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Feature: UN Anti-Drug Agency Complains Latin American Decriminalization Trend Undermines Prohibition Regime

In its annual report on countries' compliance with the global drug prohibition regime, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) challenged the trend toward the decriminalization of drug possession in Latin America, saying it undermines the three international treaties that define the international framework for drug prohibition. Critics were quick to strike back, saying the INCB was overstepping its boundaries.

Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the INCB is charged with being the "nattering nanny" of the global prohibition regime. It "identifies weaknesses in national and international control systems and contributes to correcting such situations."

Its powers are primarily rhetorical, and it used them in the annual report to lash out at creeping decriminalization in the Western Hemisphere:

The Board notes with concern that in countries in South America, such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia (and in countries in North America, such as Mexico and the United States), there is a growing movement to decriminalize the possession of controlled drugs, in particular cannabis, for personal use. Regrettably, influential personalities, including former high-level politicians in countries in South America, have publicly expressed their support for that movement. The Board is concerned that the movement, if not resolutely countered by the respective Governments, will undermine national and international efforts to combat the abuse of and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs. In any case, the movement poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public.

Brazil quasi-decriminalized drug possession in 2006 (drug users are still charged, but cannot be sentenced to jail terms), a series of Argentine court decisions in recent years culminating in a Supreme Court decision last year has decriminalized marijuana position (and implies the looming decriminalization of the possession of any drug), and Mexico last year decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drug for personal use. In addition, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 13 US states.

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The "influential personalities" to whom the INCB critically referred, include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Carlos Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, as members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy last year issued a report highly critical of the US-led war on drugs in the region. That report called on the US to decriminalize marijuana possession and treat drug use as a public health -- not a criminal -- matter. To that list could be added former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who just this week reiterated his call for a debate on drug legalization (See related story here.)

While the former presidents have yet to respond to the INCB's critique, non-governmental organizations working in the field have come out swinging. They accuse the INCB of overstepping its bounds and attempting to block necessary and desirable drug law reforms.

"There are too many consumers and small-time drug offenders overcrowding Latin American jails. This is not only inhumane, it also means justice systems are diverting their scarce resources and attention away from big traffickers," said Pien Metaal, Drugs and Democracy Program Researcher for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI). "Part of the overcrowding problem stems from disproportionate prison sentences for nonviolent offenders."

Decriminalization has not been shown to increase drug use. Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use nine years ago, and its usage rates are squarely in the middle of European averages. Similarly, the Dutch experience with de facto personal legalization has not led to Dutch usage rates outside the European norm, nor are marijuana usage rates in American states where it is decriminalized substantially different from those where it is not.

John Walsh, head of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticized the INCB for "reminding" governments that the treaties require that drug possession be criminalized. "Apparently it's the INCB that needs reminding, both about the limits of its own role and about what the treaties actually require," said Walsh. "Not only does the INCB lack the mandate to raise such issues, the INCB misreads the 1988 Convention itself, asserting an absolute obligation to criminalize drug possession when the Convention explicitly affords some flexibility on this matter."

Walsh noted that while the 1988 Convention requires each party to "establish as a criminal offence [...] the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption," an article within the convention explicitly states that such laws are subject to each country's "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system." Thus, he argued, countries have "a certain latitude" within the global prohibition regime to reform their drug laws.

"In the case of the Argentine Supreme Court ruling, it is arrogant interference by the INCB to question the judgment of the highest judicial authority of a sovereign State. The INCB has neither the mandate nor the expertise to challenge such a decision," said Martin Jelsma, TNI Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator.

The INCB also expressed its concern about medical marijuana in Canada:

Canada continues to be one of the few countries in the world that allows cannabis to be prescribed by doctors to patients with certain serious illnesses. […] Until 2009, cannabis could be either obtained from a Government supplier or grown in small amounts by the patient, or a person designated by the patient, with the sole limitation that only one patient could be supplied by a licensed supplier. In 2009, following court decisions stipulating that that approach unjustifiably restricted the patient's access to cannabis used for medical purposes, the Government increased the number of cultivation licenses a person could hold from one to two. The Government intends to reassess the program for controlling medical access to cannabis. According to article 23 of the 1961 Convention, a party to the Convention, if it is to allow the licit cultivation of cannabis, must fulfill specific requirements, including the establishment of a national cannabis agency to which all cannabis growers must deliver their crops. […] The Board therefore requests the Government to respect the provisions of article 23.

But as with the case of the decriminalization decision by the Argentine Supreme Court, the Canadian courts were acting within their "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system."

And in the US:

While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the 'medical use' of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use of cannabis fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention. The Board is deeply concerned that those insufficient control provisions have contributed substantially to the increase in illicit cultivation and abuse of cannabis in the United States. In addition, that development sends a wrong message to other countries.

The INCB also again went after Bolivia, which enshrined the coca leaf in its constitution as part of its cultural heritage in 2008 and which has called for coca to be removed from the 1961 Single Convention. The tone, however, was a bit softer than last year, when it reprimanded Bolivia over coca production, coca chewing, and other traditional uses of the Andean plant:

The Board wishes to remind the Governments of all countries concerned, in particular the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, that unless any further amendments to the 1961 Convention are put into effect, the use or importation of coca leaf from which cocaine has not been extracted, for purposes other than those allowed under the 1961 Convention, constitutes a breach of obligations under the Convention.

"The INCB again shows itself to be out of touch with reality by demanding that Bolivia stamp out coca use, also wrongfully prohibited in the Conventions," said TNI's Pien Metaal. "The controversies around Article 3 of the 1988 Convention and the erroneous treatment of the coca leaf in the 1961 Convention are two examples of why the drug control treaty system, including the role played by the INCB, needs to be revised."

Along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the INCB is the bureaucratic backbone of the global prohibition regime. That it continues to work to uphold the prohibitionist principles of the regime is no surprise. That it is now subject to increasing criticism and attack in the face of the myriad failures of global drug prohibition is no surprise either.

Latin America: Bolivia's Morales Says He Will Legalize Small Coca Holdings

Bolivian President Evo Morales said Saturday he wants to legalize the small holdings farmers use to grow coca. Morales, who rose to power as the head of a coca growers' union, said he wants to permit farmers to cultivate a coca plot, or cato, of 130 feet by 130 feet.

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coca seedlings
Under Bolivia's coca law, Law 1008, farmers can produce up to 30,000 acres of coca nationwide for traditional uses. But the law makes no provision for how much individual farmers can grow.

"We need to achieve a legal market for coca, and because of that, we are rationalizing the cato of coca," he told coca growers in Cochabamba. "It is our obligation to plan how to legalize the cato of coca in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly," Morales said, using the new name for the Bolivian congress.

Morales handily won reelection on December 6 with 64% of the vote, and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) holds a two-thirds majority in the assembly. Noting these facts, Morales predicted that the measure will pass.

If it does, it will only add to tensions between Bolivia and the US and between Bolivia and International Narcotics Control Board. In the past year, the US has criticized Morales' policies allowing an increase in coca production, while Bolivia has expelled DEA agents and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing them of meddling in internal Bolivian affairs. Bolivia under Morales is also demanding that the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs be amended so that coca is removed from its list of controlled substances.

While the US-sponsored Law 1008 allows for up to 30,000 acres of coca cultivation, the actual area under cultivation this year was nearly three times that, according to the UN. Morales and his supporters argue that amending Law 1008 both to increase the overall legally permitted acreage nationwide and to limit each farmer to one cato will serve to allow more farmers to grow coca without allowing individual farmers to grow so much they can divert it to the black market to be made into cocaine.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca and producer, behind second place Peru and first place Colombia.

Europe: Czech Government Announces Decriminalization Quantities; Law Goes Into Effect on New Year’s Day

The Czech cabinet Monday approved a Justice Ministry proposal that sets personal use quantity limits for illicit drugs under a penal code revision that decriminalizes drug possession in the Czech Republic. The law and its quantity limits will take effect on January 1. The Czech government had approved the decriminalization law late last year, but failed to set precise quantities covered by it, instead leaving it to police and prosecutors to determine what constituted a “larger than small” amount of drugs. The resulting confusion--and the prosecution of some small-scale marijuana growers as drug traffickers--led the government to adopt more precise criteria. Under the new law, possession of less than the following amounts of illicit drugs will not be a criminal offense: Marijuana 15 grams (or five plants) Hashish 5 grams Magic mushrooms 40 pieces Peyote 5 plants LSD 5 tablets Ecstasy 4 tablets Amphetamine 2 grams Methamphetamine 2 grams Heroin 1.5 grams Coca 5 plants Cocaine 1 gram Possession of “larger than a small amount” of marijuana can result in a jail sentence of up to one year. For other illicit drugs, the sentence is two years. Trafficking offenses carry stiffer sentences. Justice Minister Daniela Kovarova said that the ministry had originally proposed decriminalizing the possession of up to two grams of hard drugs, but decided that limits being imposed by courts this year were appropriate. "The government finally decided that it would stick to the current court practice and drafted a table based on these limits," Kovarova said. The Czech Republic now joins Portugal as a European country that has decriminalized drug possession.
Location: 
Prague
Czech Republic

Latin America: Five Killed, Six Wounded, Six Missing in Attack on Colombian Soldiers, Coca Eradicators

Three Colombian soldiers and two civilian members of a coca eradication squad were killed Monday when the boat in which they were riding came under rifle and grenade attack. Six more were wounded and six others were still missing Wednesday evening. The attack occurred in western Choco state, where leftist FARC guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries are both active.

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coca eradication (courtesy sf.indymedia.org)
Early reports from the scene quoted witnesses blaming members of the FARC's 34th Front, with a local ombudsman telling Radio Caracol the group had been attacked on its way to eradicate coca fields. But another local official told the Associated Press that drug gangs and rightist paramilitaries also operate in the area.

In the past three months, eradication teams have destroyed nearly half of the estimated 1,500 hectares of coca plants in the area. But as Monday's incident demonstrates, those efforts are not always appreciated. At least 26 of the 6,000 eradication workers employed by the Colombian government have been killed in the last three years.

Manual eradication of coca is far outweighed by aerial eradication using herbicide. But despite spraying or uprooting hundreds of thousands of acres of coca plants each year, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2009 World Drug Report, last year Colombia produced 81,000 hectares of coca, down from 2007's 99,000 hectares. Colombian coca production was at 80,000 hectares in 1997, then ballooned to 163,000 hectares in 2000, before declining and reaching an apparent plateau at around 80,000 hectares since mid-decade.

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.

Nancy Rufina Obregon Peralta, National Federation of Coca Farm Agriculture Producers

Nancy Rufina Obregon Peralta, SubSecretary of the National Federation of Coca Farm Agricultural Producers in Peru, talks about the Peruvian benefits of coca. Part 1 of 2: Part 2 of 2:

Hugo Cabieses, Peruvian Economist

Hugo Cabieses, a Peruvian economist and "cocologist", introduces Nancy Rufina Obregon Peralta.

Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century

DRAFT Out from the Shadows was an international conference series, whose main event was a conference the city of Merida, Yucatan, Mexico from February __ to 13. Out from the Shadows drew people from throughout Latin America, as well as Europe and the United States, including legislators from seven countries. The following video footage was provided by Eclectech, a media group based in Merida and __, and by Radio Radicale, an affiliate of one of our primary conference sponsors, the Transnational Radical Party. Some or all speeches not displayed from the following: Luis Paulo Guanabara Eric Sterling Marco Perduca Rose Marie Acha Gustavo de Greiff interview David Borden interview Marco Cappato interview Marco Perduca interview

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.

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.

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