Andean Drug War

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Latin America: Washington, Bogota on Verge of Deal to Make Colombian Military Air Base Regional Hub for Counter-Narcotics, More

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that US and Colombian negotiators are nearing agreement on a plan to expand the US military presence in Colombia by allowing the US to base hundreds of Americans at a Colombian Air Force Base in the Magdalena River valley to support US anti-drug interdiction missions. A fifth and final round of talks later this month could seal the deal.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The base would take up the drug war slack left by the ending of interdiction operations from the international airport at Manta, Ecuador, which is set for this week. The Manta base had been home for some 220 Americans supporting E-C AWACS and P-3 Orion surveillance planes scouring northern South America and the eastern Pacific for vessels and planes they suspect are carrying drugs. But Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa refused to renew the US lease, saying the US military mission there violated his country's sovereignty.

Colombian officials told the AP the plan was to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations. The current draft of the plan, they said, would allow more frequent visits by US aircraft and warships to two naval bases and three air bases in Colombia, with the Palanquero air base being the centerpiece of the plan. Palanquero had been off limits to US forces until April for human rights reasons -- a Colombian military helicopter operating from Palanquero had killed 17 civilians in 1998.

But that's ancient history now. A bill already passed by the House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for new construction at the base, which is home to the Colombian Air Force's main fighter wing. That funding would be released 15 days after an agreement is reached.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one of America's few remaining staunch allies in the region, and acceptance of the base deal could further stress already strained relations between Colombia and its more left-leaning neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. It's also certain to raise concerns about Latin Americans wary of US interventions in the region.

Such concerns are not helped by Pentagon planning documents that suggest that beyond its anti-drug mission, Palanquero could be a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed." In other words, a jumping off point for US military expeditionary forces.

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coca eradication
The US has pumped several billion dollars of primarily military and police assistance into Colombia since Plan Colombia began in 1999. Originally defined as a purely anti-drug program, under the Bush administration, it took on the additional burden of counter-insurgency, defining the rebel FARC guerrillas as narco-terrorists who must be defeated.

Despite all those billions of dollars in anti-drug aid, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. Neighboring Peru is second, and Bolivia is third. Bolivia under President Evo Morales also forms part of the emerging left-leaning bloc in Latin America.

Former Colombian defense minister Rafael Pardo, who is running for president in the May 2010 elections, told the AP that the radar and communications interception ability of US surveillance planes extends well beyond Colombia's borders and could cause problems with its neighbors.

"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said.

Latin America: Obama Administration Declines to Restore Bolivian Trade Preferences, Cites Government's Acceptance of Coca Production

President Barack Obama has declined to restore trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference Act to Bolivia, citing the Bolivian government's acceptance of coca growing. The decision came in a Tuesday report from the office of the US Trade Representative.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare area of Bolivia
The report also complained about Bolivian nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector and increases in tariffs, but it was the pro-coca policies of the government of President Evo Morales that drew the sharpest language. Even while acknowledging that the Bolivian government continues to undertake significant interdiction efforts against the cocaine trade, the report criticized Bolivia for failing to adhere to US demands to decrease coca cultivation and for expelling the DEA from the country last fall.

Since assuming the presidency, Morales has dramatically changed Bolivian drug policy from "zero coca" to "zero cocaine, not zero coca." Coca production has seen slight annual increases under Morales, but Bolivia remains only the third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

"The current challenges include the explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government; government tolerance of and attractive income from increased and unconstrained coca cultivation in both the Yungas and Chapare regions; and increased and uncontrolled sale of coca to drug traffickers," the report scolded. "The efficiency and success of eradication efforts have significantly declined in the past few years."

Tensions between La Paz and Washington have been high in recent years as Morales has defended the use and cultivation of coca and expelled US diplomats after accusing them of intervening in Bolivian internal affairs. Bolivia's close relationship with Venezuela under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez hasn't helped, either.

And this won't help, either. President Morales reacted angrily Wednesday, saying the move contradicted Obama's vow to treat Latin America countries as equals. "President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners," he told reporters. The report, he added, used "pure lies and insults" to justify its decision.

Latin America: Coca Cultivation, Cocaine Production Down Last Year, UNODC Says

In its World Drug Report 2009, released Wednesday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that coca cultivation and cocaine production had fallen slightly last year. The report attributed most of the decline to a massive eradication campaign in Colombia, which was not offset by modest increases in coca production in Peru and Bolivia.

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari, Peru
According to UNODC, there were 167,000 hectares of coca cultivated last year, with Colombia accounting for nearly half (81,000 hectares), Peru accounting for 56,000 hectares, and Bolivia 30,500. The figure is below 2007's 181,000 hectares and significantly lower than the more than 210,000 hectares reported in 1999-2001, but higher than the 2005 and 2006 figures.

The UNODC estimated potential cocaine production at 845 metric tons, lower than any year since 2002 and down 15% from 2007's 994 tons. But, despite billions of dollars spent to wipe out cocaine production by the US and its allies and client states, the 2008 figure is just slightly smaller than the 891 tons reported 15 years ago, after campaigns against coca and cocaine in Peru and Bolivia, but before the beginning of Plan Colombia in 1999.

The report credited Colombia's aggressive eradication program for the decline. In addition to 133,000 hectares sprayed with herbicides in Colombia, manual eradication tore out another 95,000 hectares of coca bushes. While Colombia has sprayed more than 130,000 hectares each year since 2002, manual eradication is rapidly catching up. It increased from 2,700 hectares in 2002 to 32,000 hectares in 2005 and 67,000 in 2007. The amounts eradicated in Peru and Bolivia were negligible compared to the figures from Colombia.

Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies,
writing yesterday in the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin American Advisor (by expensive subscription only), suggested another explanation for the reduction of cultivation in Colombia: instead of just replanting eradicated fields, as they typically did, farmers last year were able to take advantage of a not-yet-collapsed Ponzi scheme that flooded the countryside with capital, allowing for other opportunities, such as opening up restaurants and other small businesses. But that boom went bust in November, and now farmers are planting with a vengeance, Tree wrote.

"Beware of lights at the end of the tunnel because this one is likely an oncoming train," Tree warned. "When I was in southern Colombia four months ago, people were in a terrible state of economic distress and replanting coca in earnest."

The reduction in cocaine supply may be having an impact on prices. The UNODC reported retail gram prices in the US bottoming out at about $85 in 2005 before rising to about $120 last year. But that's still well under the $160 a gram price reported in 1990, the first year in UNODC's price series.

Still, according to UNODC, while cocaine use is falling in the US, the world's largest market, and stabilizing in Europe after years of rising popularity, it continues to rise in South America and, more recently, West Africa.

Video on Abuse of the Environment -- and of People -- in Colombia's Drug War, from "Witness for Peace"

"Shoveling Water" is a 25-minute documentary from the organization Witness for Peace on the impact of chemical spraying of Colombia's coca crop, in the words of people living with the effects on the ground. I have always felt this part of "Plan Colombia" as launched by President George Herbert Walker Bush -- expanded into the "Andean Initiative" by President Clinton -- to be particularly reckless. It doesn't take a chemist, nor even a medical doctor, to expect that dumping poisons into the environment might be bad for the life forms inhabiting that environment, including humans. Hopefully the madmen pushing for aerial fumigation of Afghanistan's opium crop will lose that fight at least, as they have so far. The tide is slowly turning in Andean drug policy as well. In the meanwhile, check out "Shoveling Water":

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug," by Paul Gootenberg (2008, University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp, $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Regardless of what you may think about cocaine -- party favor or demon drug -- one thing is clear: Cocaine is big business. These days, the illicit cocaine industry generates dozens of billions of dollars in profits annually and, in addition to the millions of peasant families earning a living growing coca, employs hundreds of thousands of people in its Andean homeland and across Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more in trafficking and distribution networks across the globe.

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There is a flip-side: The cocaine industry has also resulted in the creation of an anti-cocaine enterprise, also global in scope, but centered in the United States. It, too, employs tens of thousands of people -- from UN anti-drug bureaucrats to DEA agents to prison guards hired to watch over America's imprisoned street-level crack dealers -- and generates billions of dollars of governmental spending.

It wasn't always this way, and, with "Andean Cocaine," commodity historian Paul Gootenberg of SUNY Stony Brook has made a magnificent contribution in explaining how in just under a century and a half cocaine went from unknown (discovered in 1860) to licit global commodity (1880s-1920s), to illicit but dormant commodity (1920s-1950s) to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity of today.

In a work the author himself describes as "glocal," Gootenberg used previously untapped archival sources, primarily from Peru and the US, to combine finely-detailed analysis of key personages and events in the evolution of the trade in its Peruvian hearth with a global narrative of "commodity chains," a sociological concept that ties together all elements in a commodity, from local producers and processors to national and international distribution networks and, ultimately, consumers.

The "commodity chain" concept works remarkably well in illuminating the murky story that is modern cocaine. How else do you explain the connection between a Peruvian peasant in the remote Upper Huallaga and a street-corner crack peddler in the Bronx or between entrepreneurial Colombian cocaine traffickers, weak governments in West Africa, and coke-sniffing bankers in the city of London?

Still, Gootenburg is a historian, and his story ends -- not begins -- with the arrival of the modern illicit cocaine trade. He applies the commodity chain concept to cocaine from the beginning, the 1860 isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a Francophile Peruvian pharmacist, who, Gootenburg notes, worked within an international milieu of late 19th Century European scientific thought and exchange.

Within a few short years, cocaine had become a medical miracle (the first step on the now all-too-familiar path of currently demonized drugs) and a nascent international trade in cocaine sulphate (basically what we now refer to as cocaine paste), primarily to German and Dutch pharmaceutical houses. At the same time, just before the dawn of the 20th Century, the dangers of cocaine were becoming apparent, and moves to restrict its use got underway.

The key player in last century's cocaine panic was the United States -- ironically, the world's number one consumer of cocaine's precursor, coca. US patent medicines of the ear featured numerous coca-based tonics and concoctions, the granddaddy of them all being Coca-Cola, whose monopoly on legal (if denatured) coca leaf imports played a shadowy role in US coca and cocaine policies well into the 1950s. But some of those patent medicines also contained cocaine, and more was leaking out of medicinal markets. By the first decade of the last century, cocaine was under attack in the US.

Cocaine was banned in the US before World War I, and by the 1920s, blues singers were singing sad songs about its absence. With use levels dropping close to absolute zero, cocaine use was largely a non-issue for the US for the next 50 years. But, Gootenburg strongly suggests that the US obsession with stifling cocaine production and use sowed the seeds of the drug's stupendous expansion in the decades since the 1970s.

A particularly fascinating section revolves around the social construction of the "illicit" cocaine trade in Peru during World War II. At that point, cocaine was still a legal and treasured, if slightly over-the-hill, commodity in Peru. But some of cocaine's most lucrative customers were in Germany and Japan, the Axis foes of the US and its Latin American allies. Peruvian producers, desperate to retain their markets, sold to their traditional clientele regardless of US wishes, becoming the first "illicit" Peruvian cocaine traffickers and paving the way for the reemergence of cocaine as a black market commodity.

For someone like me, who has more than a passing familiarity with the Andean coca and cocaine trades, "Andean Cocaine" is especially fruitful for deepening my historical understanding. Peruvian family surnames prominent in coca and/or cocaine decades ago -- Durand, Malpartida, Soberon -- continue to play prominent roles in Peruvian coca politics today.

There is much, much more to this book -- suffice it to say it could be the basis of a post-graduate seminar or two -- but one lasting lesson Gootenburg seems to draw from his research is the futility, if not downright counterproductiveness, of the efforts to suppress cocaine and the cocaine trade. From the original "illicit" cocaine sales during World War II, which generated nascent trafficking networks to the crop eradications in the 1970s and 1980s in Peru and Bolivia, which turned Colombia, where indigenous coca production was almost nonexistent, into the world's leading coca and cocaine producer, every effort to stifle the trade has perversely only strengthened it. Perhaps someday we will learn a lesson here.

"Andean Cocaine" is an academic work written by an historian. It's not light reading, and, by the author's own admission, it concentrates on the Peruvian producer end of the commodity chain, not the US -- and increasingly, global -- consumer end of the chain. Nonetheless, it is a sterling contribution to the literature of cocaine, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand cocaine in context.

Latin America: Jimmy Carter to Harvest Coca Leaves on Evo Morales' Farm

At a Saturday meeting in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, former US President Jimmy Carter accepted an invitation from Bolivian President Evo Morales to go pick coca on Morales' coca farm in the Chapare, Agence France-Presse reported. The stop was part of a nine-day trip to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru by the Nobel Peace Prize winning former president.

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Drying the leaves in the warehouse. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Morales, a former coca grower union leader, launched the invitation amidst smiles at a press conference following a private meeting with the ex-president, saying that he had a long friendship with Carter, who had invited him to pick peanuts on his Georgia farm. "One time, he invited me to visit his family and house, and I harvested peanuts on his land in Atlanta," Morales said. "Now, I invite him to the Chapare to harvest coca... it will be the next time he comes."

"Since President Morales has come to my property and evidently picked some peanuts, I hope that in my next visit I can go to the Chapare, where he has invited me to go harvest coca leaves," Carter replied.

Carter is scheduled to be back in Bolivia in December. At that time, Bolivia will be undergoing general elections in which Morales is seeking reelection until 2015.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru. Under Morales, the country has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca," which has brought it into conflict with the US and with the United Nations' international drug control apparatus. Bolivia expelled the US ambassador and the DEA last fall.

Latin America: Bolivian Cocaine Production Increasing, Official Says

Cocaine production in Bolivia is on the rise, Bolivian anti-drug police chief Óscar Nina told the Associated Press in an interview last week. Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations are contracting to have Bolivian coca paste processed in situ rather than exporting the paste for processing Colombia, he said.

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US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors
Coca leaf is typically harvested by poor farming families. While much goes to traditional markets in this region where the leaf has been chewed for centuries, coca leaf destined for the black market is crushed and processed into coca paste, which is then smuggled abroad to be further refined into cocaine at sophisticated labs in Colombia and elsewhere.

But now, said Nina, middle men from Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia are being hired by drug traffickers to do the final processing into cocaine in Bolivia. From there, the popular drug is smuggled by plane to Colombia and on to the insatiable markets of Europe and North America, or smuggled by men carrying backpacks walking into Peru or Brazil.

"There is more interest and investment in purifying coca paste here and exporting it, rather than sending it to Colombia for purification" as in years past, Nina said.

Police have raided three sophisticated cocaine labs in Bolivia's eastern lowlands this year, Nina said. In one bust, they seized 660 pounds of cocaine and arrested two Colombians. In other raids, no Colombians were found, but evidence of their presence was, said Nina without elaborating.

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca. While Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader, has supported continued coca cultivation, he has opposed cocaine production and trafficking under a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca."

Bolivian police last year busted some 3,000 smaller labs and seized a record 27 tons of cocaine. This year, they have already seized another nine tons and arrested 992 people.

Latin America: Colombia's Uribe Seeks to Recriminalize Drug Possession

Since a 1994 Colombian Supreme Court ruling that held criminalizing drug users violated their privacy and autonomy, drug possession has not been a crime in Colombia. But President Álvaro Uribe -- personal abstainer, ally of the US, and recipient of billions in US anti-drug assistance -- tried to recriminalize drug possession during the 2006 presidential election campaign, and now, the Global Post reported earlier this month, he's trying it again.

Under that 1994 ruling, adults may possess up to 20 grams of marijuana, two grams of Ecstasy, and one gram of heroin or cocaine in the privacy of their own homes. It is not, however, a get out of jail free card. In practice, Colombian police are known to charge simple drug possessors with intending to distribute drugs.

Still, the law provides some protections to drug users, and users are mobilizing to defeat the rollback effort. At a recent demonstration outside the presidential palace, pot smoke wafted through the air as protestors made their opposition clear.

"Taking drugs is a private matter," said Daniel Pacheco, 27, a Colombian journalist who helped organize the march. "There are a lot more important things that the government should be concerned about."

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Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Not for Uribe, whose plan for recriminalization envisions drug users arrested and fined or sent to drug treatment -- or jail if they persist in their bad habits. Not only does the politics of recriminalization appeal to Uribe's conservative base in a country where the Roman Catholic Church remains powerful, it is also consistent with Colombia's hard-line fight with the drug trade.

"It's not right for the country to have this ethical contradiction of being severe when it comes to drug production and smuggling, but totally lax and permissive when it comes to consumption," Uribe said in a speech in February.

Still, it is unclear whether even his own administration supports the move. Attorney General Mario Igaurán said recently that the government should focus on high-level drug traffickers rather than worrying about what people do in the privacy of their own homes. And health experts question whether the measure will be effective in getting people into treatment or having success with coerced treatment.

Uribe and his hard-line stance on drugs are increasingly isolated in Latin America. With Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil relaxing some drug laws in recent years, with Argentina threatening to decriminalize drug possession, and with the Mexican Congress this week hosting a debate on legalization, Uribe seems the committed contrarian, marching boldly backward into the dark days of the 20th Century.

Latin America: Shining Path Kills 14 Soldiers in Peruvian Coca-Growing Area

Leftist guerrillas of the Shining Path killed 14 Peruvian soldiers in a pair of ambushes in Ayacucho province, in the remote and rugged coca-growing region of the VRAE (Apurímac and Ene River valleys) last week, and they are vowing to do it again. Last week's attack on the military was the deadliest since last October, when 13 soldiers and two civilians were killed in an ambush of a military convoy in neighboring Huancavelica province.

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difficult country for terrorist hunting
The Shining Path originated in Ayacucho province as a revolutionary Maoist movement with roots going back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, in an all-out bid for power, the Shining Path battled government forces in a ruthless insurgency and counterinsurgency that left 70,000 Peruvians dead before the group's founder and leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992.

At its height, the Shining Path fielded 10,000 men, with countless thousands of supporters providing infrastructure, but today its numbers of armed combatants are estimated to be between 300 and 500. It is widely held that the group has largely shed its ideology and settled in to a life as a criminal drug trafficking organization. But it can still talk the talk.

"We will fight militarily those who defend imperialism and the government, and they are the armed forces and the police," Victor Quispe Palomino, who identified himself by his rebel name, Comrade José, said in a call to a radio station, Reuters reported.

The ambushes and threats are the group's strongest response yet to a Peruvian government effort to retake control of the VRAE, where some 40,000 families earn a living from coca fields. Since that effort got underway last August, at least 33 soldiers have been killed.

The move in the VRAE is part and parcel of President Alan García's broader effort to suppress coca production through eradication programs backed by the US. The world's second largest coca producer, Peru receives funds from the US for its eradication programs. García's plan also includes building schools and hospitals in remote towns, but it seems the army has a greater presence than the government's development teams.

But the Shining Path is also showing signs of deep pockets. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is profiting from prohibition, and the results can be deadly, said critics of García's program. "The Shining Path is using more and more fire power in each attack," Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister, told RPP Radio in Lima. "The plan has not produced results and the government keeps on insisting on the wrong strategy."

The situation was "unacceptable," said ex-Army chief Edwin Donayre. "There are principles applicable to conventional warfare that do not suffice for non-conventional war," he told RPP. "We have zero results so we need to reconfigure our strategy."

But President García is talking tough. "The terrorists won't hold us back," García said. "Our armed forces are trained to smash them."

Latin America: Peru to Export Coca Beer

A coca trade fair in Lima designed to demonstrate that coca is not cocaine showcased a number of products, but the star of the show was a coca leaf beer whose manufacturer has plans to export it to markets in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The fair was organized by the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONPACCP), the country's largest coca growers' union.

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Cerveza Apu coca beer (photo from malamarxa.blogspot.com)
The coca beer, sold under the brand name Apu by the entrepreneurial Alarcón family of Andahuaylas, is already being sold (and eagerly consumed) in Peru's Andean region, as well as markets in Lima. General manager Manuel Alarcón told Living in Peru the beer was a big hit with tourists at Machu Picchu. But with a production capacity of 180,000 bottles a month, Alarcón is looking outside the domestic market.

Alarcon said the paperwork is already underway to export Apu to China, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela. That seems like a breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, which sought to phase out use of the coca plant, excepting de-cocainized products such as Coca Cola. Some contest that interpretation of international law, however, and given that Venezuela has already inked deals with Bolivia to import coca products, it seems the treaty is sometimes observed only in the breach.

"Thankfully China is a country where coca leaves are accepted and its derivatives can easily enter the country," said Alarcón.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. While some of the country's hundreds of thousands of small producers are registered with the national coca monopoly and deliver their harvests to it, the majority of producers are not legally growing the plant, and much of it is destined for the insatiable international cocaine market.

The situation has led to years of conflict between coca growers and the Peruvian national government. If recent reports are to be believed, it is now leading to a resurgence of the Shining Path and an increasingly violent counterinsurgency operation by the Peruvian military in the Apurímac and Ene River valleys.

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