Letters for the week of June 4-10, 2003 

Taking aim at auto dealers who charge too much for auto loans. Growing with time to appreciate the humor in middle-aged regret.

"Car Loans as Pricey as the Car," Cityside, 5/21

You can refinance that usurious car loan

Thank you so much for writing about auto dealer-lender markups. My organization is working to expose these practices, and is also sponsoring legislation in Sacramento to address markups. The bill is SB 508, authored by Senator Martha Escutia, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's a first step toward ratcheting up scrutiny of the practices, and is only the opening salvo, making it easier for the attorney general to collect relevant data and identify problems.

The bill recently passed in the Senate with a 23-15 party line vote, with the Dems in favor and the Reps opposed. Clearly the dealers and lenders are lobbying against the bill behind the scenes. We expect a tough fight in the Assembly.

People should know they can refinance bad loans, and depending on the age and condition of the vehicle, changes in their credit, terms of the sale, etc., they may be able to easily save a bundle. For example, the Los Angeles Times cites the example of someone who refinanced and for a $15 lien transfer fee saved $1,300 over the life of the loan. Someone else whose credit had improved saved $4,500 over the remaining forty months of the loan.

To refinance, check with a credit union or reputable online lender like E-LOAN and PeopleFirst, and see who offers the best deal. Figure out how much you would save, including any fees, before you accept.

One other note -- the 3 percent markup Toyota touts is a rip-off. The amount of the markup far exceeds the contemplated increase in the vehicle license fee (VLF) -- yet it contributes nothing to VLF. Who wants to give the dealer and lender a $1,000-plus gift for doing something you can do better yourself for free?
Rosemary Shahan, president, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, Sacramento

"Mighty Mediocre," Movies, 4/30

Age has its rewards

Your enjoyment of the movie's many rewards are probably diminished by a youthful lack of middle-aged regret, and perhaps by a thwarted expectation of hilarity.

Mark my words: When the world has worn you down to a rueful survivor, you'll better appreciate the virtues of this film (A Mighty Wind). Callous hilarity and vicious satire (à la Dr. Strangelove) are not among them.

I've been that guy with the string bass over Mitch's shoulder, and there wasn't a line reading or a facial expression that didn't resonate with my experience. Laughter being as elusive as honesty, I'll take all I can get of either one. I understand now that you can fake either of them with good acting, so that'll do in a pinch.
Steven Strauss, Oakland

"How Not to Write a Law," City of Warts, 5/14

Allure of the forbidden fruit

The United States is one of the few Western countries that uses its criminal justice system to punish otherwise law-abiding citizens who prefer marijuana to martinis. Based on findings that criminal records are inappropriate as health interventions, a majority of European Union countries have decriminalized marijuana. Despite marijuana prohibition and perhaps because of forbidden fruit appeal, lifetime use of marijuana is higher in the US than any European country.

Evidence of the US government's reefer madness is best exemplified by the kangaroo court trial of Ed Rosenthal. By denying an officer of the City of Oakland the ability to use California's medical marijuana law and the US Constitution's Tenth Amendment protection of states' rights as a defense, Federal Judge Charles Breyer foisted a predetermined guilty verdict onto a grossly misinformed jury.

The Drug Enforcement Administration's paramilitary raids on voter-approved medical marijuana providers say a lot about US government priorities. The very same federal government that claims illicit drug use funds terrorism is forcing cancer and AIDS patients into the hands of street dealers. Apparently marijuana prohibition is more important than protecting the country from terrorism.
Robert Sharpe, program officer, Drug Policy Alliance, Washington, DC

"Voodoo Doctor," Feature, 5/14

Immediate Treatment, 24/7

I liked your article on the Voodoo Doctor, but wanted to take issue with your portrayal of the Sausal Creek Clinic. It is a recently opened mental health crisis clinic and not a "drop-in center for the mentally ill ... where people hang out, act out," etc. People who go there come from all walks of life and could be referred by their therapist, for example, because they've decided that, for the first time, they might need to take an antidepressant. Or they see people who are having their first psychotic break and the person's family brings him or her in for help -- help that wouldn't be readily available anywhere else in the county, and probably in the state.

In fact, although your physical description of the clinic was fairly accurate, you've missed out on a real story at Sausal Creek. The clinic is unique in the state and is providing a service that is an important safety net at this time of scarcity. I've met people who have no access to mental health care and in the past would have had to go to the John George PES and wait twelve hours, only to be told to go home because their crisis wasn't bad enough. So many have had to lie and say they were suicidal in order to even be seen there. Now they can go straight to Sausal Creek to get immediate treatment, 24 hours a day. Where else can you do that?
Pamela Smith, Oakland


In the City of Warts column "How Not to Write a Law," published May 14, we erroneously referred to Asa Hutchinson as the Bush administration's former drug czar. Actually, Hutchinson was the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. John P. Walters was and is the head of the Office of National Drug Policy, the position typically known as "Drug Czar."


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