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Prohibition: Terror Groups Profit From Drugs, DEA Says -- Missing Forest For Trees

Nearly half of the groups officially listed by the US government as foreign terrorist organizations fund their activities through drug trafficking, a top DEA official said Sunday. Nothing is more profitable for terrorist organizations than drugs, said Michael Braun, the DEA's assistant administrator, speaking at a conference on "The Global Impact of Terrorism" in Israel.

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misleading DEA traveling exhibit on drugs and terrorism
The DEA has "linked 18 of the 42 officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) to drug trafficking activities of some sorts," Braun said. The resort to financing political violence through drug trafficking profits is a result of receding state support for terrorism, Braun said, as well as the fact that Al Qaeda has "shifted from a corporate structure to a franchise structure," making its affiliates pay their own way.

Money from the illegal drug trade is funding the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru, Maoist rebels in India, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while various Islamic groups on the terror list are also suspected of profiting from hash and heroin.

With an illicit drug trade estimated at $322 billion annually by the United Nations, the black market dollars are an irresistible source of income for such groups, which may then morph into something resembling traditional drug trafficking organizations. Braun pointed to the FARC, which originated in the 1960s as a leftist guerrilla army as "the case study for this evolution," and estimated its annual revenue from the drug trade at between $500 million and $1 billion each year.

"That's what the Taliban are doing now in Afghanistan," said Braun. "They are taxing farmers, but we have indications that they started providing security. That's what happened to the FARC 15 years ago," he added. "We'll have to deal with more and more hybrid" organizations in the future, Braun told the conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. "When your job takes you to the swamps to hunt snakes, you can end up taking crocs too -- they live in the same place."

What Braun did not say is that this lucrative source of funding for political violence around the world could be effectively dried up by repealing the current global drug prohibition regime enshrined in the UN drug conventions. It is, after all, illicit drugs' status as a prohibited commodity that both makes them extremely valuable and leaves them to be trafficked by violent criminals.

DEA Agent Admits Medical Marijuana Laws Work

This piece in the Providence Journal is remarkable for several reasons. The stories of the real people who benefit from Rhode Island's medical marijuana law are simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. This is required reading for anyone who doesn't understand why medical marijuana advocacy is so important.

One seemingly minor point caught my eye, and raises issues that need to be discussed at the national level:
Anthony Pettigrew, agent for the New England field office of the DEA, said that while marijuana possession is against federal law, "the DEA never targets the sick and dying." The agency is more interested in organized drug traffickers, Pettigrew said. "I've been here for 22 years," he said, and "realistically, I've never seen anyone go to federal jail for possessing a joint."
This is a significant and unusual concession on DEA's part. Pettigrew's argument essentially refutes the typical ONDCP strategy of intimidating patients and legislators in prospective medical marijuana states by arguing that medical users will remain vulnerable under federal law.

If DEA won't arrest patients and state police can't arrest patients, then medical marijuana laws work very well. DEA continues to raid dispensaries in California, but the totality of this activity utterly fails to undermine patient access or the spirit of the state's medical marijuana law. In fact, dispensary raids continue for the sole purpose of obscuring the otherwise obvious benefits of laws that protect patients.

It doesn't matter whether DEA's policy of not arresting patients is motivated by compassion, political sensibilities, funding constraints, or some combination thereof. The fact of the matter is that state laws are effective at protecting medical marijuana users from prosecution, which is their intended purpose. This simple fact demonstrates the importance of these laws, while also revealing how empty and fraudulent the federal government's threats against medical marijuana states truly are.
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Latin America: Nicaraguan Leader Asks for $1 Billion in Anti-Drug Aid

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has asked the US government for $1 billion to help Central American countries fight drug trafficking. Ortega has sent a formal request for funds to buy helicopters, boats, radar equipment and anything else necessary to fight the drugs war in the region.

The request comes only two weeks after Ortega said he didn't trust the DEA because its operations mask "unexpected interests" and "terrible things." Ortega could well have been recalling his first stint at Nicaragua's leaders in the 1980s, when the US attempted to portray his government as drug smugglers while -- at the least -- turning a blind eye to cocaine running operations connected to the US-backed Contra rebels attempting to overthrow his socialist government.

But Nicaraguan governments since 1990, including Ortega's current government, have cooperated with the DEA in the face of cocaine trafficking organizations using the isthmus as a smuggling corridor.

Ortega said US officials had "reacted positively" to his request, although the US government has not commented officially on the matter. "If the United States government has the luxury of spending more than $400 billion on the war in Iraq, it can give $1 billion to Central America," he said.

The US government has provided several billion dollars to the Colombian government to fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas there, and is on the verge on announcing a large anti-drug aid deal with Mexico. Despite his concerns about the DEA and US dislike for his government [Ed: and despite the failure and injustices of the war on drugs and the harm the program will undoubtedly do to people in his country], Ortega seems to want a piece of the anti-drug aid money pie.

Asset Forfeiture: ACLU Sues DEA Over Trucker's Seized Cash

A trucker who lost nearly $24,000 in cash after it was seized by a New Mexico police officer and turned over to the DEA is suing the federal drug agency to get his money back. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) New Mexico affiliate is handling the case. It filed the lawsuit on August 23.

On August 8, truck driver Anastasio Prieto of El Paso was stopped at a weigh station on US Highway 54 just north of El Paso. A police officer there asked for permission to search the truck for "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the ACLU. Prieto said he didn't have any needles, but he was carrying $23,700 in cash. Officers seized the money and turned it over to the DEA, while DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto despite his objections, then released him without charges after he had been detained for six hours. Border Patrol agents sicced drug-sniffing dogs on his truck, but found no evidence of illegal drugs.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the state police and DEA violated Prieto's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure by taking his money without cause and by fingerprinting and photographing him. "Mere possession of approximately $23,700 does not establish probable cause for a search or seizure," the lawsuit said.

DEA agents told Prieto that to get his money back, he would have to prove it was his and not the proceeds of illegal drug sales. That process could take up to a year, the agents said.

But New Mexico ACLU state director Peter Simonson told the Associated Press Prieto needed his money now to pay bills. "The government took Mr. Prieto's money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night," Simonson said. "In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator."

According to the lawsuit, Prieto does not like banks and carries his savings as cash.

That's not a crime. But what the DEA did to him is, or should be.

Feds Raid Wheelchair-bound Paraplegic For Medical Marijuana [Updated]

The federal government is so desperate to undermine New Mexico's new medical marijuana law, they've started arresting harassing handicapped people:
MALAGA, N.M. — Agents with a regional drug task force raided Leonard French’s home in southeastern New Mexico on Tuesday and seized several marijuana plants [Ed., it was actually just 6 seedlings]
But the wheelchair-bound man said he’s certified by the state Health Department to possess and smoke marijuana for medical reasons. The 44-year-old lost the use of his legs about 20 years ago as the result of a motorcycle crash and now suffers from chronic pain and muscle spasms. [Santa Fe New Mexican]
Normally, the DEA would avoid this kind of bad publicity. But since New Mexico's medical marijuana program just started, they're trying to intimidate patients and confuse legislators in other prospective medical marijuana states:
A press release jointly issued by the Pecos Valley Drug Task Force illustrates the political nature of the raid, reading in part, "Citizens of New Mexico need to be aware that they can still be prosecuted on the federal level even though New Mexico has a law permitting marijuana for medicinal use." [DPA]

Drug warriors keep arguing that medical marijuana laws create conflict between state and federal laws, but all they have to do is stop arresting threatening patients and there'd be no problem. They're creating confusion and then citing that confusion as an argument against state laws that protect patients. Meanwhile, sick people like Leonard French are caught in the crossfire, and countless other patients are afraid to try medicine that could help them.

Revealingly, Mr. French has not yet been charged with a crime. You see, DEA is tough enough to arrest wheelchair-bound medical marijuana patients, and even boast about its authority to continue doing so. All of that serves their interest in scaring people and creating doubt as more and more states pass laws to protect their citizens from precisely this sort of foul treatment. But they won't actually try to put him in jail because that would be just hideous.

So the real message here, for those reading between the lines, is that the feds aren't always going to enforce federal law. And that tells you everything you need to know about the debate over medical marijuana. This is all a big stupid publicity stunt, and while there are casualties to be sure (getting arrested and losing your medicine does suck), the whole "conflict with federal law" argument is largely a hoax.

Regardless, we cannot tolerate any federal efforts to scare people out of treating their illnesses with doctor recommended medicine that is legal in their state. That is obscene, and it's no surprise presidential candidates are lining up in opposition to it.

Update: My mistake. Leonard French wasn't taken into custody, so "arrested" was the wrong way to describe what happened to him. I've updated the post accordingly. It's important, because patients in New Mexico should understand that you're not in any great danger if you choose to participate in the medical marijuana program. I should have been more careful about this, because I certainly don't want to perpetuate these intimidation tactics. The fact that he wasn't even arrested is significant.

Location: 
United States

It's Time for Medical Marijuana "Plan B"

Did you know that along with raiding medical marijuana clinics and prosecuting people, the DEA is actually blocking research into medical marijuana too -- research that if allowed to take place could lead to marijuana's approval as a medicine through the FDA? Yet at the very same time, DEA hypocritically cites a lack of research as justification for keeping medical marijuana illegal! Most recently, DEA has stalled an application from the University of Massachusetts to grow research-grade marijuana in a secure facility for FDA- and DEA-approved medical studies. Though DEA's own Administrative Law Judge has said it should be approved, we expect them to show bad faith and reject it -- after waiting as long as they can -- unless they are pressured to do otherwise. A group of US Representatives is preparing to send a sign-on letter to the DEA, next month, for just that purpose. Please visit our web site to write your member of Congress asking him or her to sign on! We encourage you to personalize your email. When you're done, please forward this alert to everyone you know who might support it too. Thank you for your help on this -- and thanks to the thousands of you who used our site to lobby for the Hinchey medical marijuana amendment last fall too. With your help, we believe that this "Plan B" will help get us closer to the goal. (Click here to read the text of the Congressional sign-on letter on the MAPS web site, and click here to read the results of this summer's Hinchey medical marijuana vote on ours.)
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MPP: Help stop DEA obstruction of medical marijuana research

Would it surprise you to learn that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is refusing to allow medical marijuana research to move forward — despite a clear recommendation from its own administrative law judge to let such research happen?

If you’re like me, this will be just the latest outrage from the same agency that insists on terrorizing and arresting medical marijuana patients and providers who are complying with state law and their doctors’ advice.

Would you please take one minute to ask your U.S. House member to direct the DEA to permit medical marijuana research to move forward? MPP’s online action center has done all the work for you; just click a few buttons and your letter will be sent.

(Congress provides the DEA with 100% of its funding — all of it taxpayer money — so the DEA is more likely to listen to members of Congress than just about anyone else.)

In February of this year, DEA Administrative Law Judge Mary Bittner recommended that Professor Lyle Craker and the University of Massachusetts be granted a license to grow research-grade marijuana that would be used in FDA- and DEA-approved clinical studies into marijuana’s therapeutic uses, noting that it would be “in the public interest” to do so. But the DEA has ignored her recommendation and continued to block the research.

And earlier this month, during a hearing before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, DEA official Joseph Rannazzisi refused to commit to a timeline for ruling on the University of Massachusetts’ application ... even implying that the DEA might just wait until after a new presidential administration takes power in January 2009!

This is the height of hypocrisy. The DEA continually cites insufficient research as a reason for keeping medical marijuana illegal — while simultaneously blocking the very research that’s needed to persuade the FDA to approve marijuana as a prescription medicine.

How can the DEA hide behind the FDA in arguing against medical marijuana access, and then block any attempt to move marijuana through the FDA approval process?

Would you please take one minute to ask your U.S. House member to stop letting politics interfere with research into the medicinal value of marijuana?

Thank you,

Rob Kampia
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Obama: What New Orleans Needs is More Drug War

When Barack Obama speaks of "change," he's not talking about the war on drugs. He likes it just fine the way it is. Obama's faith in the drug war is so strong, he even thinks it can help revitalize New Orleans:
If elected, Mr. Obama said he would establish a Drug Enforcement Agency office in New Orleans that would be dedicated to stopping drug gangs across the region. [NYTimes]

Mr. Senator, the drug war causes crime, it doesn't prevent it. The problem is not, and has never been, a lack of drug law enforcement. New Orleans already has a DEA office and it has not made life any easier for anyone. It should go without saying that increased drug activity in the region is a result of economic disorder, which inevitably empowers the black market. Bringing in the feds might disrupt local drug networks temporarily, but that would merely increase violence as new dealers take over for their fallen competitors.

As we've documented in the Drug War Chronicle, Katrina revealed the frailty of Louisiana's drug war-ravaged criminal justice system. It is precisely in the aftermath of a great catastrophe like Katrina that the ridiculous quest to stop people from getting high is revealed as utterly wasteful and counter-productive.

Obama's drug war revitalization plan for New Orleans is the latest step in his successful bid to be the worst on drug policy among the democratic presidential contenders. He's lamented the "political capital" required to repair the despicable crack/powder sentencing disparity, a no-brainer racial justice issue that even drug war hall-of-famer Joe Biden wants to fix. At Howard University's Democratic Debate on minority issues, he stood there like an idiot while every other candidate managed to address some type of criminal justice reform. He was also the last democratic candidate to pledge an end to federal medical marijuana raids, and not because they're heartless and evil, but because they're "not a good use of resources."

Well, Barack Obama, you know what else is a poor use of resources? Creating a second DEA office in New Orleans when people still have holes in their roofs and mud in their basements.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
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Latin America: Nicaraguan President Warns of DEA's "Unexpected Interests" and "Terrible Things"

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said Monday he does not trust the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) because its operations hide "unexpected interests" and "terrible things." Ortega did not elaborate, but he undoubtedly has keen memories of the DEA and the Reagan administration attempting to portray his Sandinista government in the 1980s as major drug traffickers while the CIA and Oliver North were, at best, turning a blind eye to cocaine running operations funding the US-backed anti-Sandinista Contra rebels.

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Daniel Ortega (courtesy Wikimedia)
"You have to be careful with the DEA. You can't be blind," Ortega said in remarks during the celebration of the Nicaraguan Navy's 27th anniversary. "We have to wage the war against drugs, but don't come to us with stories about involving your Cobra helicopters and troops," Ortega said, apparently addressing the US government. "The best combatant is the Nicaraguan soldier."

The Ortega government has cooperated with the DEA. Nicaraguan soldiers seized more than 6,100 pounds of cocaine with DEA collaboration in the past year. Ortega said he would continue cooperating with the DEA in order take advantage of the agency's technology and experience.

But with one eye on Colombia, where hundreds of US soldiers and mercenaries are stationed as part of the US counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency effort there, and one eye on Mexico, which is apparently about to reach a major counter-narcotics assistance agreement with Washington, Ortega is signaling that such a massive US intervention would not be welcome in Nicaragua.

Feature: In Strategy Shift, US Troops to Join Battle Against Opium in Afghanistan

The United States military is melding counterinsurgency with counternarcotics missions in Afghanistan in what officials called "a basic strategy shift" in its Afghan campaign. Up until now, the US military has shied away from anti-drug operations in Afghanistan, leaving them to the DEA, the British, and Afghan authorities in a bid to avoid alienating Afghan peasant populations dependent on the poppy crop for an income.

But with Afghan opium production at an all-time high last year and predicted to go even higher this year -- Afghanistan accounted for 92% of the global opium supply in 2006 and will account for close to 100% this year--despite nearly a billion dollars in US anti-drug aid, officials in Washington have decided after long discussion that the Afghan drug war must be ratcheted up.

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(source: state.gov/p/inl/rls/rpt/90561.htm)
US officials are increasingly concerned about links between drug traffickers, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda militants, especially in southeastern Afghanistan, where both the insurgency and poppy production are most deeply rooted. Some 70 US soldiers, 69 NATO soldiers, and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers, Taliban fighters, and Afghan civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, the third year of the Taliban resurgence.

The new policy was announced in a new report US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan released last week and rolled out at an August 9 State Department briefing by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP--the drug czar's office) head John Walters and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Thomas Schweich.

"We know that opium, maybe second only to terror, is a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan," said Walters. "The efforts by the Afghan people to build institutions of justice and rule of law are threatened not only by the terror, but the drug forces that are both economic, addictive and, of course, support in some cases terror, not only through money, but through influence and moving people away from the structures of government toward the structures of drug mafias and violence," he said.

The new strategy is a combination of carrots and sticks, heavily weighted toward the sticks. Out of the $700 million budgeted for anti-drug activities this year, only about $120 million to $150 million will go to alternative development, with the remainder dedicated to eradication, interdiction, building up the Afghan criminal justice system, and going after high-level traffickers.

Some $30 million will go to farming communities that agree to give up poppy production, but this is a pittance compared to the $3.1 billion the trade is estimated to be worth, or even the roughly $700 million estimated to end up in the hands of peasant farmers. While most of the incentive money will go to the north, where production is down, the more Taliban-friendly east and southeast will get forced eradication and increased efforts to go after high-level traffickers. Ambassador Schweicher qualified the tougher approach as "substantially harsher discincentives" for those areas. And the US military will be involved.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the State Department report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."

What exactly that means remains unclear. At the August 9 briefing, Walters dodged repeated questions about the exact nature of US military involvement. "We expect a more permissive environment for these operations, given the plans and commitments here," Walters said. "Again, what -- your question was what counter-narcotics operations is the military going to do. That's not what this is doing, is saying the military is going to become the eradication force or the interdiction force. What we're going to do is create -- we've now created, we believe, the structures to allow counter-narcotics operations, whether they're arrests of people by Afghans, whether they're interdiction, whether they're eradication to be integrated into the security effort that's going on."

It might work, but there are gigantic obstacles in the way, said Raheem Yaseer of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Improving the security situation is critical, said Yaseer.

"The bombers and the Talibans are crossing the border from Pakistan with all these weapons and getting across the checkpoints and getting in among the villagers, where they shoot at the allied forces. Then the allies bomb the villages, and that creates a lot of resentment, and the people won't listen to the allies," he said. "The US can track a bullet crossing the border, but they can't find the Talibans," he said, a note of frustration in his voice.

Alternative development could attract peasant farmers if the security situation were stabilized, he said. "It's the bigger warlords and drug lords who are the problem," Yaseer argued. "And yes, there are some high government officials, big shots, involved in drug trafficking, too. All of them have been nourished by this money for years and don't want to see it go away. But ordinary people would be satisfied with a little money because they know growing poppies is condemned by their tradition and religion."

Endemic corruption is another problem. Even anti-drug aid and alternative development assistance is likely to be siphoned off, said Yaseer. "The corruption is very deep, and a lot of money will vanish into people's pockets. You have to watch the people at the top, too, or it won't be effective," he said. "You'll only be spending money uselessly."

Congressional leaders called the new strategy a "welcome recognition" that new initiatives had to be hatched to address the Afghan opium problem, but worried that it wasn't enough. "What the plan lacks is the recognition that Afghanistan is approaching a crisis point, and that immediate action is required to eliminate the threat of drug kingpins and cartels allied with terrorists so we can reverse the country's steady slide into a potential failed narco-state," said House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a statement responding to the new strategy.

Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen aren't the only members of Congress concerned. Others have called for an entirely different approach. Following the lead of the French defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council, which has been calling since 2005 for licensing the poppy crop, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has suggested licensing Afghan farmers to grow the crop for legal pain medications, similar to the way the international community diminished the drug trafficking problem in India and Turkey. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) has suggested the US buy opium crops from the farmers and destroy them. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) has suggested switching the focus away from poor farmers and toward disrupting the cartels that are moving the drugs.

But the drug czar and the State Department explicitly rejected licensing as an impractical "silver bullet" that would not work and have similarly rejected proposals to buy up the crop. And they will definitely be going after poor farmers as well as high-level traffickers.

But more of the same isn't going to do the trick, said the Drug Policy Alliance. "The so-called 'carrot and stick' approach has failed in every country it has been tried in, including our own," said Bill Piper, the group's director of national affairs. "As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply to meet it. Drug prohibition makes plants more valuable than gold."

More of the same may even make matters worse, Piper argued. "The US is dangerously close to turning Afghanistan into the next Iraq," said Piper. "Forced eradication of opium crops is driving poor Afghans into the hands of our enemies, strengthening the Taliban, and feeding the insurgency there. The war on drugs is undermining the war on terror and pushing Afghanistan to the brink of civil war."

The Bush administration has belatedly figured out it has a very serious problem in Afghanistan. The question now is whether this vigorous new strategy will calm the situation or only inflame it.

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