Today on Inland Journal, we wade into the world of sports with two stories, one a visit to Cheney, where the U.S. Curling Association is holding its 2020 national championship. And correspondent Tom Banse tells us about the potential expansion of sports betting in Washington. We’ll also talk with Eastern Washington Democratic congressional candidate Chris Armitage.
But first, pregnant women and marijuana.
“We see nationally that more pregnant women are using cannabis, mostly to treat nausea at the beginning of their trimester," said Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, an associate professor of nursing and Washington State University’s vice chancellor for health sciences research.
Many women stop drinking alcohol after they conceive to protect their unborn children. Researchers know alcohol can lead to low birth weight and other harmful effects. But what do we know about marijuana’s effects on fetuses?
“All national guidelines will say not to use cannabis, even at the pre-conception age, during pregnancy, during breast feeding, to just stay away from it," she said.
But researchers don’t know much about the specifics when marijuana passes from mother to child. That’s due in part to the fact that marijuana is illegal at the federal level and finding money to research it has been difficult.
But pot is now legal in Washington and Barbosa-Leiker and her team were interested in why pregnant women use it.
“We just wanted to talk to women because we weren’t sure what we were going to see. We had a feeling that the landscape had just changed across our state," she said.
They interviewed 19 women in Washington who were either expecting or who had recently given birth.
“We had a participant drive four hours to come to talk to us. They really wanted their stories to be told. They wanted to be heard," Barbosa-Leiker said.
All of them admitted they smoked pot daily for medical conditions they suffered from before they conceived.
“Chronic pain was the main one that we heard about, but also bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, anxiety," she said.
She says many of the women said they stopped using other pain relievers once they found out they were pregnant.
“They felt that possibly using cannabis was a healthier decision, other than opioids or ibuprofen. We don’t know that research-wise, but the moms that we interviewed felt that was better for themselves and for their baby. They were also trying to cut back as soon as they found out that they were pregnant. They were trying to reduce the amount of cannabis. One of them said, ‘I prefer not to be using anything at all, but since I have chronic pain and can’t get through the day, I’m just going to use marijuana as little as possible just so I can manage the pain,'" Barbosa-Leiker said.
Is that a good strategy? No one knows for sure. And she says it was clear the women wanted more information.
“The majority of participants expressed frustration with the lack of research. They were Googling research studies to figure out what the best decision was, given their current situation. And so they were happy to be contributing to this," she said.
Barbosa-Leiker says scientists believe the effects of smoking marijuana are like the effects of smoking tobacco, with low birth weight one of the potential side effects. But she says the most relevant studies are two or three decades old. New studies need to be done. But Barbosa-Leiker says it may not be easy to do them.
“Studying pregnant moms in any setting is quite difficult. You have to be careful of the mom, very careful of the fetus and the baby. But really, cannabis research across the nation has been stifled. It’s very difficult to study it, especially in a state where it’s legal but, federally, it’s illegal," she said. "We’re bound by federal law with what we can do. Licenses to conduct research haven’t been given out, so we’re kind of stuck. Not that we would ever give marijuana to pregnant women to study that. We were just wanting to hear their stories. They were self reporting. It was just listening to what the moms were doing.”
Barbosa-Leiker says her team will continue to work to answer some of the outstanding questions.
“Is it better than opioids? Is it just as bad as alcohol or smoking tobacco? We need more studies in order to demonstrate that so that people can make healthy, informed decisions based on research," she said.
Why is this an important study?
Celestina Barbosa-Leiker: “Really, the aim of this study is to help health care providers better educate and work with pregnant moms in their offices. We’re hearing from OBs and midwives that a lot of women are reporting using cannabis now. It doesn’t necessarily mean that more women are using cannabis, it just means that more women are reporting it. Now that it’s not illegal in our state, more women feel comfortable. But we’re also seeing that the research shows that once a mom reports using cannabis, the conversation ends. There’s not a lot of discussion over that. Health care providers are telling us that they don’t feel comfortable talking about all the different products that they have out there right now and so they tend to just stop talking. Or, what we heard from our participants, they’re given mixed messages. One health care provider might say, ‘You need to stop immediately. This is horrible, just like using heroin or something.’ And then they’ll talk to another health care provider, who says there’s no problem using at all. It’s legal here, so obviously there’s no risk. And so they’re getting this full spectrum of mixed messages. They’re feeling frustrated and confused. They’re also reporting a lot of stigma as soon as they report using. What I’m trying to get is their reasons why they are using and how health care providers can help them have that discussion and really use a harm-reduction approach. ‘I understand that you’re using for chronic pain because you got in this major car accident a few years ago. So instead of smoking five times a day, do you think you can smoke three times a day for now and then let’s see if we can get you down to two times a day’ or something like that, as opposed to not saying anything at all, stigmatizing them, or telling them it’s fine, just use as much as you want. That’s what I’m really hoping this research will help with.”
Celestina Barbosa-Leiker is an associate professor of nursing and Washington State University’s vice chancellor for health sciences research.
The presidential election process is well underway with the New Hampshire primary now in the books.
Down ballot races are starting to come to life too with candidates, especially challengers, announcing their campaigns, introducing themselves to voters and raising money.
Eastern Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, is running for a ninth term. She has one announced challenger.
“My name is Christopher Armitage. I’m running for the U.S. House of Representatives against Cathy McMorris Rodgers, our 16-year incumbent. I am an Air Force veteran. I deployed to the Middle East twice, where I served security forces and a base defense operations controller. I have masters of science in homeland security and undergrad in criminal justice. I also worked in law enforcement as a 911 operator and as a background investigator.”
Armitage was assigned to Fairchild when he wasn’t overseas.
Now he’s turned his eye to politics. He supports policies touted by candidates in the progressive wing of the Democratic party, things like Medicare for All.
“Those things that I had in the military, amazing health care, education without crippling debt, a living wage, guaranteed housing, I want those to extend to the people I love," Armitage said.
Armitage says he’s carrying that message to all corners of the sprawling Fifth Congressional District, areas that are rarely friendly to Democrats these days, especially progressive Democrats. One of his campaign mentors is Heather Foley, the widow of the former Speaker of the House, who represented the Fifth District for 30 years.
Chris Armitage: “He kept getting elected, from ’64 up until his final term, because he spent as much time outside of Spokane as in Spokane. You could see him at the grocery store. You could see him at your local tavern in Lincoln County or up in Pend Oreille. That’s what he did when he was first running too. He went out to every corner of this district and he shook hands at the taverns and the churches and he said, ‘My name is Tom Foley. I’m running to represent you in Congress.’ I wholeheartedly believe that’s how you break through the media bubble. You show people that I’m actually here to listen to you and even where we disagree, I want you to know you can count on my character and my judgment.”
Chris Armitage: “I’m a working class guy. My dad had a lot of different jobs. He worked for the railroad. He was an HVAC repairman. My grandfather was a Teamster delivery driver. That’s the background I come from. Just the opportunity to speak to these folks in these different areas who’ve never met somebody running for Congress before, they like it. We actually ran an ad awhile ago targeted, on Facebook, targeted to Trump supporters. I said, ‘Are you mad at a Democrat? Give one a call.’ Imagine how mad somebody has to be to call up a stranger to yell at them. If they didn’t hang up in the first five minutes, we would talk for an hour or two and I made legitimate friends.”
When you go talk to those farmers down in Walla Walla County or up in Stevens County, where are the areas you’re most likely to connect with them?
Chris Armitage: “Health care, housing and jobs. Eighty-five percent of the money we give to farmers goes to the top one-percent of farmers. It doesn’t go to our small farms. The majority of farmers in, say, the Walla Walla Valley make less than a quarter-million dollars a year, which is a small farm. They want some of the support for green technology. They’re interested in having a livable planet. The farmers there are 400 feet above sea level in the Walla Walla Valley. They know that the climate is changing. They know that they’re getting less and less winter every single year, that the winter’s becoming less predictable. They were holding on to some harvests, for example, a little bit longer for their wine and they ended up with an early frost that destroyed a bunch of their crops; they ended up needing a small bailout for that. These farmers, they want their communities to be reinvigorated. The average farmer in the United States is a 58-year-old white man. They want it to be a viable path for their children. They want new people to be able to enter the farming community and these rural towns, they are losing their young population because they don’t have jobs. It’s not viable for young people to stay in these communities right now and a lot of this district was build thanks to New Deal policies, water conservation society and a lot of groups facilitated the communities that are now struggling once again.”
Armitage, as we pointed out earlier, supports the concept of eliminating private health insurance, in favor of a government program for everyone.
Chris Armitage: “Seventy percent of Americans want Medicare for All, 30% of Congress wants it. That doesn’t sound very representative to me. In fact, Medicare for All has a higher approval rating than Nancy Pelosi. When I speak to communities, they know we have a health care crisis. We have tens of thousands of people who are dying because of lack of access to health care. I met with a family recently who lost their 19-year-old son to cancer that was preventable because the insurance company wouldn’t run a test they called exploratory and once he developed symptoms, it was already too late. Everybody’s got these stories. We go out to rural communities, you send me up to Newport, I talked with a family that has three diabetic members and they’re splitting one prescription between the three of them. Now, you might have your issues with Medicare for All, but as a former commander of mine used to say, ‘The best answer is the right answer. The second best answer is the wrong answer. The worst answer is no answer.’ Now, I don’t see a lot of answers when it comes to our representatives.”
How do you pay for Medicare for All and ensure that people aren’t paying more for health care than they’re paying right now?
Chris Armitage: “I support Medicare for All for the same reason, one of the same reasons I joined the military, because I’d been uninsured and underinsured most of my childhood. When you’re active duty military, you have something called Tricare. Those doctors are salaried. They don’t get paid more for seeing more patients. How many people listening to this know what it’s like to show up to a doctor’s office, one, to be rushed out as soon as you can so they can see the next patient, but they still get to bill your insurance, and two, feel like they’re pushing for you to say get extra things done so they can charge more. I have a friend who needed work on both their kidneys and the doctor split it up into two different surgeries, instead of doing it in one, for one reason: billing. Profit? Nobody should make more money because you’re sick. Why I support Medicare for All even further is that active duty health care, you go to the doctor, they’re salaried, they’re wearing a uniform, they care about taking care of you, not about making money. So that doctor can say, ‘I don’t know that we need to get you an x-ray. Let’s just check it out.’ They don’t need to fill out forms. They don’t need to go through bureaucracy. They don’t need to check with your insurance company. They send you up to the third floor and you get an x-ray. That’s it. That’s the model that Medicare for All represents. Now, Medicare has issues, but these can be addressed. There’s a lot of effort from different people in the government to convince you the government can’t do anything right. But guess what, the military is the government and that was the best health care I ever had as a working class person in my entire life and I want my family to be able to have that. My mom shouldn’t have to drive four hours for treatment. That’s why I support Medicare for All.”
Chris Armitage is a Democratic candidate for Washington’s Fifth District U.S. House seat, the seat now held by Cathy McMorris Rodgers. You can hear our entire interview with him on the Inland Journal page at our website.
And now to the national curling championships underway in Cheney. On Saturday USA Curling will crown its men’s and women’s champions. Eight women’s teams and 10 men’s teams are in the middle of a round robin this week. That will culminate with semifinals on Friday and the finals on Saturday.
Curling originated in Scotland about 400 years ago. It features four-person teams sliding 40-pound rocks down a sheet of ice toward a target called the house. How many rocks you get there determines your score.
“It’s scored a lot like bocci or horseshoes, where you throw all the stones," said Tom Violette from USA Curling. "You’re not scoring with every stone you throw. You throw all 16 stones in one direction, eight for each team. After the last rock is thrown, you get one point for every one of your stones that’s closer than the other team. So you could have all eight of your stones in the house, but if the other team has one closer, they get one, you get zero.”
That’s how you determine the score for one end, kind of like an inning in baseball. Games at this level are scheduled to last 10 ends. Sometimes they go long if the match is tied after 10. Sometimes they finish early when one team has an insurmountable lead.
Canada is the powerhouse team in men’s curling. It has won more world championships in the last 60 years than any other nation. Scotland, the U.S., Norway and Sweden are on the next level. Swedish teams have won the last two men’s world championships. The defending Olympic champion is a team led by American John Shuster. He’s a Wisconsin native whose group won gold in 2018. Shuster is in Cheney this week, trying to get back to the world championships, where his team won bronze in 2016.
He says his winning an Olympic gold medal elevated the visibility of curling in the U.S.
“You know, for the first year, we did a lot of things, appearances and a lot of fun stuff to help grow the game, have events here in places that don’t have a huge curling club presence and look out into the stands and see 500-1,000 people in here watching curling. That’s the effect I think we’re starting to see," Violette said.
Curling has been off and on in popularity here in the Inland Northwest. With the national championships in Cheney, it could help to draw more attention to the sport. The Inland Northwest Curling Club will hold its eighth annual bonspiel — that’s the name of a curling tournament — in April at the Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d’Alene.
The Granite Curling Club in Seattle is one of the most successful local clubs in the nation, with national champions over the years at many levels. Tom Violette was a member until he moved to Wisconsin to work for USA Curling. He had quite a career on the ice, with national championships and a world championship bronze medal on his resume. His son Luc is still based in Seattle and has won five consecutive junior national titles.
Now Violette helps to promote the game and build its fanbase in the U.S.
“The Olympics has basically done for curling what Tiger Woods has done for golf. We’re seeing younger and younger athletes coming into the game and much more athleticism than when I was playing in my prime," he said.
Indeed, many of the teams in Cheney are led by young people in their 20s and 30s. They include John Shuster and Steven Birklid, who is the skip, or captain, of the only team from the Northwest. He’s from Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
Birklid says the next step in the growth of the game is to take advantage of its newfound popularity and increase the amount of money flowing to the sport, through sponsorships and other things. He hopes that, someday, at least the best players will be able to support themselves while playing full-time.
For now, his main paycheck comes from his Fast Signs franchise, which makes vinyl graphics and car wraps and that kind of thing.
“Owning my own shop is helpful for traveling and having the schedule flexibility. It’s pretty hard to be a full-time curler when you don’t have funding. The only people that can really do it are people who have that flexibility, like John, like myself," Birklid said.
Shuster jokes that he married up. His wife is his family’s main breadwinner. He stays at home with their two small children in between training sessions.
“My major goal is to win an Olympic gold medal. Now check that off. The subgoal of that was to make curling be close enough to mainstream where it’s more than just one or two kids coming out of a curling class like we did growing up, who maybe have that opportunity to do something like, my teammates and myself, to curl almost like a full-time job," Shuster said.
This competition is being live streamed on the USA Curling website. Curling has become a regular part of the Winter Olympics’ curling coverage of NBC. It even has its own weekly TV show, Curling Night in America, Friday nights on the NBC Sports Network.
All of this is great news for the growth of the sport in the U.S., says Tom Violette.
“It’s just great, for me personally, to see what I had to go through when I was this age or competing at this level, to get the media to give us any credibility whatsoever. We were mostly the butt of jokes," he said. "To see the credibility that the sport gets now, every day, you can look on your news feed or online and there are legitimate articles about the game, accentuating the athleticism. It is really to me, more than anything, gratifying to see that the game has gotten to that level.”
Both of the winning teams from Saturday’s finals will move on to the world championships, the women in Prince George, British Columbia in mid-March, the men in Glasgow, Scotland in late March.
A couple years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for states beyond Nevada to have sports betting. Oregon dove in last year. Idaho, Washington and California held back. But now Washington state lawmakers are taking a hard look at legalizing sports betting.
Since last August, visitors to the Oregon Coast -- and locals -- have been able to bet on a wide range of college and professional sports.
"I've always wanted to play. Now it's legal, so it's good," said Greg Scheller of Salem while standing in the Siletz Tribe's Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, Oregon.
He's in a former poker room that's been converted into a Vegas-style sportsbook with lounge tables, 15 TVs tuned to different games and a teller counter where attendants can explain sports betting to a newbie like me.
"Here we go, March Madness," said correspondent Tom Banse.
"So, we get our sheet. We'd find Gonzaga," said Matt Pond, who works in the poker room.
Pond helps Banse place a bet on the eventual NCAA basketball champion.
"On the sheet, Gonzaga is 8-1 to win," Pond said.
"So if I bet $5 of the company's dime -- hopefully, management doesn't hear this..." Banse said.
"You'd win eight times that for $40, plus you'd get your $5 back, so $45 total," Pond said.
"Ooh. I'll take those odds," Banse said.
The printer sp its out the betting slip.
" So there I've done it, taken part in a fast-growing sector of the gambling industry," Banse said.
"Here's your ticket. $5. Good luck, sir," Pond said.
Sports betting is set to expand more in Oregon later this year with at least a couple more tribal casinos expected to add it. And then there's the Oregon Lottery. It plans to introduce sports betting kiosks at bars and retailers. That will broaden the reach of the lottery's relatively new smartphone sports betting app.
The Oregon Lottery has grabbed a big slice of the sports betting action with its Scoreboard mobile app and website, which launched in October. Professional basketball and football have proven the most popular, but the state-run betting portal offers a wide range of wagers through a contract with an international sportsbook.
Oregonians can bet on everything from English Premier League soccer to rugby, cricket, NASCAR or the Tokyo Olympics. The two tribal casino sportsbooks in Oregon allow bets on college sports in addition to pro sports while the Oregon Lottery excludes NCAA action, although a lottery spokesman said the agency is having conversations about adding collegiate sports contests. Matt Pond said he has been surprised by how much money patrons are willing to bet on sporting contests.
"When we first opened, I assumed most of our bettors would be in the $20 to $100 range on games," Pond said. "You know, they come in and bet 20 bucks on the Trailblazers or their favorite football team -- $100 if they're feeling frisky."
But in fact, some bettors calmly wager $2,000 or $3,000 on their favored teams in big events such as baseball's World Series or the NFL Super Bowl. "It was surprising to see the amount of money that came in and changed hands," Pond said.
Sports wagers become illegal as soon as you cross the state line into Washington, Idaho or California. But that doesn't mean fans in those states are sitting on their money. Republican state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima says black market bookies and offshore casino websites are taking bets from Washingtonians.
"Sports wagering is going on in this state right now, but it's not controlled. We need to develop a system by which it is controlled," he said.
King sponsors one of the four separate proposals in the Washington Legislature to legalize sports betting to a greater or lesser degree. King's measure would allow sports betting in tribal casinos, at horse racing tracks and in non-tribal cardrooms, also known as mini-casinos. The state of Washington would get a cut of the off-reservation revenue. A company that owns 19 neighborhood card rooms put muscle behind this proposal. Vicki Christophersen lobbies for Maverick Gaming.
"All communities should benefit from this. We're seeing across the nation the legalization of sports betting and the tax revenue that could come with that. The state can realize revenue as well as our partners in the tribes and in Indian Country," Christophersen said.
A competing measure -- and the prevailing one at the moment -- in the Washington Legislature would leave out operators like Maverick and allow sports betting only in tribal casinos. Puyallup tribal chairman David Bean testified in favor of having limited betting.
"One thing we do not want to see is we do not want our children having access to online, mobile gaming. We do not want our college students subjected to that type of pressure, that type of access -- anything that would distract them from learning," Bean said.
It's difficult to handicap the odds for whether Washington state will join Oregon and the 19 other states with sports betting. The initial committee votes in Olympia have been favorable. But there's not much time on the shot clock in this year's short legislative session. Any proposal to expand gambling needs to pass with a 60 percent supermajority in both houses of the Washington Legislature, according to the state constitution.
Inland Journal airs every Thursday on Spokane Public Radio. The podcast is available anytime at spokane public radio dot org. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, NPR One or Google Play.