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"The potent smell of marijuana legalization is in the air"

This report from CBS News is a perfect example of how much the debate has changed. The story itself is great (a revealing look into the unimpressive origins of our marijuana laws), but it's the packaging and context that jumped out at me.

(CBS)  This story was written by Charles Cooper and Declan McCullagh as part of a new special report on the evolving debate over marijuana legalization in the U.S. Click here for more of the series, Marijuana Nation: The New War Over Weed

The giant "Marijuana Nation" banner at the top of the page is emblematic of the mainstream media's sudden fascination with marijuana legalization. Unsurprisingly, the story is pulling huge web traffic thanks to, whose visitors love stories about legalizing marijuana.

It took a long time, but the press has finally picked up on the fact that skeptical drug war reporting is extremely popular with the public. That simple concept appears to be reshaping and amplifying the drug policy debate right before our eyes.

Feature: Censorship in California -- MPP Marijuana Ad Campaign Hits Bumps as Stations Reject It

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) kicked off a TV ad campaign aimed at gaining support for a California marijuana legalization bill in the legislature on Wednesday, but ran into problems with several TV stations around the state, which either rejected the ad outright or just ignored MPP efforts to place it. Still, the spots are up and running on other Golden State stations.

Playing on California's budget crisis -- the state is $26 billion in the hole and currently issuing IOUs to vendors and laying off state workers -- the 30-second spots feature middle-aged suburban Sacramento housewife Nadene Herndon, who tells the camera:

"Sacramento says huge cuts to schools, health care, and police are inevitable due to the state's budget crisis. Even the state's parks could be closed. But the governor and the legislature are ignoring millions of Californians who want to pay taxes. We're marijuana consumers. Instead of being treated like criminals for using a substance safer than alcohol, we want to pay our fair share. Taxes from California's marijuana industry could pay the salaries of 20,000 teachers. Isn't it time?"

As Herndon finishes speaking, the words "Tax and regulate marijuana" appear on the screen, as well as a link to Clicking on that link actually takes you to MPP's "MPP of California" web page.

"I'm a medical marijuana user," Herndon told the Chronicle. "I was at Oaksterdam University with my husband looking at some classes, and the chancellor [Richard Lee] came out and said I would be perfect for an ad they were thinking about. I talked to my husband, and he said maybe I should do it. It is a cause near and dear to my heart, so I did," she said.

The response from acquaintances has been very positive, she said. "I've gotten lots of positive messages, and a few who are worried for my safety or that my house might be vandalized," said Herndon. "I have gotten a couple of odd phone calls, though, so I've changed my number."

The spots are aimed at creating public support for AB 390, a bill introduced in February by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). That bill would legalize the adult possession of marijuana and set up a system of taxed and regulated cultivation and sales.

The bill and the ad campaign come as support for marijuana legalization is on the rise in California. A recent Field poll showed support at 56%. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone on the record saying that legalization needs to be discussed. And, thanks to the state's medical marijuana laws, millions of Californians can see with their own eyes what a regime of legal marijuana sales might look like.

It would appear that marijuana legalization is a legitimate political topic in California, but that's not what a number of the state's major market TV stations think. At least six stations have rejected or ignored the ads. Oakland NBC affiliate KTVU and San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO declined to air the ad, as did San Jose NBC affiliate KNTV. Three Los Angeles stations, KABC, Fox affiliate KTTV, and KTLA also refused to air the ad.

KGO told MPP that they "weren't comfortable" with the spot, while KNTV said only that "standards rejected the spot." KABC claimed the ad "promotes marijuana use."

But while some local stations have balked, the ad is running on stations in Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, as well as on MSNBC, CNBC, and CNN, via California cable operators.

"We are astonished that major California TV stations chose to censor a discussion that Governor Schwarzenegger has said our state should have on an issue supported by 56% of voters, according to the Field poll," said Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director. "The two million Californians who use marijuana in a given month deserve to have their voices heard -- and their tax dollars should help solve the fiscal emergency that threatens our schools, police and parks."

"That those stations would refuse to run the ad is appalling," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "This wasn't something we expected; this wasn't a stunt to get press coverage. This was intentionally a very innocuous ad."

Mirken took special umbrage at KABC's suggestion that the ad "promotes marijuana use." "It's a really tortured reading of that ad to claim that," he said. "The ad is simply recognizing the reality that there are lots of marijuana consumers out there unable to pay taxes on their purchases because we have consigned marijuana to a criminal underground," he said.

Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington, told the Huffington Post that while the refusals don't "implicate the First Amendment from a legal standpoint," she believes the practice "undermines a core principle underlying the First Amendment: that the strength of a democracy flows from the exchange of ideas."

As Holcomb noted, the various stations' refusal to accept the ad is not a First amendment violation in the strict sense -- no governmental entity is suppressing MPP's right to seek air time to run its ad, and the stations are within their legal rights to refuse it. But the effect is to suppress MPP's ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and MPP smells a double standard.

"When the governor of the state has said we ought to have this debate, it would seem to mean letting all sides air their views," said Mirken. "Pretty much all of these stations that rejected our ad have aired ONDCP anti-marijuana ads, which are often blatantly dishonest, so they are effectively taking sides in the argument. That feels fundamentally unfair."

The battle continues. As of Thursday, MPP was effectively shut out of the Los Angeles market, except for the cable news networks. But Mirken said he hoped to have the ad on the air there by the weekend.

Ashley Kennedy, Journalist

Journalist Ashley Kennedy informs the audience of recent political events in the United States.

Mario Menendez, !Por Esto! Newspaper

Mario Menendez is the publisher of the Yucatan's newspaper !Por Esto! He was sued in New York City along with Narco News' Al Giordano, for libel in what now is considered the famous "Drug War on Trial" case. Part 1 of 5: Part 2 of 5: Part 3 of 5: Part 4 of 5: Part 5 of 5:

Al Giordano,

Al Giordano is the founder and publisher of Narco News, an online newspaper reporting on the drug war and democracy from Latin America. He is also the president of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism.

Boring Drug War Reporting From the Mainstream Press

Last week, the UN released a major report that, for the first time, acknowledges and condemns the growing movement to legalize drugs, while simultaneously endorsing decriminalization for many drug crimes. No matter what your views on drug policy may be, it's remarkable that the UN is jumping headfirst into the legalization debate. It's equally notable that they're calling on countries around the world to reconsider policies of arresting users for small amounts of drugs.

Tragically, however, reporters at the Associated Press and USA Today somehow managed to take this groundbreaking report and turn it into something far less interesting. Both stories focus almost entirely on fluctuations in illicit drug production, which should be perfectly predictable by now to anyone who's followed international drug policy over a period of years. It's worth mentioning, but there's nothing new or exciting about it, particularly in the context of a report that was otherwise overflowing with controversial, politically-charged content.

Both stories buried the report's discussion of decriminalization, with USA Today's Donna Leinwand even managing to withhold mention of it until the very last line. What could have been a thought-provoking story about the international drug war leadership calling for fewer drug arrests was instead just another annual accounting of the drug war's progress (or lack thereof).

The point here isn't that an avowed partisan such as myself wants more media coverage that's favorable to my views. Of course I do. But my own prejudices notwithstanding, it's just a fact that the political focus of this report was unprecedented and powerfully newsworthy. The document literally begins on its first page with a heated discussion of how controversial the drug war has become, yet AP and USA Today failed to even mention this central theme of the report.

It's not a matter of taking sides, but rather simply acknowledging controversy when that's a major dimension of the story. It's in your interest to do this. The vigorous political debate that now surrounds the war on drugs is the easily the most effective angle for attracting readership to your drug policy coverage. Ironically, Leinwand's USA Today piece has links at the top of the page encouraging readers to submit the story to news aggregator sites including Digg and Reddit, which can exponentially increase your traffic. And guess what kinds of stories Digg and Reddit users are looking for. It's hilarious to find USA Today deliberately courting traffic from online communities that are obsessed with drug policy reform, while simultaneously ignoring the hooks that appeal to those audiences. Framing the story around the topics of legalization and decriminalization wouldn’t just have been appropriate under the circumstances, it would have made for a better headline, more links, discussion and traffic.

If you don’t believe me, write the story I'm suggesting and watch it outperform your initial coverage. I dare you.

Wall Street Journal Thinks Americans Still Love the Drug War

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal interview with new drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is generating discussion due to Kerlikowske's statement that we must move beyond the "war on drugs" analogy. But Gary Fields's piece also included a dubious assumption that shouldn’t escape notice:

Mr. Kerlikowske's comments are a signal that the Obama administration is set to follow a more moderate -- and likely more controversial -- stance on the nation's drug problems. Prior administrations talked about pushing treatment and reducing demand while continuing to focus primarily on a tough criminal-justice approach.

This is controversial? There is no evidence of that. In fact, everywhere you look, you'll see a changing political climate with regards to drug policy:

1. Obama made repeated statements in favor of various drug policy reforms on the campaign trail, including support for medical marijuana, treatment over incarceration, needle exchange, and fixing the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity. In a hard-fought campaign, these were among his least controversial positions.

2. Support for legalizing marijuana is surging in America, currently polling as high as 52%. Since taking office, Obama's biggest controversy with regards to drug policy was his statement in opposition to legalizing marijuana.

3. A recent Zogby poll found that 76% of Americans believe the war on drugs has failed. This view was held by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

The idea that there's anything controversial about moving towards a more moderate drug policy is just false on its face. The opposite is true. Americans are tired of the "tough criminal justice approach" and they elected a president who said he'd bring a new perspective to this issue.

If anything, it would have made more sense to say these policy shifts will most likely make our drug policy less controversial. Certainly, that's what Kerlikowske expects by making these conciliatory remarks. He's pandering to the growing public sentiment that the drug war is getting out of hand. Seriously, why on earth would anyone expect controversy over this? To the contrary, people find it reassuring, which is exactly why the White House is framing it this way. I thought that was obvious.

Thus, with this one seemingly harmless quip, "likely more controversial," the WSJ ends up missing the entire point of the story and utterly misdiagnosing what Kerlikowske represents. Public attitudes about the war on drugs are changing, thereby forcing our political leadership to begin implementing certain popular reforms while generally reframing the entire issue.

Any questions?

Feature: Marijuana Reform Approaches the Tipping Point

Sometime in the last few months, the notion of legalizing marijuana crossed an invisible threshold. Long relegated to the margins of political discourse by the conventional wisdom, pot freedom has this year gone mainstream.
Is reason dawning for marijuana policy?
The potential flu pandemic and President Obama's 100th day in office may have knocked marijuana off the front pages this week, but so far this year, the issue has exploded in the mass media, impelled by the twin forces of economic crisis and Mexican violence fueled by drug prohibition. A Google news search for the phrase "legalize marijuana" turned up more than 1,100 hits -- and that's just for the month of April.

It has been helped along by everything from the Michael Phelps non-scandal to the domination of marijuana legalization questions in the questions, which prompted President Obama to laugh off the very notion, to the economy, to the debate over the drug war in Mexico. But it has also been ineffably helped along by the lifting of the oppressive burden of Bush administration drug war dogma. There is a new freedom in the air when it comes to marijuana.

Newspaper columnists and editorial page writers from across the land have taken up the cause with gusto, as have letter writers and bloggers. Last week, even a US senator got into the act, when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) told CNN that marijuana legalization is "on the table."

But despite the seeming explosion of interest in marijuana legalization, the actual fact of legalization seems as distant as ever, a distant vision obscured behind a wall of bureaucracy, vested interests, and craven politicians. Drug War Chronicle spoke with some movement movers and shakers to find out just what's going on... and what's not.

"There is clearly more interest and serious discussion of whether marijuana prohibition makes any sense than I've seen at any point in my adult lifetime," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not just the usual suspects; it's people like Jack Cafferty on CNN and Senator Jim Webb, as well as editorial pages and columnists across the country."

Mirken cited a number of factors for the sudden rise to prominence of the marijuana issue. "I think it's a combination of things: Michael Phelps, the horrible situation on the Mexican border, the state of the economy and the realization that there is a very large industry out there that provides marijuana to millions of consumers completely outside the legal economy that is untaxed and unregulated," he said. "All of these factors have come together in a way that makes it much easier for people to connect the dots."

"Things started going white hot in the second week of January," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We had the fallout from the Michael Phelps incident, the marijuana question to Obama and his chuckling response, we have the Mexico violence, we have the economic issues," he counted. "All of these things have helped galvanize a certain zeitgeist that is palpable and that almost everyone can appreciate."

"The politicians are still very slow on picking up on the desires of citizens no matter how high the polling numbers go, especially on decriminalization and medical marijuana," said St. Pierre. "The polling numbers are over 70% for those, and support for legalization nationwide is now at about 42%, depending on which data set you use. Everything seems to be breaking for reform in these past few weeks, and I expect those numbers to only go up."

"It feels like we're reaching the tipping point," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "I've been feeling that for a couple of months now. The Michael Phelps incident sent a clear message that you can be successful and still have used marijuana. He's still a hero to lots of people," she said.

"I think we're getting close now," said Langston. "We have moved the conversation to the next level, where people are actually taking this seriously and we're not just having another fear-based discussion."

"There is definitely momentum building around marijuana issues," said Denver-based Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), which has built a successful strategy around comparing alcohol and marijuana. "Yet we still find ourselves in a situation where change is not happening. Up until now, people have made arguments around criminal justice savings, other economic benefits, ending the black market -- those things have got us to where we are today, but they haven't been enough to get elected officials to act," he argued.

"The problem is that there are still far too many people who see marijuana as so harmful it shouldn't be legalized," Tvert continued. "That suggests we need to be doing more to address the relative safety of marijuana, especially compared to drugs like alcohol. The good arguments above will then carry more weight. Just as a concerned parent doesn't want to reap the tax benefits of legal heroin, it's the same with marijuana. The mantra is why provide another vice. What we're saying is that we're providing an alternative for the millions who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol."

With the accumulation of arguments for legalization growing ever weightier, the edifice of marijuana prohibition seems increasingly shaky. "Marijuana prohibition has become like the Soviet Empire circa 1987 or 1988," Mirken analogized. "It's an empty shell of a policy that continues only because it is perceived as being huge and formidable, but when the perception changes, the whole thing is going to collapse."

Still, translating the zeitgeist into real change remains a formidable task, said Mirken. "It is going to take hard work. All of us need to keep finding ways to keep these discussions going in the media, we need to work with open-minded legislators to get bills introduced where there can be hearings to air the facts and where we can refute the nonsense that comes from our opponents. Keeping the debate front and center is essential," he said.

Mirken is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "We have to be prepared for an empire strikes back moment," he said. "I predict that within the next year, there will be a concerted effort to scare the daylights out of people about marijuana."

Activists need to keep hammering away at both the federal government and state and local governments, Mirken said. "We are talking to members of Congress and seeing what might be doable. Even if nothing passes immediately, introducing a bill can move the discussion forward, but realistically, things are more likely to happen at the state and local level," he said, citing the legalization bill in California and hinting that MPP would try legalization in Nevada again.

Part of the problem of the mismatch between popular fervor and actual progress on reform is partisan positioning, said St. Pierre. "Even politicians who may be personally supportive and can appreciate what they see going on around them as this goes mainstream do not want to hand conservative Republicans a triangulation issue. The Democrats are begging for a certain degree of political maturity from the reform movement," he said. "They're dealing with two wars, tough economic times, trying to do health care reform. They don't want to raise cannabis to a level where it becomes contentious for Obama."

The window of opportunity for presidential action is four years down the road, St. Pierre suggested. "If Obama doesn't do anything next year, they will then be in reelection mode and unlikely to act," he mused. "I think our real shot comes after he is reelected. Then we have two years before he becomes a lame duck."

But we don't have to wait for Obama, said St. Pierre. "We expect Barney Frank and Ron Paul to reintroduce decriminalization and medical marijuana bills," he said. "I don't think they will pass this year, but we might get hearings, although I don't think that's likely until the fall."

It's not just that politicians need to understand that supporting marijuana legalization will not hurt them -- they need to understand that standing its way will. "The politicians aren't feeling the pain of being opposed to remain," St. Pierre said. "We have to take out one of those last remaining drug war zealots."

Drug Legalization Cited During Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer Interview, Then Edited Out

With the help of our intern, Stacia Cosner of SSDP fame, we put together this short video last week:

Feature: Drug Reformers Boycott Kellogg Cereals Over Dumping of Michael Phelps Over Bong Photo

Mixing equal parts genuine outrage and political calculation, major elements of the drug reform movement have begun a national boycott of cereal giant Kellogg over its treatment of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. Phelps was famously caught holding a bong in a photograph that surfaced last week, leading Kellogg to refuse to renew his endorsement contract.
Michael Phelps
So far, Kellogg stands alone in dumping Phelps. Other corporations with which he had endorsement deals, such as Subway, have stood by him. He has been handed a three-month suspension by Colorado Springs-based USA Swimming , which is now under attack for its treatment of the Olympic champion by the Colorado activists of Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), led by Mason Tvert.

In a statement last week, the Michigan-based Kellogg said Phelps' behavior was "not consistent with the image of Kellogg." Oddly enough, Kellogg did not have a problem with Phelps' 2004 conviction for drunk driving. As recently as last fall, Kellogg's was touting its partnership with the hero of the Beijing Olympics.

"Michael's commitment to encouraging healthy lifestyles, especially among children, is in line with our many programs that educate consumers and promote good nutrition," said Brad Davidson, president of Kellogg North America. "He demonstrates that winning is not just about the glory that comes with gold medals, but that it's also about good sportsmanship, eating right, working hard and being your best."

Kellogg did not respond to Drug War Chronicle calls and emails this week requesting comment.

As the Phelps affair rocketed through the media -- it has been the subject of countless mass media reports, sports columns, and blog postings -- anger over Kellogg's treatment of the talented swimmer percolated through the drug reform community, as well as among marijuana aficionados everywhere.

"Kellogg's dismissal of Phelps is hypocritical and disgusting, and our members are angrier than I've ever seen them," said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) executive director Rob Kampia. "Kellogg's had no problem signing up Phelps when he had a conviction for drunk driving, an illegal act that could actually have killed someone. To drop him for choosing to relax with a substance that's safer than beer is an outrage, and it sends a dangerous message to young people," he said.

"Kellogg is telling young people that drunk driving is okay, but using a social relaxant that's safer than beer gets you fired," Kampia continued. "That's not just outrageous, it's potentially lethal. We all know that boycotts are difficult to pull off, but the 100 million Americans who've made marijuana this nation's number one cash crop represent a lot of buying power -- buying power that Kellogg may wish it hadn't alienated."

MPP is by no means alone. In a coordinated effort, groups including the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and have endorsed the boycott.

And it isn't just the "pro-pot lobby," as some media have referred to the reform groups, that is upset. Kellogg was so inundated with calls complaining about its decision to dump Phelps that it had to set up a special phone line to handle them all. The Kellogg Phelps line was getting so many calls it was listed above the line for dealing with questions about salmonella-tainted peanut butter products.

''If you would like to share your comments regarding our relationship with Michael Phelps, please press one to speak to a representative,'' said the recording. ''If you're calling about the recent peanut butter recall, please press two now.''

Boycotts are iffy things; their success depends not only on mobilizing consumers to act, but also on the willingness of the target to be influenced. The groups involved in the boycott said they understood the chances of persuading Kellogg to reverse its decision were not great, but that helping Phelps regain his lucrative endorsement deal was not the only reason for the action.

"We are trying to bring attention to the fact that Michael Phelps has committed an act that millions and millions of Americans have committed," said Amber Langston, SSDP eastern region outreach director, who noted that about 25,000 people had signed on to the group's petition -- begun before the Kellogg announcement -- urging that Phelps not be barred from Olympic competition. "He's still a hero, he's not a bad person, and he doesn't deserve to be punished. Our students have really mobilized to let Kellogg know how we feel."

The Phelps bong brouhaha and the South Carolina arrests of students attending the party where he was photographed could have a silver lining, Langston said. "Those arrests were completely ridiculous, but some good could come of all this by bringing attention to the fact that people are being needlessly punished. Phelps should not be arrested, and neither should the people who were there with him."

Langston may be on to something. Media coverage of the affair has been remarkable in that it has sparked more coming out of the closet as pot smokers than ever before and notable for the mocking tone about the hand-wringing over Phelp's bong photo and marijuana in general.

"This has struck a nerve like never before," said DPA's Ethan Nadelmann. "It is a case of overreach that provides an opportunity for the movement," he said. "When you look at the overwhelming majority of responses to this, it was give me a break, we have a president who smoked pot, enough with this hypocrisy. They are trying to say this sends the wrong message to the kids, but this is a guy who brought home a dozen gold medals."

Kellogg's decision to dump Phelps provided a rare opening for the reform movement, said Nadelmann. It's easier to pressure a corporation than a government, he noted.

"One of the challenges we face in drug policy reform," said Nadelmann, "is that we don't often have the option of targeting corporations doing bad things because we are mostly opposed to government -- not corporate -- policies. But this is an easy case. Also, Kellogg is a very prominent company, and it is helpful to be able to go after a visible target. And to be able to say that millions of Americans will no longer be turning to Kellogg when they have the munchies is a laugh line, but it's also true."

"The boycott call gives us a venue to really put the issue in perspective and talk about why marijuana prohibition is harmful and counterproductive," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "It's a way to put the issue out into the public discussion. Nobody would care if this guy was photographed holding a martini or a bottle of beer, yet there is all this uproar despite there being no dispute that alcohol is the more dangerous drug."

And it's working, Mirken said. "We're a bit blown away by the intensity of the media attention around this. We've been doing radio interviews literally all day, and we have more scheduled for tonight," he said Wednesday. "Even if we don't change Kellogg's position -- and we know that effective boycotts are difficult -- this gives us a huge opportunity to educate the public about the fact that the laws don't make any sense."

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