, was not shy about voicing doubts about those commitments — until she was pushed out of the company this week in a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI. Gebru announced on Twitter she was fired. Google told employees she resigned. More than 1,200 Google employees have signed on to an open letter calling the incident “unprecedented research censorship” and faulting the company for racism and defensiveness. The furor over Gebru’s abrupt departure is the latest incident raising questions about whether Google has strayed so far away from its original “Don’t Be Evil” motto that the company now routinely ousts employees who dare to challenge management. The exit of Gebru, who is Black, also raised further doubts about diversity and inclusion at a company where Black women account for just 1.6% of the workforce. And it’s exposed concerns beyond Google about whether showy efforts at ethical AI — ranging from a White House executive order this week to ethics review teams set up throughout the tech industry — are of little use when their conclusions might threaten profits or national interests.

Fugitive killed, 2 marshals shot

NEW YORK — A fugitive who shot a Massachusetts state trooper in the hand during a traffic stop two weeks ago was killed early Friday during a gunfight with U.S. marshals in New York City that left two of the officers wounded. The two deputy marshals injured in the 5:30 a.m. confrontation at a Bronx apartment were treated at a hospital and were expected to recover. One was hit in the leg and another was struck in his arm and leg, according to federal officials. Andre Sterling, 35, was killed in the shootout and his gun was recovered at the scene. A second man in the apartment was arrested. Sterling was wanted for the Nov. 20 shooting of a trooper during a late-night traffic stop in Hyannis, on Cape Cod. Trooper John Lennon, 28, was hospitalized for several days after a round went through his right hand and appeared to have struck his ballistic vest. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the deputies were executing a fugitive warrant his office issued for Sterling when they were confronted with gunfire.

Employers cut back on hiring

WASHINGTON — With the viral pandemic accelerating across the country, America’s employers sharply scaled back their hiring last month, adding 245,000 jobs, the fewest since April and the fifth straight monthly slowdown. At the same time, the unemployment rate fell to a still-high 6.7%, from 6.9% in October as many people stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed, the Labor Department said. November’s job gain was down drastically from a 610,000 gain in October. Friday’s report provided the latest evidence that the job market and economy are faltering in the face of a virus that has been shattering daily records for confirmed infections. Economic activity is likely to slow further with health officials warning against all but essential travel and states and cities limiting gatherings, restricting restaurant dining and reducing the hours and capacity of bars, stores and other businesses.

Wayward wallaroo rescued

PERU, Ill. — Police in Peru, Illinois, are no strangers to chases — unless what they’re after hops away on two legs. Officers in the city about 95 miles southwest of Chicago were joined Wednesday afternoon by firefighters and even residents in a two-hour pursuit of a runaway wallaroo that bounded through yards and along streets and roads. Native to Australia, wallaroos are larger than wallabies and smaller than kangaroos. This bloke — named Wally — got away from his owner in LaSalle County. Fearing that the marsupial might get hit by a vehicle, Peru Police Chief Doug Bernabei shut down nearby roads. Wally eventually made his way into a river. “I had to hold back the owner of Wally because he wanted to enter the Illinois River and that would have been tragic,” Bernabei told WLS-TV. Two anglers were nearby. “We were screaming and pointing. We were saying, ‘Get your net out, get your net out,'” Bernabei told the (Peoria) Journal Star. “They yelled, ‘It’s not a dog!’ We said … ‘It’s not a dog, it’s a wallaroo.'” They used a net to fish Wally from the frigid water and into their boat before taking him to shore. “He was so cold we couldn’t register his temperature on the thermometer,” said veterinarian Allison Spayer. “We warmed him up. We dried him off.” Bernabei said Wednesday was “probably the best day of the year, so far.” “It was a neat thing to get him out of the river and get him to a warm place and get him treated,” he said.

Rodents likely destroyed plants

RENO, Nev. — DNA evidence suggests rodents destroyed part of an area of an extremely rare desert wildflower being considered for endangered species protection at a contentious mine site in Nevada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday. James Calaway, executive director of the Australian mining company Ioneer that wants to dig for lithium about 200 miles southeast of Reno, said as much as half of the Tiehm’s buckwheat population was lost in the unprecedented fall attack at the only place the plant is known to exist. “There was a substantial percentage of the plants that were harmed,” Calaway said Friday. He said an estimate of up to 50% was reasonable. Environmentalists who are suing to force a federal listing of the flower had asserted the destruction of the plants in August or September was human-caused. The Center for Biological Diversity said Friday the new findings reinforce the need to declare the buckwheat endangered. Ioneer opposes a listing under the Endangered Species Act and argues the only way to save the plant is through its propagation plan to transplant and grow more Tiehm’s buckwheat at the site with some of the largest untapped lithium deposits in the world. “One can only conclude they were peddling bad science and bad judgment with the malicious intent to take advantage of nature’s destruction and use the situation as an excuse to point fingers and assertions that a crime had been perpetrated,” Calaway said. The species is found on just 10 acres of land spread across 2 square miles in the remote Silver Peak Range of Esmerelda County. The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in July there was enough evidence of potential threats to the plant to warrant a full 12-month review of its status.

Time names ‘Kid of the Year’

LONE TREE, Colo. — A 15-year-old Colorado high school student and young scientist who has used artificial intelligence and created apps to tackle contaminated drinking water, cyberbullying, opioid addiction and other social problems has been named Time Magazine’s first-ever “Kid of the Year.” Gitanjali Rao, a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in suburban Denver who lives in the city of Lone Tree, was selected from more than 5,000 nominees in a process that culminated with a finalists’ committee of children, Time for Kids reporters and comedian Trevor Noah. Time said in a statement that, along with Nickelodeon, it wanted to recognize “the rising leaders of America’s youngest generation” in making the award. For 92 years, Time has presented a “Person of the Year,” and the youngest ever was Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was 16 when she graced the magazine’s cover last year. Time said Rao stood out for creating a global community of young innovators and inspiring them to pursue their goals — and that starting with small innovations doesn’t matter. “If I can do it,’ she said, “anybody can do it.”

Hyundai recalls more vehicles

DETROIT — A week after being fined by regulators for delaying safety recalls, Hyundai is recalling about 130,000 vehicles in the U.S. because the engines could fail. The recall covers certain 2012 Santa Fe SUVs, 2015 and 2016 Veloster cars, and Sonata Hybrid cars from 2011 through 2013 and 2016. The vehicles have 2.4-liter, 2-liter or 1.6-liter engines. The recall will address a manufacturing issue that could cause the connecting rod bearings to wear out and the engines to fail, Hyundai said. A damaged connecting rod could puncture the engine block, causing the engine to stall. It also could let oil leak onto hot surfaces, increasing the risk of a fire. The failures are caused by machining debris that can restrict oil flow. Documents posted Friday on NHTSA’s website say that owners could hear abnormal knocking sounds from the engine and see warning lights before any failure or fire.

Americans couldn’t resist travel

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Americans couldn’t resist the urge to gather for Thanksgiving, driving only slightly less than a year ago and largely ignoring the pleas of public health experts, who begged them to forgo holiday travel to help contain the coronavirus pandemic, data from roadways and airports shows. The nation’s unwillingness to tamp down on travel offered a warning in advance of Christmas and New Year’s as virus deaths and hospitalizations hit new highs a week after Thanksgiving. U.S. deaths from the outbreak eclipsed 3,100 on Thursday, obliterating the single-day record set last spring. Vehicle travel in early November was as much as 20% lower than a year earlier, but it surged around the holiday and peaked on Thanksgiving Day at only about 5% less than the pandemic-free period in 2019, according to StreetLight Data, which provided an analysis to The Associated Press. Airports also saw some of their busiest days of the pandemic, though air travel was much lower than last year. The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1 million passengers on four separate days during the Thanksgiving travel period. Since the pandemic gutted travel in March, there has been only one other day when the number of travelers topped 1 million — Oct. 18.

States submit vaccine orders

COLUMBUS — States faced a deadline on Friday to place orders for the coronavirus vaccine as many reported record infections, hospitalizations and deaths, while hospitals were pushed to the breaking point — with the worst feared yet to come. The number of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 hit an all-time high in the U.S. on Thursday at 100,667, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That figure has more than doubled over the past month, while new daily cases are averaging 210,000 and deaths are averaging 1,800 per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Arizona reported more than 5,000 new COVID-19 cases for the second straight day Friday as the number of available intensive care unit beds fell below 10% statewide. Hospital officials have said the outbreak will exceed hospital capacity this month.

30 found in smuggling operation

HOUSTON — More than two dozen people who police in Texas believe were being held as a part of a possible human smuggling operation have been removed from a house in Houston. One of the men was seen Thursday running down a residential street in his underwear, yelling that he had been kidnapped, according to a social media post by Houston police. The man led officers to a home where at least 25 men and one woman were found, all only wearing undergarments. A police spokesperson told reporters that some of the people inside the home appeared to have been wearing only underwear to blend in with the others, but they were clean while the others were dirty, tipping off officers that those few may have been running the operation. A few people possibly involved in the smuggling operation were detained, authorities said. The people who had been held at the home were mostly from Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba and Honduras, news outlets reported. Police said they were taken to a school gymnasium to get out of the cold.

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