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A Clean, Well-Lit Place to Shoot Dope -- In Your City, Soon? [FEATURE]

The only existing supervised injection site for hard drug users in North America is Vancouver's Insite, but panelists at a session of the International Drug Reform Conference in Denver last month said activists in a number of US cities are working to be next. (Plans are also afoot in a couple of Canadian cities.)

client at Vancouver's Insite supervised injection site (vch.ca)
Supervised injection sites (SIS) are a proven public health and harm reduction intervention that can save lives by preventing overdoses, bring a measure of stability to the sometimes chaotic lives of addicts, reduce the spread of bloodborne infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and reduce crime and disorder in the community.

SISs also exist in a number of European countries and Australia, but face both legal and political hurdles in the US. Still, advocates are ready to push the envelope here in a bid to bring the life-, health-, and money-saving innovation here.

Donald Macpherson, executive \director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former head of Vancouver's Four Pillars drug policy program explained the prehistory of Insite, offering hints of possible courses of action in the US.

"We had a public health disaster," he said, referring to the city's escalating heroin problem in the 1990s. "Drug users themselves opened an SIS in 1995, and the police watched it, but didn't shut it down. A second opened in 2002. A year later, another non-sanctioned injection site opened up. It was really messy and it took years."

But in the end, Vancouver ended up with Insite and has managed to keep it open despite the best efforts of the Conservative federal government in Ottawa.

"Insite survives because it has an exemption from Canadian drug laws," Macpherson explained. "We won in the British Columbia courts, we won in the Canadian Supreme Court, which instructed the health minister to issue a permit. But we still barely have Insite, and though other cities are working on it, there is a big chill in Canada right now and we're just trying to hang on to what we've got."

Plans for SISs in the US face similar obstacles, but that isn't stopping advocates in a number of cities -- notably Austin, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as somewhere in New Mexico -- from pressing forward with plans to open them there.

"I don't know if we'll be first, but we'll be one of many," said Robert Cordero, president and chief program officer of Boom! Health in the Bronx.

Boom! Health, which resulted from the merger of Bronx AIDS Services and Citiwide Harm Reduction, is a multi-service organization with a three-story building that includes a pharmacy, pharmacists with a harm reduction orientation, and a seven-day-a-week drop in center.

"Safe injection would be embedded with all these other services," he said.

"I don't know if we want to be first, but we want to be one of many," said Olivia Sloan, outreach and education associate for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in New Mexico, which has been working patiently to bring cutting edge programs like SISs to the state. "We passed harm reduction, including needle exchange, through the state legislature, but it's not working," Sloan said. "We have overdose deaths at four or five times the national average."

Advocates in New Mexico have been and continue to lay the groundwork for SISs, Sloan said.

"We took a political and academic approach, and our conversation about injection facilities started a few years ago," she explained. "We have mobile syringe exchanges. We drafted legislation last year and the Senate passed a memorial to require we study the feasibility of SISs in New Mexico. We have partnered with the University of New Mexico and are looking for a principal investigator."

In San Francisco, preliminary discussions with local officials about SISs have been going on for some time, but the San Francisco Drug Users Union may follow the path taken by organized Vancouver drug users, as well as many of the needle exchange pioneers in the US, and just do it.

"We have a committee very committed to an SIS that meets every Monday for two hours," said Holly Bradford, the union's coordinator. "We're really on the verge. We have a very active bathroom here; you just open the door," she smiled. We're bringing it to San Francisco," she said. "It might not be sanctioned or aboveground, but it's going to happen."

Whether underground or not, SISs face a hazard-strewn trek. State, local, or federal officials can throw up any number of obstacles, said Lindsay LaSalle, a Berkeley-based law fellow for DPA.

"Drug possession remains illegal and could impact any SIS user, although probably not the staff or operator because they're not handling the drugs," she explained.

"Then there are the crack house laws, which both the federal government and some states have. They make it illegal for anyone to maintain, own, lease, or rent a property where drugs are used, consumed, or manufactured. These laws could cover SISs, and this could impact both clients and staff and operators alike," she elaborated.

"Then there are civil forfeiture statutes. They've used them to go after medical marijuana dispensaries," she enumerated.

Winning local official support reduces some risks, but not all, LaSalle said.

"If SISs were sanctioned at the local level, many of the legal risks dissipate, but state actors could still choose to prosecute," she warned. "In most states, local officers are deputized to enforce state law, so they could still go after an SIS. If authorized at the state level, that would be an incredible victory, but we would still have to deal with the federal government."

While acknowledging that lawyers can be "a buzzkill," LaSalle also hastened to add that things can change faster than we think.

"These legal barriers are not so different from the challenges we've faced with other drug policy issues, like syringe exchanges," she noted. "They were seen as completely radical, but now we have an almost universally accepted public health intervention with the exchanges."

Part of the process of initiating a supervised injection site is selling it to other stakeholders. Panelists had a number of ideas about messages that worked.

"For business people, you tell them this is how we clean up the neighborhood," said a Seattle activist.

"It is a very incremental change from syringe exchange to supervised injection sites," said LaSalle. "Position it as a very small change in an organization that provides all these other services to drug users."

"There's always 'what we're doing is not working,'" said Sloan.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," suggested Cordero. "But don't go straight to the SIS conversation. Let people see what we're doing, and then they say 'you're doing God's work' and second, 'Holy shit! Where would all those people be if you weren't open?'"

The obstacles to implementing supervised injection sites in the US are formidable, but the need to do so is urgent and increasingly understood, as are the benefits. With activists and advocates in a number of American locales pursuing SISs through a variety of means, the question is not whether it will happen here, but when and where.

Florida Attorney General Bans "Crazy Clown" Drug

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi Wednesday filed an emergency rule criminalizing four related synthetic cannabinoid drugs, including one being marketed under the name "Crazy Clown," her office announced in a press release. The emergency move makes the new synthetics Schedule I controlled substances under Florida law.

The four substances are B-PINACA, AB-FUBINACA, ADB-PINACA, and Fluoro ABDICA. They have been tentatively identified as cannabinoid receptor agonists, similar to an earlier round of synthetic cannabinoids that have been marketed under names such as "Spice" and "K2." Those drugs are banned under federal law and are illegal in a number of states as well.

Georgia banned the drugs last month under a synthetic drugs analog law, and now neighboring Florida has moved to do so, too.

The move came after a spate of media reports and law enforcement warnings in August and September about users suffering ill effects from "Crazy Clown," including nausea, vomiting, and violent behavior. But there has been no reported follow-up on those initial accounts.

"I will remain vigilant in my efforts to keep these drugs off store shelves and will continue to outlaw emergent synthetic drug compounds. These drugs pose a serious threat to Floridians, particularly our youth," said Attorney General Bondi.

"While synthetic drugs are marketed as safe alternatives to illegal drugs, make no mistake; these synthetics are dangerous," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. "Adding these four new concoctions to Florida's schedule 1 drug list strengthens our fight. We will continue our efforts with Attorney General Bondi to identify illegal chemicals and react swiftly."

Bondi said she will work with the state legislature to permanently ban them next year.

While Bondi's action is of a piece with the reflexive prohibitionist response to the earlier new synthetics apparent both in Washington and in state houses around the country, banning new synthetic drugs is not the only possible response to them. New Zealand made headlines worldwide when instead of banning them, it moved to regulate new synthetics.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

New Zealand Regulates -- Not Bans -- Synthetic Drugs

Like other countries around the world, New Zealand has been grappling with the rise of the new synthetic drugs, such as the stimulant-type drugs known as "bath salts." Unlike other countries around the world, including the United States, Kiwi lawmakers have responded not by attempting to ban them out of existence, but moving instead to regulate them.

"Bath salts" synthetic drugs (wikipedia.org)
"Regulating psychoactive substances will help protect the health of, and minimize harm to, individuals who use these substances," said the Ministry of Health in support of the bill.

Passed on July 17 and put into effect the following day, the Psychoactive Substance Act of 2013 creates a new government agency, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority, to ensure that the new synthetics meet safety standards before going to market. The Authority is also charged with developing, implementing, and administering a licensing scheme for researchers, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and importers.

That means that instead of sending in SWAT teams to bust underground synthetic drug labs, New Zealand will allow the drugs to be legally manufactured under strict regulations. But those seeking to manufacture them legally will have to demonstrate that they pose a low risk to consumers, including undergoing rigorous clinical trials to determine toxicity and addictiveness, and subsequent approval by an independent expert advisory committee.

"Simply banning these drugs only incentivizes producers to develop drugs that get around the law -- regardless of what they will do to the people that take them," said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. "This model incentivizes producers to develop drugs that are safer. We think that's a much smarter way to go about it."

Under the new law, regulations on the sale and purchase of the new synthetics immediately went into effect, including a ban on sales to people under 18, a ban on sales in convenience stores, and requirements for labeling and packaging, including mandatory health warnings.

"This represents a potentially transformative breakthrough in the legal regulation of drugs that typically have been criminalized with little forethought," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the US Drug Policy Alliance. "It pokes an important hole in the edifice of drug prohibition."

Other countries may be interested in enlarging that hole, the Associated Press reported last week. It cited interest in the New Zealand model among Australian and British parliamentarians and quoted bill sponsor MP Peter Dunne as saying others were interested, too.

"The Hungarians, the Irish, the British, they're all keen to know what we are up to," he said. "It's seen as cutting edge. They want to see how it works, and view it for their own country."

Auckland
New Zealand

Malaysia Minister Talks Drug Decriminalization

A Malaysian government minister said Sunday the Southeast Asian nation is moving toward decriminalizing drug possession, but her remarks also suggested that drug users would be exchanging jail cells for treatment beds. Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Nancy Shukri said the government's policy was moving from prosecuting drug users to treating them.

Nancy Shukri (frim.gov.my)
Her remarks came at the end of a High Level Meeting on Drug Policy and Public Health sponsored by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The meeting was held in conjunction with the 2013 International Aids Conference held over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

Shukri also said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) goal of a drug-free region by 2015 was not realistic, but that smarter approaches by authorities could reduce drug dependence.

"There is no such thing as drug-free but we can control it by changing or shifting our policy," Shukri said. "Instead of looking at drug dependents as criminals, we should actually look at them as patients. Instead of bringing them to jail, we bring them to the clinic," she told a press gaggle after the AIDS conference ended.

Shukri said that Malaysia had been taking steps toward a more effective and humane drug policy, but that those initiatives were not widely known. She cited ongoing needle exchange programs for injection drug users. The sharing of needles is a known vector for the transmission of the AIDS virus, and the program had resulted in a reduction in new HIV/AIDS infections, she said.

"Others include the harm reduction program and upgrading of the rehabilitation centers into Cure & Care Clinics," Shukri said. "We are already there (decriminalizing drugs) but we are not making it loud enough for the people to understand that we have this policy. Our policy has not been established in a formal way."

That could be coming, though. Shukri said the government is currently reviewing the country's drug laws, including the Drug Dependents (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act of 1983.

"The Law Reform Committee is now in the process of discussing to amend that particular provision [Section 4(1)(b) of the Act which allows the detention of a suspected drug dependent for up to 14 days for a test to be conducted]," she said.

Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia

Nevada Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Dispensary, Needle Bills

Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, Wednesday signed into law two drug reform measures, one allowing for medical marijuana dispensaries and one removing syringes from the state's drug paraphernalia law.

On the medical marijuana front, Sandoval signed into law Senate Bill 374, which will establish a state-regulated system of dispensaries. The law envisions up to 66 dispensaries across the state, with up to 40 in Las Vegas, 10 in Reno, and at least one in each county.

"We applaud Gov. Sandoval and the legislature for their leadership and commend those law enforcement organizations that expressed support for this much-needed legislation," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, who testified in support of the bill. "It will make Nevada a safer and healthier place not only for medical marijuana patients, but for the entire community. This new law will provide patients with the safe and reliable access to medical marijuana that they deserve," O'Keefe said. "Regulating medical marijuana sales will also generate revenue and take a bite out of the state's underground marijuana market."

Introduced by Sens.Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas) and Mark Hutchison (R-Las Vegas), the bill creates rules and regulations not only for dispensaries, but also infused product manufacturers and cultivation and testing facilities. It also imposes 2% excise taxes on both wholesale and retail sales, with 75% of those revenues going to the education fund and 25% going to cover the cost of regulating the medical marijuana industry.

The state's voter-approved medical marijuana law, passed twice in 1998 and 2000, required the legislature to create a medical marijuana program that included appropriate methods of supplying medical marijuana to patients. Now, the legislature has finally done so. Nevada will now join Arizona, Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island on the list of states that have state-regulated dispensaries. Two more jurisdictions, Washington, DC, and Vermont should come on board this summer, and the rule-making process for dispensaries is underway in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

On the harm reduction front, Sandoval signed into law Senate Bill 410, which decriminalizes the possession of syringes by removing them from the state's drug paraphernalia list. That opens the way for the over-the-counter sale of syringes and needle exchange programs.

"Back in 1996 when first elected, I was asked what bills I'd be pursuing for my first legislative session," said Sen. David Parks (D-Las Vegas).  "My response was employment non-discrimination, HIV/AIDS state funding and decriminalization of hypodermic devices. Little did I know it would be my 9th session before decriminalization of hypodermic devices would come to fruition."

Nevada becomes the 37th state to decriminalize syringe possession and allow for the over-the-counter sale of needles, as well as needle exchange programs, both proven means of reducing the transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other blood-borne infections.

Nevada harm reduction workers said they were ready to get a needle exchange up and running as soon as the law takes effect.

"In addition to getting sterile syringe out to those who need them, our program will increase safe syringe disposal by individuals in the community," said Sharon Chamberlain, director of Northern Nevada HOPES in Reno. "We will educate these users about the new and needed community disposal options, and strongly encourage them to take advantage of this resource. Previously, no community initiatives provided safe disposal options. "

Carson City, NV
United States

Paris to Get Supervised Drug Injection Site

France's first supervised injection site (SIJ) for hard drug users will open in Paris by this fall, local officials announced Thursday. It will be located near the Gare du Nord train station, an area of open hard drug use and sales and petty crime.

injecting at a supervised injection site in Vancouver (vch.ca)
The SIJ will be ready "by the autumn," Remi Feraud, mayor of the 10th arrondissement, where it will be located, told reporters. The site is "sufficiently far from residential areas, schools and shops to not pose a serious risk of public disorder," he said.

The project is "aimed at reducing the number of people taking drugs in the street, in common areas of apartment buildings and other areas such as car parks," added deputy mayor Myriam El Khomri. The area would be given a boosted police presence, she added, to prevent dealers from selling their wares in the proximity.

While supervised injection sites are a proven harm reduction measure, local officials were downplaying that aspect and instead highlighting the public order and safety effects. That could be a bid to blunt opposition and hostility from local residents' associations, who have said they fear the SIJ would further degrade the area, described as "an open air drug market."

While this will be the first SIJ in the City of Light, Paris already has a needle exchange program. It handed out more than 300,000 syringes last year, half of them in the Gare du Nord.

SIJs already operate in a number of European countries, include Germany and Switzerland, as well as Australia and Canada.

Paris
France

DC 911 Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Bill Takes Effect

As of Tuesday, there will be limited legal protections for people who witness or experience a drug overdose in the District of Columbia and summon medical assistance. That's because the District's Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act goes into effect then.

Passed last fall by the DC city council, the new is aimed at reducing overdose deaths by removing the threat of arrest from overdose victims and those who might assist or seek help for them. Many overdose deaths do not occur immediately, and medical interventions can save lives, but some drug users and their peers are reluctant to seek help because of fear of arrest and prosecution.

"Criminalization should not be a barrier to calling 911," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "This new law will help encourage District residents who witness an overdose to pick up the phone and help save a life." 

Under the new law:

  • Law enforcement officers who observe small amounts of illegal drugs or paraphernalia at the scene of an overdose should not consider these drug law violations to be crimes for the individual experiencing the overdose and the witness who sought emergency medical services.
  • A minor is provided limited protection from criminal charges for underage possession of alcohol if they experience an overdose or seek emergency medical services for a peer.
  • An adult who is 25 years of age or younger is given limited protection from criminal charges for providing alcohol or other drugs to a minor who is 16 years of age or older if they seek emergency medical services for the minor in need.
  • The possession of naloxone – a medication that rapidly reverses opiate overdoses – and its use by lay persons on individuals experiencing an opiate overdose is decriminalized.

Ten states (California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Washington State) have already enacted Good Samaritan laws for preventing fatal drug overdoses. Good Samaritan legislation is currently pending in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri and other states. A coalition comprised of the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital, Bread for the City, HIPS, students from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and GW Law Students for Sensible Drug Policy, parents and advocates supported passage of the Good Samaritan law.

"Implementation of this new law by public health and law enforcement officials is critical to improving public willingness to immediately seek medical assistance for overdoses involving illegal drug and alcohol use," said Smith.

Spurred by the rapid rise in opioid pain medication prescribing and the diversion of pain pills, drug overdose rates nationwide have increased five-fold since 1990 and more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. Heroin and other opiates are the second leading cause of overdose deaths in the District in recent years, following cocaine.

Washington, DC
United States

Norway Government Wants to Decriminalize Heroin Smoking

The Norwegian government said Friday it wants to decriminalize the smoking of heroin as a harm reduction measure, Agence-France Presse reported. Smoking heroin is less dangerous than injecting it, and the move could reduce the number of overdoses, officials said.

heroin smoking image from 1965 UNODC newsletter
"The number of fatal overdoses is too high and I would say it's shameful for Norway," said Health Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere. "The way addicts consume their drugs is central to the question of overdoses. My view is that we should allow people to smoke heroin since injecting it is more dangerous," he said.

According to the Norwegian Institute for Alcohol and Drug Research (SIRUS), heroin overdoses accounted for 30% of 262 fatal overdoses in 2011. By comparison, only 168 people died in traffic accidents that year.

The city of Oslo has opened a supervised injection site in a bid to reduce overdoses, but decriminalizing heroin smoking would also help, said Stoere. Users currently can't smoke at the supervised injection site.

"This isn't about some kind of legalization of heroin but about being realistic," he said. "Those who are in the unfortunate situation of injecting themselves in a drug room should be able to inhale. It is less dangerous, you consume less and the risk of contracting a disease is lower," he added.

"It's a paradox that you can't smoke heroin when you can inject it, since the first method is less dangerous than the second," SIRUS researcher Astrid Skretting told AFP. "But the culture of injecting which provides a more immediate effect than smoking seems deeply rooted in Norway and it's not certain that a decriminalization will lead to a radical change in behavior," she suggested.

The Norwegian government is set to unveil its latest plan for fighting drug addiction next week. Stoere said the heroin smoking decrim plan has the backing of the center-left government.

Oslo
Norway

In Memoriam: Dave Purchase, Needle Exchange Pioneer

Needle exchange pioneer Dave Purchase died last month in Tacoma, Washington, where he had long resided and where he began handing out sterile syringes to prevent the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users back in the summer of 1998. Purchase died on January 21 of complications from pneumonia. He was 73.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/dave-purchase-250px.jpg
Dave Purchase
Purchase is widely cited as having started the first needle exchange in the country, although that is difficult to verify.

A Harley rider, the bearded and burly Purchase was working as a drug counselor when he was hit by a drunk driver in 1983. He returned to work after recovering and used $3,000 from a settlement from the crash to buy his first supplies and begin handing out needles, cotton swabs, bleach, and condoms. Within months, he had handed out 13,000 needles, most of them bought with his own money.

By 1993, Purchase had founded the Point Defiance AIDS Project, working with local authorities, and the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN), which now distributes more than 15 million needles a year to syringe exchange programs.

Purchase started his exchanges without official sanction and said he was prepared to go to jail for possessing drug paraphernalia, but then-Tacoma Police Chief Ray Fjetland wisely suspended enforcement of the paraphernalia law at the exchanges. Over the years, Purchase's Tacoma exchange became a model, especially in winning the cooperation of local authorities.

At last count, there were around 200 needle exchange programs in the country, which distributed some 36 million syringes in 2011. Those needle exchange programs have been repeatedly shown to save lives by reducing the spread of AIDS and other blood-borne infections. Dave Purchase wasn't the only early needle exchange advocate, but he was a tireless one, and countless people owe their lives to his efforts.

And maybe more than lives. In a testimonial posted on the NASEN web site (linked below), Nick Crofts expressed thoughts felt by many in calling Dave "a presence in the world... a taken-for-granted, a defining pole, a constant point of reference when there was trouble or confusion, an ethical touchstone." Crofts wrote, "[a]ll the people Dave inspired share one characteristic with him... he accepted people for what they were, he valued them for their very existence, he made it known to them and everyone else that their lives were equally important as his and everyone else's. This is the hallmark and the revolution of the harm reduction movement... and Dave stamped this all over the north American scene, and through his acolytes all over the world."

Dave may be gone now, but his work lives on. More testimonials and links about him can be found on the NASEN web site and the Tacoma Syringe Program Facebook page.

Tacoma, WA
United States

Naloxone Anti-Overdose Bill Moving in New Jersey

A bill that would expand access to the overdose-blocking drug naloxone is moving in the New Jersey legislature. The bill, Senate Bill 2082, the Opioid Antidote and Overdose Prevention Act passed the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Monday on a unanimous vote and now heads for a Senate floor vote.

A companion measure, Assembly Bill 95, awaits a hearing before the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it blocks and reverses the effects of opioid drugs, such as heroin, morphine, and Oxycontin. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from last February found that some 50 naloxone programs nationwide had reversed more than 10,000 overdoses.

Naloxone is available only by prescription in New Jersey. The bill would expand access to the drug by providing protection from civil and criminal liability to medical professionals who prescribe the drug and laypersons who administer it.

Advocates applauded the bill's clearing the first hurdle and urged the legislature to finish the job.

"We must have a comprehensive strategy to reduce the huge number of tragic and preventable overdose deaths in New Jersey," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Expanded access to Naloxone is a key component in that strategy. This bill will save lives and should now be acted on by the legislature with all possible speed. Lives hang in the balance."

"Drug overdose continues to be the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge). "Each year it surpasses the number of deaths caused by automobile accidents and guns.  Expanding access to naloxone will allow this medication to reach its full public health potential and will be an important part of New Jersey's comprehensive efforts to address drug abuse."

Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood lost her son, Salvatore, to an overdose when he was 26 years old.

"Sal was a beautiful soul who unfortunately struggled with addiction. If the people he was using with on the night he died had access to naloxone, he might still be alive today. Instead, my son was left alone to die. It's extremely important to have policies like this one in place, so that other families are spared the grief that mine has endured."

Eight states and the District of Columbia have already passed legislation easing access to Naloxone in a bid to reduce drug overdose deaths.

Trenton, NJ
United States

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