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Southwest Asia: Former US Anti-Drug Official Accuses Afghan Government of Complicity in Drug Trade -- US and NATO Not Doing Much Either, He Complains

Former State Department official Thomas Schweich, who was the US government's point man in the effort to wipe out the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan until last month, has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of protecting drug traffickers and obstructing anti-drug efforts in an article to be published in the New York Times magazine on Sunday, but which appeared on the newspaper's web site Wednesday night.

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opium poppies
"While it is true that Karzai's Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters," Schweich wrote. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Schweich accused Karzai of resisting heightened anti-drug efforts and opposing the eradication of opium poppy fields, long a dream of US drug warriors.

"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. "The US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."

The Karzai government wasn't the only problem, Schweich wrote. He criticized both the US military and NATO forces for indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the anti-drug battle and argued that failing to cut Taliban profits from the drug trade means fighting could continue indefinitely.

"The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs -- and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power," he said.

Almost everyone is to blame for the Afghan drug mess, the now-retired drug warrior fumed. "An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program," he said.

In a Thursday press conference in Kabul, Karzai rejected Schweich's charges."As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to resort to this issue," Karzai replied when asked to respond to Schweich's comments. "Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium. Production has expanded dramatically since the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

Middle East: Iraq Becomes Key Conduit in Global Drug Trade

America's two-front "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is resulting in a one-two punch to US efforts to strangle the global drug trade. Afghan opium production has famously shot through the roof in the years since US forces invaded and overthrew the Taliban, and now, Iraq is emerging as a key player in the global drug trade, according to Iraqi and UN officials consulted by Agence France-Presse.

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Afghan opium
Many of the drugs being smuggled into and through Iraq to European and Middle Eastern markets are coming from Afghanistan via Iran, where the Islamic Republic is hard-pressed to patrol remote trafficking routes along its border with Afghanistan, officials said.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, Iraqi officials said the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis, and pills has risen steadily since the US invasion in 2003. They point to numerous drug trafficking arrests at border crossings with Iran, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"A large number of smugglers are being arrested," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan, both of which border Iran.

"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity. "Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.

"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border," said a local police officer in Samawa in Muthanna province who did not want to be named. "Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."

Iranian authorities say they seized about 900 tons of an estimated 2,500 tons of drugs that entered the country from Afghanistan last year. While Iran has arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate, Iranian officials estimated that more than 1,000 tons of drugs, mostly opium, heroin, and cannabis, transited the country on its way elsewhere last year.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also raising alarm bells. "Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.

"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP.

Not all the drugs are just passing through embattled Iraq. "Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," the INCB said in its report.

Southwest Asia: West Threatens to Block Iran Drug Aid Over Nuclear Issue

With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran and the West had quietly cooperated in efforts to block the trade from Afghanistan. United by a common loathing for the Sunni insurgents, Iran and the West were able to work together on this issue. But that is now in doubt.

The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.

The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.

But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."

The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."

"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.

"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."

Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.

Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.

Southwest Asia: Taliban Makes $100 Million a Year Off Drug Prohibition

The Taliban made about $100 million last year by taxing Afghan farmers involved in growing opium poppies, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC Radio. The money came from a 10% tax on farmers in Taliban-controlled areas, Costa said, adding that the Islamic insurgents profited from the illicit drug business in other ways as well.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer protection to cargo, moving opium across the border," Costa told the BBC's File on 4 program.

Taliban opium revenues could decline slightly this year, Costa said, suggesting that yields and revenues are likely to decrease due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan. That would lower Taliban revenues, "but not enormously," he said.

But a smaller harvest this year is unlikely to cause any shortages or put a serious dent in Taliban opium trade revenues. For the past three or four years, Afghanistan has produced more than the estimated world annual consumption, Costa noted. "Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,800 tons of opium," he said. "The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,400 tons in opium, this leaves a surplus. It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers," he added.

The Taliban have put the funds to effective use, as evidenced by the insurgency's growing strength, especially in southeast Afghanistan -- precisely the area of most intense opium cultivation. More than 230 US and NATO troops were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, and 109 more have been killed so far this year. US Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters Tuesday Taliban attacks in the region were up 40% over the same period last year.

British officials interviewed by the BBC said it was incontrovertible that the Taliban was profiting off of the illegal trade created by prohibition. "The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the drugs trade," said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul. "We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade."

Which leaves NATO and the US stuck with that enduring Afghan dilemma: Leave the poppy trade alone and strengthen the Taliban by allowing it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars; or go after the poppies and the poppy trade and strengthen the Taliban by pushing hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers into their beckoning arms.

Southwest Asia: Iran Accuses West of Ignoring Afghan Opium, US Marines Conveniently Aid Tehran's Case

Iran Wednesday accused the US and NATO of indifference to Afghanistan's booming opium trade and called on the West to help fight smuggling of opium and heroin across the border the two countries share. A day earlier, an Associated Press story about US Marines newly deployed to Afghanistan's Helmand Province helped make Iran's case.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In that story, some of the 2,000 members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, freshly arrived in Helmand, the world's largest opium growing region and a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, explained that they were ignoring the poppy crop because they feared alienating local residents dependent on the trade to earn a living.

"It's kind of weird. We're coming over here to fight the Taliban. We see this. We know it's bad. But at the same time we know it's the only way locals can make money," said 1st Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, of Barnstable, Mass.

Second Lt. Mark Greenlief, 24, a Monmouth, Ill., native who commands the 2nd Platoon, said he originally wanted to make a helicopter landing zone in a local farmer's field. "But as you can see that would ruin their poppy field, and we didn't want to ruin their livelihood."

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stover's platoon is billeted beside a poppy field planted in the interior courtyard of a mud-walled compound. The Marines' mission is to get rid of the "bad guys," and "the locals aren't the bad guys," he said. "Poppy fields in Afghanistan are the cornfields of Ohio," said Stover, 28, of Marion, Ohio. "When we got here they were asking us if it's okay to harvest poppy and we said, 'Yeah, just don't use an AK-47.'"

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, told the AP that his troops can't focus on the poppy crop when the Taliban is "terrorizing the people." The key is first to defeat the Taliban, he said. "I think by focusing on the Taliban, the poppies will go away," he said.

But the Marines, and the rest of the 30,000 US and 20,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan are caught in a terrible contradiction: If they go after the opium, they risk driving the population into the waiting arms of the Taliban. If they don't go after the opium, the Taliban makes as much as $100 million a year off its share of the trade, which goes to buy more weapons to fight the US, NATO, and the Afghan government.

Ignoring the opium crop -- Afghan opium accounts for 93% of the global supply, according to the United Nations -- does not sit well with Iran, which reportedly has the world's highest opiate addiction rate. "The exploding growth in the cultivation of opium... in Afghanistan last year has created many problems... especially for Iran," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, secretary of Iran's drug control headquarters, a day after the AP story appeared.

"We think NATO and foreign forces in Afghanistan are indifferent to the issue of drugs and have put other goals as their priorities," Ahmadi Moghaddam told a conference of officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Since the time they entered (Afghanistan) we are witnessing an explosive rise in the production of drugs," he said.

Iran is spending $600 million a year to stop Afghan drugs from coming into the country, and could use some help from the West, which is evidently ignoring the problem, he complained. "Iran requests the serious and practical cooperation of the international community, especially European countries, as the main destination for smugglers, in fighting drug trafficking."

Simple Farmers Bearing Brunt of Afghan Drug War

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kalif Mathieu is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section at http://stopthedrugwar.org/about/staff It was reported by the Associated Press on March 24 that 100 Afghan drug police were killed in the line of duty in 2007. One hundred deaths, not even counting civilians, simply to claim 13 provinces out of the country's 34 as poppy-free, seems like a brutal waste. And the war isn't truly even being fought against drugs, or even against a logical enemy of the state like the Taliban. This war is being fought against simple farmers, mostly in the remote and unruly provinces that don't have strong state presence. Farmers are thereby forced to pay taxes totaling in the tens of millions to non-governmental entities like the Taliban, essentially for "safe passage" in these lawless areas. This cost makes it a necessity, not merely an option, to secure the profits of growing opium. According to the World Bank: "[T]he cultivation of opium poppy started in the late 1970s -- with gross income per hectare yields 12 to 30 times higher than the country's staple, wheat." Given those numbers, it's easy to see why farmers living on the edge in a lawless province paying taxes to people like the Taliban would use opium growing to give themselves a little breathing room. It isn't that these farmers ideologically support opium or heroin use, or support the Taliban, quite the contrary. From the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's John Dixon of the Agricultural Management, Marketing and Finance Service in 2004: "Opium is not a crop of choice for most Afghan farmers. There are just no attractive alternatives at present that can give them a return anywhere near the return opium gives." So why is it that the focus of all of this on eliminating the growth of poppies instead of increasing central government jurisdiction, thereby increasing general security? Even after clearing these 13 provinces of opium, farmers have started planting marijuana instead, according to the AP, and so the struggle continues. Stop wasting time and money and lives burning fields of cropland and start working on protecting these farmers from Taliban extortion! This would seem a much more positive plan of action than destroying their livelihoods and committing them to poverty. The process would also reduce Taliban funding since they would have fewer and fewer farmers to exploit. That may sound optimistic, but at least aiming for the goal of security is a little more helpful to the people and realistic to work toward than trying to eliminate the drug trade in a place like Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan doesn't even agree 100% with the United State's approach to the situation: in late 2007 the US was pushing to spray opium fields with pesticides from the air, but the Afghanis wouldn't allow it.
Location: 
Afghanistan

Middle East: The Poppies Blossom in Iraq

British journalist Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent reports that opium poppy cultivation is rapidly spreading across Iraq. While Cockburn reported in May that poppies had appeared near Diwaniyah in southern Iraq, he now reports that poppies are growing in restive Diyala province, where Al Qaeda in Iraq is making what could be a last stand.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Diyala, deeply divided between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia, is so violent that local security forces have little time to deal with drug cultivation. The Iraqi news agency al-Malaf Press reported that farmers have turned to poppy cultivation around Khalis, Sa'adiya, Dain'ya, and Baladruz, while Cockburn added the town of Buhriz to the list. But cultivation is even more extensive in southern Iraq, especially around Amara and Majar al-Kabir.

The news agency quoted a local engineer as saying local farmers got no support from the government and could not compete with cheap imported fruits and vegetables. They also face rising fuel and fertilizer prices. "The cultivation of opium is the likely solution to these problems," said the engineer.

The poppy growing and trafficking is linked to Sunni and Shia militias, Cockburn wrote. US military strategy has relied on developing a 70,000-member Sunni militia, many of whose members dabble in protection rackets, crime, and smuggling. Similarly, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the powerful Shia Mehdi Army militia, has complained that criminals have infiltrated its ranks. According to Cockburn, it is the local warlords and the militias that have sponsored the opium planting, not the farmers.

Southwest Asia: US Plan For Aerial Spraying of Afghan Poppies on Hold -- for Now

The US government has given up for now on efforts to persuade the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to allow aerial spraying of the country's opium poppy crop, Reuters quoted a senior US government official as saying Wednesday. The US State Department and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had pushed hard for spraying, but ran into opposition not only from the Afghans, but also from the US's European allies and even other parts of the US government, including the Congress and the Pentagon, which fears such an effort could backfire and drive Afghans into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"We've talked to President Karzai about the program we want to work with him on this season," Thomas Schweich, the US coordinator on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, told the news agency. "He has said he doesn't want to do aerial eradication so we won't do aerial eradication. If he changes his mind, we will," Schweich said in Brussels.

Instead of aerial spraying of herbicides, Schweich said, the US will rely on ground eradication. A ground eradication program this year managed to eradicate only 9% of the crop, according to the United Nations.

"That program is going to continue," Schweich said. "It got about 15-16,000 hectares last year. We didn't think it was enough so we are going to monitor very closely whether it is down equitably," he said, adding that there are signs some powerful figures in Afghanistan are using their positions to ensure their fields are not targeted.

Afghanistan produced 93% of the world's opium supply this year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in a report released last month. In addition to finding their way into the pockets of corrupt government officials and poor Afghan farmers, profits from the opium trade have also fueled the Taliban insurgency, leaving Western policy-makers with a real dilemma: Do they crack down on opium and drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban or do they turn a blind eye and watch opium profits buy shiny new weapons for the Taliban? Prohibition appears to have created a lose-lose situation for the West.

Editorial: Enough Already -- Stop Funding the Taliban Through Opium Prohibition

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
The drug war is in part a human rights issue. With half a million people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses, with medical marijuana providers being hounded by the authorities, with needle exchange programs that are needed to save lives getting blocked, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy itself opposing San Francisco's proposed safe injection site (when did it become wrong to save lives?), with countries pressured by us to spray their lands with harmful chemicals to attack unstoppable drug crops, the United States through its drug policy has become a major human rights violator. It is a sad chapter.

We at DRCNet partly see drug reform as a human rights movement, and so ten years ago when very few Americans had heard of the Taliban, but the UN and the Clinton administration intended to fund them to do opium eradication, we condemned the Taliban in this newsletter and criticized the proposal. The fear of human rights advocates was that the brutal regime would be able to use the money to further establish its hold on power. Anyone who watched the footage of Taliban atrocities airing on US news stations after 9/11 can understand why that's a bad thing. Other reasons for opposing the Taliban are quite well known now.

Today we continue to fund the Taliban -- we don't say we do, we claim to be fighting them, we even send our soldiers to fight them in person -- but we are funding them. We are funding them by prohibiting drugs. Because drugs are illegal, they cannot be regulated, and so their source plants are grown wherever and by whomever is willing and able to gain a foothold in the market. For a large share of the global opium supply, at the moment that means Afghanistan. And the Taliban are cashing in on that.

And how. Just this week, a NATO commander said opium may provide as much as 40% of the Taliban's revenues, hundreds of millions of dollars -- some experts say it's more like 60%, he added. If opium-derived drugs were legal and regulated, that wouldn't happen. And governments are therefore at fault for creating a funding source for a movement that is destabilizing Afghanistan, that is abusing the rights of its people, and that may still be helping Al-Qaeda, all of this five years after we thought we had gotten rid of them for good.

US officials continue to press for more opium eradication, but experts agree that eradication helps the Taliban too, by driving the farmers into their arms -- of course while failing to reduce the opium crop, instead only moving it from place to place. And while Afghanistan's government has not unleashed all the eradication the US government wants, it has done enough to hurt. A hundred thousand Afghans are employed in the opium trade and don't have another way to make a living. We can't just tell them they can't grow opium anymore, and expect them to comply or that serious damage to the nation-building and counter-insurgency programs won't result.

Ten years ago, the west helped the Taliban for the sake of fighting the drug war. Today, the Taliban is an enemy, and we fight the drug war supposedly to fight them, but in the process instead help them -- see how no matter what direction the drug war compass points, one way or its opposite, it never points to anywhere good. That is why I say, enough already, stop funding the Taliban and other dangerous people through drug prohibition, legalize drugs to make this world a safer place.

Southwest Asia: Opium Accounts for Maybe Half of Taliban Funding, US Commander Says

Black market opium production under the global drug prohibition regime is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of the Taliban, the top US commander in Afghanistan said last week. The opium trade accounts for as much as 40% of Taliban revenues, and that could be a conservative estimate, said Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"It is my best subjective estimate that the insurgency enjoys fiscal resources from the cultivation of poppy probably to the level of 20% to 40% of its total fiscal resources," the general told journalists at a Kabul press conference. But he added that international experts had told him his figure was low-ball, and that opium could account for up to 60% of Taliban funds.

The Taliban, which has emerged revivified in the past two years, is widely believed to make money off the opium economy by taxing farmers and traders. This year, it has had the strongest presence in Afghanistan's southeast, which is also the area of the country where opium production is most prevalent.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2007 World Drug Report, the Afghan opium crop is valued at $3 billion this year, about $1 billion of which is paid to farmers. Despite increased eradication efforts this year, production increased 34% over last year. It is unclear how much opium income makes its way into the purses of the Taliban.

Afghanistan is currently producing 93% of the world's poppy crop, and that is undermining everything the Afghan government and its US and NATO allies is trying to accomplish there, said McNeill. Besides funding the insurgency and corrupting government officials, opium profits pull people away from developing the country. "People are distracted from the value of the reconstruction because of poppy cultivation and the money inherent within," he said.

Still, he said, ISAF is not eager to get more deeply involved in fighting the drug war in Afghanistan, and if it does, its role should be limited. "ISAF is neither manned, trained or equipped to be an eradication force but there are other ways... that we might be able to help," he said.

That's not what the US wants to hear, though. Washington is gearing up for heightened involvement in drug fighting, and it is pressing, so far unsuccessfully, for aerial chemical eradication of the poppy crop -- a crop which according to the UN provides a living for 14% of the Afghan population.

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