Australia Plans Legal Cannabis Exports to a Lucrative World Market

Australia said Thursday it planned to become the fourth country in the world to legalize medicinal marijuana exports in a bid to score a piece of the estimated $55 billion global market.

Cannabis cultivation in Australia is still relatively small, as recreational use remains illegal. But the government hopes domestic medicinal use, legalized last year, and exports will rapidly boost production.

“Our goal is very clear: to give farmers and producers the best shot at being the world’s No. 1 exporter of medicinal cannabis,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.

Company shares rise

Shares in the more than a dozen Australian cannabis producers listed on the local exchange soared after the announcement.

Cann Group ended the day up 35 percent; AusCann Group rose nearly 54 percent; and BOD Australia closed up about 39 percent. All were record highs for those companies. Hydroponics Company finished up 30 percent, hitting its highest price in five weeks.

Peter Crock, chief executive of Cann Group, which cultivates cannabis for medicinal and research purposes, said medicinal marijuana production had been stymied by limited demand from Australian patients.

“While the Australian patient base is growing, it is very small,” Crock told Reuters. “Being able to export will allow us to have the scale to increase production.”

Hunt said the new legislation would include a requirement that growers first meet demand from local patients before exporting the remainder of their crop.

Three countries export

Despite growing demand, only Uruguay, Canada and the Netherlands have so far legalized the export of medicinal marijuana. Israel has said it intends to do so within months.

The Australian government’s proposal needs to pass federal parliament when it returns to session in February. The country’s main opposition Labor Party has signaled it would support the move. Exports would then likely begin within months.

Fuelled by a growing acceptance of the benefits of marijuana to manage chronic pain, moderate the impact of multiple sclerosis and to soften the effects of cancer treatment, several countries and 29 states in the United States have legalized cannabis for medicinal use.

Australia’s chief commodity forecaster does not publish data on cannabis production, but rough estimates by the University of Sydney estimated the legal industry at A$100 million ($78 million), well below the C$4 billion ($3.19 billion) that Canada estimates its market to be worth.

U.S. consultants Grand View Research last year forecast the global medicinal cannabis market would be worth $55.8 billion by 2025.

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Trump Dissolves Election Fraud Commission

President Donald Trump has dissolved a government commission tasked with investigating what he says was massive voter fraud.

A Trump spokesperson said Wednesday that “despite substantial evidence” of fraud, states have not cooperated with the commission’s demands for voter lists.

“Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today I signed an executive order to dissolve the commission,” Trump said through his spokesperson.

Trump said he would have the Department of Homeland Security “review these issues and determine the next course of action.”

Trump won the White House in 2016 by winning the Electoral College, but he got 3 million fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Trump reacted by forming the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He insisted Clinton won the popular vote because she got the support of millions of people who were either unregistered to vote or who voted multiple times.

Trump has yet to present any evidence to back up his charges of voter fraud.

Only a handful of states turned over voter rolls to the commission to use in its investigation.

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US Auto Sales Decline, Ending Record Streak

Auto sales in the United States fell by 2 percent in 2017, the first decline in seven years.

Ford Motor reported Wednesday that its new vehicle sales fell 1 percent, as did those of General Motors. Fiat Chrysler reported a decline of 8 percent compared with 2016. Volkswagen said its sales in the U.S. rose by 5 percent.

But even with the decline, the industry sold 17.2 million cars, making 2017 the fourth-best sales year in U.S. history, after 2000, 2015 and 2016, according to Kelley Blue Book.

For the 36th straight year, Ford’s F-Series pickup truck remained the top-selling vehicle in the country. Mercedes-Benz was the top selling luxury brand, even with a sales decline of 1 percent.

Analysts expect auto sales to fall in 2018 because of higher interest rates. But they say the vehicles themselves are to blame for some of the decline. The newer models are more durable so drivers are holding on to their cars longer. The average age of vehicles on the road has climbed to 11.6 years, up from 8.8 years in 1998.

Despite the decline, the industry remains robust. The average price of a new vehicle reached an all-time high last year of $36,113, as drivers bought bigger SUVs with more sophisticated technology.

“It’s still a buoyant industry and the underlying factors that drive it are still very positive,” Ford’s U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said.

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Security Flaws Put Virtually All Phones, Computers at Risk, Researchers Say

Security researchers on Wednesday disclosed a set of security flaws that they said could let hackers steal sensitive information from nearly every modern computing device containing chips from Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and ARM Holdings.

One of the bugs is specific to Intel but another affects laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets and internet servers alike. Intel and ARM insisted that the issue was not a design flaw, but it will require users to download a patch and update their operating system to fix.

“Phones, PCs — everything is going to have some impact, but it’ll vary from product to product,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in an interview with CNBC Wednesday afternoon.

Researchers with Alphabet Inc.’s Google Project Zero, in conjunction with academic and industry researchers from several countries, discovered two  flaws.

The first, called Meltdown, affects Intel chips and lets hackers bypass the hardware barrier between applications run by users and the computer’s memory, potentially letting hackers read a computer’s memory and steal passwords.

The second, called Spectre, affects chips from Intel, AMD and ARM and lets hackers potentially trick otherwise error-free applications into giving up secret information.

The researchers said Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. had patches ready for users for desktop computers affected by Meltdown. Microsoft declined to comment and Apple did not immediately return requests for comment.

Daniel Gruss, one of the researchers at Graz University of Technology in Austria who discovered Meltdown, said in an interview with Reuters that the flaw was “probably one of the worst CPU bugs ever found.”

Specter a long-term issue

Gruss said Meltdown was the more serious problem in the short term but  could be decisively stopped with software patches. Specter, the broader bug that applies to nearly all computing devices, is harder for hackers to take advantage of but less easily patched and will be a bigger problem in the long

term, he said.

Speaking on CNBC, Intel’s Krzanich said Google researchers told Intel of the flaws “a while ago” and that Intel had been testing fixes that device makers who use its chips will push out next week. Before the problems became public, Google on its blog said Intel and others planned to disclose the issues on January 9.

The flaws were first reported by The Register, a tech publication. It also reported that the updates to fix the problems could cause Intel chips to operate 5 percent to 30 percent more slowly.

Intel denied that the patches would bog down computers based on Intel chips.

“Intel has begun providing software and firmware updates to mitigate these exploits,” Intel said in a statement. “Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time.”

ARM spokesman Phil Hughes said that patches had already been shared with the companies’ partners, which include many smartphone manufacturers.

“This method only works if a certain type of malicious code is already running on a device and could at worst result in small pieces of data being accessed from privileged memory,” Hughes said in an email.

AMD chips are also affected by at least one variant of a set of security flaws but that can be patched with a software update. The company said it believes there “is near zero risk to AMD products at this time.”

Google’s report

Google said in a blog post that Android phones running the latest security updates are protected, as are its own Nexus and Pixel phones with the latest security updates. Gmail users do not need to take any additional action to protect themselves, but users of its Chromebooks, Chrome web browser and many of its Google Cloud services will need to install updates.

The defect affects the so-called kernel memory on Intel x86 processor chips manufactured over the past decade, allowing users of normal applications to discern the layout or content of protected areas on the chips, The Register reported, citing unnamed programmers.

That could make it possible for hackers to exploit other security bugs or, worse, expose secure information such as passwords, thus compromising individual computers or even entire server networks.

Dan Guido, chief executive of cybersecurity consulting firm Trail of Bits, said that businesses should quickly move to update vulnerable systems, saying he expects hackers to quickly develop code they can use to launch attacks that exploit the vulnerabilities.

“Exploits for these bugs will be added to hackers’ standard toolkits,” said Guido.

Shares in Intel were down by 3.4 percent following the report but nudged back up 1.2 percent to $44.70 in after-hours trading, while shares in AMD were up 1 percent to $11.77, shedding many of the gains they had made earlier in the day when reports suggested its chips were not affected.

It was not immediately clear whether Intel would face any significant financial liability arising from the reported flaw.

“The current Intel problem, if true, would likely not require CPU replacement in our opinion. However the situation is fluid,” Hans Mosesmann of Rosenblatt Securities in New York said in a note, adding it could hurt the company’s reputation.

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Blackberry Surges on Deal With Baidu for Self-driving Cars

BlackBerry Ltd and Chinese internet search firm Baidu Inc on Wednesday signed a deal to jointly develop self-driving vehicle technology, sending BlackBerry’s Toronto-listed shares up 13 percent to a four-year high.

The deal follows similar agreements with firms including Qualcomm Inc, Denso and Aptiv Plc to develop autonomous-driving technology with BlackBerry’s QNX software, which are expected to start generating revenue in 2019.

Investors and analysts are closely watching what comes of those agreements amid expectations that QNX could become a key technology in the burgeoning self-driving vehicle industry, serving as the operating system for computer chips used to run self-driving vehicles.

QNX will be the operating system for Apollo, a platform for self-driving vehicles that Baidu announced in April and has billed as the “Android” of the autonomous driving industry.

“The opportunity is global, it’s for a very large market and I think it’s a very solid win for BlackBerry,” said CIBC Capital Markets analyst Todd Coupland.

Apollo has since signed up several major automakers, including Ford Motor Co, Hyundai Motor Group and several Chinese carmakers.

QNX has long been used to run car infotainment consoles. BlackBerry has recently developed the software to run sophisticated computer chips for autos that manage multiple safety-critical systems.

BlackBerry shares rose 13 percent in Toronto to C$16.95, their sharpest one-day gain since April and highest close since March 2013.

The two companies said they will also integrate Baidu’s CarLife, a leading smartphone integration software for connected cars in China, its conversational AI system and high definition maps with BlackBerry’s infotainment platform.

 

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Sharp Reactions in Congress to Trump Tweet on North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet warning North Korea’s leader that he has a “Nuclear Button” that is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s set off a series of sharp reactions Wednesday on Capitol Hill as the Senate gaveled in for its first day of business in 2018.

 

“It’s embarrassing, it’s counterproductive and it’s dangerous,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat.

 

“It puts the president of the United States in the position of being a fool or deadly serious [about ordering a nuclear strike],” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told VOA. “We don’t need that.”

 

But Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming had a different view about the wisdom of the provocative presidential tweet, saying: “We finally have a president who is actually dealing with the problem at hand, instead of what we’ve seen previously, which was ignoring the problem.”

 

Vice President Mike Pence echoed that view in an exclusive interview with VOA on Wednesday.

 

“President Trump has provided a kind of clear leadership on the world stage that has made immeasurable progress particularly with regard to North Korea,” Pence said. “President Trump made it clear [that] America will not be bullied, America will not be threatened.”

 

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

No such button

Nuclear experts have pointed out that, in fact, no such physical button exists. Rather, U.S. presidents have access at all times to communications equipment for ordering a nuclear launch.

 

The system allows America to respond promptly to a nuclear attack from abroad. A growing number of Democrats have insisted that a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike against North Korea or any other adversary would require authorization from Congress as an act of war.

 

“He [Trump] doesn’t have a [nuclear] button he can use without us. No wars without Congress, period,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told VOA. “We [lawmakers] better make sure we hold him accountable for that and give him a little Constitutional education.”

 

Late last year, Democrats introduced a bill that would prohibit a U.S. president “from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.”

 

At a recent Senate hearing examining presidential nuclear authority, Republicans cautioned against creating any doubts on the world stage about America’s nuclear deterrent and its determination to respond to threats.

 

“Every single word that’s been uttered here this morning in this hearing is going to be analyzed in Pyongyang, and they are going to look very carefully at how we, the American people, view this,” declared Senator James Risch of Idaho.

 

“One of the things that voters think about when they elect someone to the office of president of the United States is whether or not they want to entrust them with this [nuclear] capability,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Odd timing

Trump’s tweet came amid tentative steps to reestablish and broaden communications between North Korea and South Korea.

 

North Korea reopened a cross-border communications channel with South Korea on Wednesday, the first significant sign the bitter rivals are seeking to improve relations after years of rising tensions.

 

The sudden thaw in frosty ties between North and South Korea began Monday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used his annual New Year’s Day address to call for direct talks with Seoul and to announce his willingness to send a negotiating team to South Korea to discuss his country’s possible participation next month in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

 

Seoul responded Tuesday by offering to hold talks with North Korean diplomats next week, January 9, in Panmunjom. The meeting would be the first high-level inter-Korean talks since December 2015.

 

Democrats accused Trump of sabotaging diplomacy at a critical moment.

 

“The president always undercuts diplomacy,” Kaine said. “If you undermine diplomacy, you raise the risk of unnecessary war.”

 

Pence, by contrast, argued that, under Trump’s leadership, an unprecedented amount of non-military pressure is being brought to bear on North Korea.

 

“After decades of North Korea stalling and ignoring the world community and continuing to develop nuclear and ballistic missiles, we’re now literally beginning to see movement among nations in the region. China is doing more than ever before,” the vice president said.

 

While some Republican lawmakers simply ignore Trump’s most provocative tweets, Democrats continue to blast the president’s social media messaging.

 

“I don’t let my 11-year-old have a Twitter account, and I would suggest that somebody in the White House might want to do a better job of controlling the president’s Twitter account,” New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich told VOA.

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Fire Breaks Out on Clintons’ Property

Firefighters near New York City rushed to the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton on Wednesday after a fire broke out on their property.

A Clinton family spokesman said the blaze occurred in a building used by the Secret Service at the Chappaqua property, and not in the house where the former president and former secretary of state live.

The Clintons were not home at the time. The spokesman said, “All is OK.”

Chappaqua is about 64 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of New York City.

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One Difference Between 2009 vs 2018 Iran Protests? 48 Million Smartphones

In 2009, the world watched as Iranians marching in the streets turned to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to organize and share information.

The technology-assisted protests were dubbed the first “Twitter revolution.”

Flash forward to 2018 and technology again is playing a role in demonstrations sweeping cities across Iran.

But much has changed in the intervening years when it comes to the communication tools used by Iranian citizens for organizing and publicizing protests.

Here are some of the main changes:

  1. The rise of smartphones has brought more Iranians on to the internet

In 2009, fewer than 15 percent of Iranians had internet access, according to the World Bank.

While Twitter was used to get news of the protests out to the world, it is unclear how much of a role it or any service played to help organize political actions. Word of mouth, in some accounts, as well as SMS messaging over cellphones (and just 30 percent of Iranians owned a cell phone) played a larger role than internet services.

Now, with the advent of smartphones in Iran – about half of Iranians, or 48 million people, have smartphones. More than 50 percent of Iranians are online.

  1. An explosion in messaging options

In 2009, Facebook and Twitter were relatively new with Iranians accessing the services mostly on their desktop computers.

As the 2009 protests unfolded, the Obama administration asked Twitter to delay an update that would have taken the service offline to allow Iranians to continue to use it.

Now, Iranian citizens have a number of ways of receiving and sending messages – straight from the device they carry in their pockets.

Of these newer services, the most popular in Iran is Telegram, an instant messaging service that offers encrypted secret chats and channels, where people discuss news and current events. By one count, more than 100,000 Iranian channels are on Telegram. Facebook’s Instagram is the second most popular service.

“Telegram channels are frequently used for organizing protests and for sharing political opinion,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

As the protests continued, the Iranian government shut down Telegram and Instagram. But other messaging apps give users options.

“Regime in Iran can shut down signal, telegram, etc., but differently from 2009, the whole country is connected and they have a long list of other messaging apps to use,” tweeted Jared Cohen, founder and chief executive of Jigsaw, an Alphabet company, and a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations. “This time around, it’s much harder to win a game of technology wack-a-mole.”

And indeed, the head of Telegram took to Twitter on Tuesday to suggest users go to Whatsapp, which “remains fully accessible in Iran.”

  1. Wider adoption of anti-filtering tools

Since the 2009 Green Movement, more Iranians have access to anti-censorship technology, such as VPNs and proxies, servers that transmit content that can evade government controls.

“Iranian internet users are making use of a wider variety of circumvention tools that allow for selective access to blocked resources,” said Alp Toker, founder of NetBlocks.org, a digital rights group.

“This could be down to a more mature understanding of internet filtering that has developed since the Green Movement protests after 2009, supported by domestic technical expertise and earlier initiatives to develop tools for Iran,” Toker said. “This suggests that workarounds for Iran’s internet filters have become a way of life for many mobile and desktop internet users.”

  1. Dangers exist for Iranians using mobile technology

With more communication technologies available to Iranians, they are more regulated and less open than they were in 2009, says Toker. Mobile devices are more restricted than computers, making it more difficult to circumvent Iran’s internet filters, he added.

In addition, many Iranians are using outdated iPhone devices and skipping software security updates, which means they may be more vulnerable to state-sponsored hacking and surveillance, Toker said.

Since 2009, the Iranian government has worked to create its own internet service and restricted content it considers objectionable on commercial services.

“Iran’s own strict regime of internet filters, but also U.S. sanctions limiting the transfer and sale of technology and security products, are likely contributing factors that mean the choke points are still an effective mechanism for mass control,” Toker said.

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Top US Commander Wants More Aggressive Afghan Push This Year

The top American commander for the Middle East wants a more aggressive Afghan military pressuring Taliban and other insurgents over the normally quieter months of Afghanistan’s winter, and then quickly going on the offensive in the spring. It’s all part of a plan the United States hopes will change the course of a war now entering its 17th year.

Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command said an influx of new American trainers can help escalate the fight. They’ll be operating with Afghan units, closer to the front lines and at greater risk, but Votel said U.S. commanders will ensure American and allied forces have adequate protection.

The goal is to get the Afghan military moving on its military campaign sooner, rather than later.

The United States wants the “focus on offensive operations and we’ll look for a major effort to gain the initiative very quickly as we enter into the fighting season,” Votel said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Afghan forces must “keep the pressure on all the time and work to gain the upper hand as quickly as we can. So that as we get into this next fighting season we can build on the initiative,” he said.

The Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy gives the U.S. military greater authority to launch offensive attacks against a resilient Taliban and an emerging Islamic State affiliate. The plan, announced in August, was designed to reverse a stalemate in America’s longest war. It specifically eliminates the Obama administration’s scheduled plan to withdraw U.S. forces, but includes no dramatic changes in an approach that has failed to stabilize the country or snuff out extremist groups operating from Afghan territory.

As 2018 begins, Afghanistan appears to be high on President Donald Trump’s agenda. On New Year’s Day, he slammed Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan in a tweet for “lies & deceit,” accusing the country of playing U.S. leaders for “fools” by not crushing militants in its territory. A major focus of Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is to persuade Pakistan to eliminate havens for the Taliban and other fighters.

‘Double game’

Pakistan summoned the U.S. ambassador and Islamic groups held rallies in major Pakistani cities in response.

“Pakistan has played a double game for years,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, said Tuesday, explaining that Washington was withholding $255 million in aid to Islamabad. “They work with us at times and they also harbor the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan. That game is not acceptable.”

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.N. Maleeha Lodhi responded, “We have contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counterterrorism operation anywhere in the world.”

Lodhi said the U.S. “should not shift the blame for their own mistakes and failures onto others. We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated.”

Afghan forces

On the Afghan side of the border, Washington is trying to build a tougher national military.

Votel said as the coalition builds up the Afghan Air Force and trains more security forces, the Afghans will become better fighters. “By the time they get to the next fight,” he said, “they will be able to really present a significant offensive capability.”

But it’s hardly the first time the American military has vowed to shape up the U.S.-backed army into a force that can defeat the Taliban, al-Qaida, IS and others. Nor does Trump’s approach represent the first time a frustrated president has pumped troops into the country to turn the situation around. There are now as many as 16,000 U.S. forces in the country — roughly double what Trump inherited — and a special training unit is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan early this year.

When then-President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he authorized a surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan that took the total there to about 100,000. The goal was to tamp down a resurgent Taliban and train and expand Afghan security forces. The plan centered on forcing the Taliban to the peace table and ending the war by the time Obama left office.

The plan never worked, despite the mission meeting several celebrated benchmarks: Obama ended combat operations in 2014, curtailed offensive strikes and set deadlines for a full U.S. troop withdrawal. And as the U.S. and NATO forces pulled back, the Taliban stepped up attacks and regained ground, while an IS faction carved out its own foothold. Obama ended his presidency leaving more than 8,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Beyond boosting troop numbers, Trump has granted his generals’ wishes for fewer combat restrictions, greater authority for commanders and no withdrawal deadline.

Peace efforts

Next year will be the first test of the policy. The Taliban currently controls as much as half of the country.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who served as the top U.S. commander for NATO from 2009 until 2013, said the ultimate goal in Afghanistan remains the same: Pushing the Taliban into seeking peace negotiations.

“There is a slightly better than even chance that there are some new factors which move us toward the possibility of a successful outcome,” said Stavridis, now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Those changes, he said, include the elimination of troop withdrawal timelines and Taliban fatigue.

“I think they’re tired, too. This is also a 17-year war for them,” Stavridis said, but suggested any settlement will require compromise. “Is this going to be a sweeping victory? No. But I think the odds are much higher of getting them to the negotiating table.”

Votel, too, said he believes efforts are trending in the right direction, as Afghanistan’s military replaces older commanders with younger officers. Recruitment is being maintained at a rapid pace.

But as winter arrives, Votel said the Afghan army must stay on the offense and prepare for greater fighting when the weather improves.

“We frequently talk about these fighting seasons, but as you know the fighting never actually ends,” Votel said.

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