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Russell Brand Talks Drug Policy in Parliament

Actor, comedian, and ex-heroin addict Russell Brand appeared before a parliamentary committee in London Tuesday and told MPs that drug taking should not be approached as a "criminal or judicial matter" and that decriminalizing drug use could be "useful" in some regards.

Russell Brand at the premiere of Arthur (wikimedia.org)
Brand, 36, who recently divorced singer Katy Perry, wore a black hat, gold chains and crosses and a torn black vest top for his appearance before the committee. He called MPs "mate" and addressed them by their first names during a lively half-hour long hearing.

Brand was asked about drug legalization, but demurred, saying he didn't think he was "particularly qualified" to make that judgment. He added, however, that,  "I'm not saying we should have a wacky free-for-all where everyone takes drugs, it didn't do me any good."

The flamboyant entertainer appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, which is reviewing British drug policy. The Tuesday hearing was the fourth in what the committee is calling "a comprehensive review" of the drug laws. The committee also heard from opponents of relaxing the drug laws, including columnist Peter Hitchens and campaigner Mary Brett of Cannabis Skunk Sense, an all-volunteer group whose mission is to "raise awareness of the continuing and growing threat to children, teenagers and their families, posed by cannabis use."

Brand, who has had a more than decade-long career as a comic in Britain, exploded on the US scene with his portrayal of heedless rock star Aldous Snow in 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a role he reprised and expanded on as the falling-off-the wagon rocker in Get Him to the Greek in 2010. Brand also played the role of the alcohol-besotted title character in last year's Arthur, a remake of the Dudley Moore classic.

But Brand has also been a thoughtful and incisive author, commentator, and radio and television host whose views have been informed by his own struggles with substances. His 2007 autobiography My Booky Wook dealt extensively with his drug-using career and subsequent abstinence, and he won wide acclaim for his open letter For Amy after the alcohol overdose death of Grammy award-winning chanteuse Amy Winehouse last year.

The legal status of drugs didn't matter much to addicts, Brand said. "I'm not a legal expert. I'm saying that, to a drug addict, the legal aspect is irrelevant," he said. "If you need to get drugs, you will. The criminal and legal status, I think, sends the wrong message. Being arrested isn't a lesson, it's just an administrative blip," he added.

"For me what is more significant is the way we socially regard the condition of addiction," Brand said. "It is something I consider to be an illness, and therefore more of health matter than a criminal or judicial matter. It is more important that we regard people suffering from addiction with compassion and there is a pragmatic rather than a symbolic approach to treating it."

Brand pointed to the experience of Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession in 2001, saying decriminalization could be "useful and efficient." Instead of using the "carrot and stick," Brand said, drug addiction should be approached with "love and compassion."

The committee will conduct further hearings before issuing a report.

London
United Kingdom

Obama's 2012 Drug Strategy: The Same Old Same Old [FEATURE]

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, and while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

Drug war spending continues to exceed treatment and prevention spending (ONDCP)
"We will continue to pursue a balanced approach… in a national effort to improve public health and safety," wrote Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head Gil Kerlikowske in the introduction to the strategy. "We will work to prevent illicit drug use and addiction before their onset and bring more Americans in need of treatment into contact with the appropriate level of care. We will continue to build on the administration’s progress in reforming the justice system, ensuring that laws are applied fairly and effectively -- protecting public safety while also ensuring that drug-involved offenders have the opportunity to end their drug use and rebuild their lives."

But that's only one half of the administration's approach. The other half, as Kerlikowske makes clear, it continued adherence to classic war on drugs strategies.

"We will continue to counter drug produc­tion and trafficking within the United States and will implement new strategies to secure our borders against illicit drug flows," the drug czar wrote. "And we will work with international partners to reduce drug production and trafficking and strengthen rule of law, democratic institutions, citizen security, and respect for human rights around the world."

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug control under the proposed budget, nearly half a billion dollars more than this year. And despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years. In fact, the 58.8% of the proposed budget that would go to drug war programs is exactly the same percentage as George Bush's 2008 budget and even higher than the 56.8% in Bush's 2005 budget.

ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske
In the 2013 drug budget, treatment and early intervention programs would be funded at $9.2 billion, an increase of more than $400 billion over this year, but most of that increase is for treatment covered under the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Grant programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including Access to Recovery, early screening and referral, and drug courts are all reduced under the 2013 budget, although drug courts would see an increase in funding under the Department of Justice's Problem Solving Justice Program.

One area where treatment funding is unequivocally increased is among the prison population. Federal Bureau of Prisons treatment spending would jump to $109 million, up 17% over this year, while the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program for state prisoners would be funded at $21 million, up nearly 50% over this year.

The drug strategy's rhetorical emphasis on prevention is not reflected in the 2013 budget, which calls for a 1% decrease in funding. SAMHSA prevention grants and Drug Free Communities funding would decrease slightly, while the administration seeks $20 million to restart the much maligned and congressionally zeroed-out Youth Drug Prevention Media Campaign.

On the drug war side of the ledger, domestic anti-drug law enforcement spending would increase by more than $61 million to $9.4 billion, with the DEA's Diversion Control Program (prescription drugs) and paying for federal drug war prisoners showing the biggest increases. The administration anticipates shelling out more than $4.5 billion to imprison drug offenders.

But domestic law enforcement is only part of the drug war picture. The budget also allocates $3.7 billion for interdiction, a 2.5% increase over the 2012 budget, and another $2 billion for international anti-drug program, including assistance to the governments of Central America, Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

Critics of the continued reliance on prohibition and repression were quick to attack the new drug strategy and budget as just more of the same.

"The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it's just that: talk," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "Instead of continuing to fund the same old 'drug war' approaches that are proven not to work, the president needs to put his money where his mouth is."

"This budget is appalling. The drug czar is trying to resurrect those stupid TV ads, like the one where a teenager gets his fist stuck in his mouth," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "The budget intentionally undercounts the federal government's expenditures on incarcerating drug offenders, who comprise more than half of the federal prison population. And the budget dangerously proposes a massive escalation in using the military to fight drugs domestically. Congress should just ignore this budget and start from scratch. Specifically, Congress should not provide the Obama administration with any money to go after nonviolent marijuana users, growers, or distributors."

In the 2013 drug strategy, the administration is highlighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing attacking the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

For Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, the 2012 drug strategy was all too familiar.

"This strategy is nearly identical to previous national drug strategies," he said. "While the rhetoric is new -- reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure -- the substance of the actual policies is the same. In reality, the administration is prioritizing low-level drug arrests, trampling on state medical marijuana laws, and expanding supply-side interdiction approaches -- while not doing enough to actually reduce the harms of drug addiction and misuse, such as the escalating overdose epidemic."

The release of the drug budget comes just days after President Obama returned from the Summit of the Americas meeting, where he was pressed to open up a debate on legalizing and regulating drugs by sitting Latin American presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala. And it comes as marijuana legalization is at the cusp of majority support and trending upward.

It is past time to keep making minor adjustments -- a slight funding increase here, a decrease there, a shift of emphasis over there -- in what is fundamentally a flawed and failed policy, said LEAP's Franklin.

"The chorus of voices calling for a real debate on ending prohibition is growing louder all the time," said Franklin. "President Obama keeps saying he is open to a discussion but he never seems willing to actually have that discussion. The time for real change is now. This prohibition strategy hasn't worked in the past and it cannot work in the future. Latin American leaders know it, and President Obama must know it. Let's stop the charade and begin to bring drugs under control through legalization."

Washington, DC
United States

Report Calls for Safe Injection Sites in Toronto, Ottawa

A long-awaited report from Canadian researchers is recommending that Toronto could use three supervised drug injection sites and Ottawa could use two. The report said the sites would be a good health care investment, would reduce drug use, and would reduce the rate of new HIV and hepatitis C infections.

Vancouver's InSite (BCCHA)
The study, the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment (TOSCA), did not make specific location recommendations for the sites, saying that should be left up to the cities themselves, should they decided to follow the recommendations.

"Supervised injection facilities in Toronto have the potential to offer meaningful improvements for the health of people who use drugs," said the study's co-principal investigator, Dr. Ahmed Bayoumi from the Center for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital. "The facilities could also make neighborhoods where drug use is common more livable."

But within hours after the study was released, some Toronto elected officials were expressing hesitation.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told the Toronto Star local official need to see all the "facts and figures" behind the study before they decide to approve a safe-injection site. "I have some doubts as to whether or not there is real benefit and whether or not you don't just attract more problems so I would like to really get the thorough results of other places that have done this and I'd like to hear from other experts on the matter," he said.

"There has not been enough research done on the topic in Toronto -- whether that is the way to go with Toronto," echoed Councillor John Filion, chair of the city's board of health, which will consider TOSCA's recommendations.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair told reporters late Wednesday that he opposes supervised injection sites, a stance that TOSCA noted in its report. "My concern is there need to be sufficient assurances within the community that the quality of life will not be put in jeopardy," Blair said.

But not everyone at City Hall was so hesitant. There is already ample evidence of the benefits of supervised injection sites, Councillor Gord Perks, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy Implementation Task Force, told the Star.

"We have today in front of us research that shows there are lives to be saved, money to be saved and neighborhoods to be improved," said Perks. "When you have differing views you go to the evidence, and the evidence is clear -- supervised injection sites save money, save lives and improve the quality of our neighborhoods."

The province of Ontario said it was open to evidence, but had no immediate plans to move forward.

"We are always prepared to listen to good advice, and we make our decisions based on evidence," Health Minister Deb Mathews said in a written statement Wednesday. "Experts continue to be divided on the value of the sites. We have no plans to pursue supervised sites at this time."

Canada's only operating supervised injection site is InSite in Vancouver. It is operating under an exemption from Canada's drug laws, much to the chagrin of the Conservative national government. Any future supervised injections sites would have to win similar exemptions. But at this point, worrying about that seems premature.

Toronto, ON
Canada

Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia

Colorado Drug Sentencing Reform Bill Introduced

A bill that would drop some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors was introduced Tuesday in the Colorado Senate. Sponsors said the intent was to reduce prison populations and ensure that addicted drug users get treatment instead of long prison sentences.

It costs $32,000 a year to jail drug offenders at the Colorado State Prison II in Canon City. (cpr.org)
The measure, Senate Bill 163, would make the possession of less than four grams of most controlled substances a misdemeanor. It is currently a Class VI felony, the least serious felony level. Possession of more than four grams would drop from a Class IV felony to a Class VI felony.

Methamphetamine gets slightly stiffer treatment. In the case of meth, possession of less than two grams would drop from a Class VI felony to a misdemeanor, while possession of more than two grams would drop from Class IV to Class VI.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-District 23), one of the bill's cosponsors, has spoken publicly about his younger brother's struggles with meth and said he wants a more reasonable approach to drug use. His bill would require that any savings from reduced prison populations be used to fund drug treatment.

"The war on drugs has made government more powerful, citizens less free, and hasn't helped users or addicts," Mitchell said. "I want to push a smarter effort against drugs. I want to stop piling people into prisons and stop branding people with a felony for a personal weakness."

The bill has bipartisan support in the legislature, but is opposed by prosecutors.

Tom Raynes, head of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, told legislators that most first-time drug offenders already get deferred sentences that can be dismissed if they meet certain conditions, such as completing drug treatment programs. He said he is concerned the bill would remove an incentive for people to complete treatment.

"Kind of what keeps people in the program is concerns over getting a felony conviction," he said.

But the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which supports the bill, reported that in the 16 months ending in November 2011, 310 people convicted of drug possession were sentenced to prison, accounting for 60% of all drug offenders sent to prison. Each one of them costs the state $32,000 a year to imprison.

"I think that as state budgets have struggled, under that there's been more energy put into asking ourselves what works to promote public safety," said Christie Donner, executive director of the coalition.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have laws making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Similar legislation was introduced in California last month.

SB 163 has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it awaits a hearing.

Denver, CO
United States

Battle for Restored Needle Exchange Funding Heats Up [FEATURE]

After 20 years of walking in the political wilderness, public health and harm reduction advocates for federal funding for needle exchange programs made it to the Promised Land in December 2009, when the Democratic-controlled Congress overturned the longstanding funding ban. But just two years later, led by the Republican-controlled House and with the acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Congress reinstated the ban in its 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

Needle exchange advocates arrested on Capitol Hill Wednesday (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
Advocates were outraged and dismayed by the congressional action, but are determined to fight back to restore funding for a harm reduction practice repeatedly proven to save lives and reduce the spread of infectious blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. This week, they came out swinging with a national day of action Wednesday that saw organized call-ins to members of Congress and civil disobedience actions leading to dozens of arrests at the offices of four of them, as well as actions in a dozen others cities across the county.

Although the funding ban's main proponents are Republicans, repealing the ban is actually the states' rights, deregulation position. Each year the federal government authorizes funding for grants to states to be used for AIDS prevention and treatment. When the ban was temporarily lifted, it neither increased nor decreased the amount of AIDS funding, but it meant that states could choose for themselves whether or not to use some of those funds to support needle exchange programs.

The activists have science and the evidence on their side. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

More than 200 needle exchange programs operate across the country in cooperation with local law enforcement officials and health departments, but many are in danger of closing their doors or cutting back services without access to federal funds. That puts lives and the public health at risk.

Needle exchange supporters said the restored the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), needle sharing by injection drug users accounts for 8,000 new cases of HIV and 15,000 new cases of hepatitis C each year. In New York City, there has been a 75% reduction in new HIV cases as a result of instituting such programs, according to a 2005 study cited by HRC.

"We need Congress to stand behind public health and science, and declare a cease-fire on syringe exchange," said HRC executive director Allan Clear. "All of the research tells the same story: Syringe exchange prevents infections, promotes drug treatment, and reduces drug use. Congress must stop treating syringe exchange as an ideological pawn in partisan politics."

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress has restored it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

Cherry blossoms bloom in DC as arrestee is detained (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
The renewed ban on federal funding for needle exchanges couldn't come at a more inopportune time. With a wave of drug users who began their careers with opioid pain pills finding succor in the needle, making access to clean needles more difficult is likely to make matters worse.

"We need to support syringe exchange programs now more than ever," said HRC policy director Daniel Raymond. "Health officials in many states report a disturbing new trend of hepatitis C outbreaks in young people, driven by a new wave of injection drug use linked to the prescription painkiller epidemic. We're in danger of starving programs of federal funds, just when the demand for syringe exchange is increasing."

In Washington, while a coordinated campaign of phone calling kept the congressional switchboard humming, dozens of AIDS and harm reduction activists went to Capitol Hill and held sit-ins at the offices of four House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) for their role in reinstating the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs last December.

Carrying signs reading "Syringe Exchange: A Fix for AIDS," the activists chanted and blocked doorways before being arrested by Capitol Police. They were expected to be booked and released later Wednesday.

At least 32 people were arrested at Congress, according to Housing Works, a New York City-based group that provides services for AIDS sufferers. Housing Works participated in the action as part of the We Can End AIDS Coalition, an umbrella group coordinating a July 24 mass protest in Washington around economic justice and human rights for AIDS patients.

"Our government should be embarrassed as this year's host of the International AIDS Conference to have sneaked this into an unrelated bill under the cloak of night last December," said Housing Works CEO Charles King. "The US cannot be any shining example to the rest of the world on how to end the AIDS epidemic when we’re still fighting foolish policies that reject what we know works."

Wednesday's action was only an opening skirmish in what will be a determined battle to restore the federal funds. The AIDS, public health, and harm reduction communities are not going to just roll over and play dead while Congress makes decisions that will result in real people becoming really dead.

"We refuse to let the close-mindedness of anti-science conservatives dictate public health policy," said Clear. "We can't afford these political games, and we can't afford any more new infections. Our communities are struggling; Congress needs to listen and show leadership by rescinding the funding ban."

Greece to Hand out Needles, Condoms in AIDS Fight

The Greek government announced Tuesday that it will begin harm reduction measures, including handing out condoms and needles to heroin addicts, in an effort to slow an alarming rise in new HIV cases, Agence-France Presse reported. The government anti-drug organization Okana and volunteer organizations will hand out 30,000 condoms and 10,000 needles as part of the effort, which will be initially launched in Athens.

view of the Acropolis at sunset (wikimedia.org)
"There is an imperative need for immediate action to limit the spread of infection," deputy health minister Michalis Timosidis said in a parliamentary document.

Greek health officials had reported in November that new HIV cases were up by 52.7% last year over 2010. The government center for disease control and prevention said over 800 new cases had been recorded through October 2011.

A third of the new cases were reported among gay men, but officials said most new cases were linked to prostitution and intravenous drug use. The number of new HIV infections among heroin users increased a whopping 1,250% in a year, the disease control center said.

Because of the economic crisis, Greece has been forced to radically cut social spending to eliminate budget deficits in order to receive loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Those spending cuts have seen staff layoffs and mergers in the health sector, which doctors said are weakening the effectiveness of the Greek health care system.

Athens
Greece

UN Anti-Drug Body Supports Overdose Prevention Measures

Delegates to the 55th session of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) in Vienna unanimously approved a resolution to promote measures to prevent drug overdose deaths last Friday. The resolution calls on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international organizations to work with individual countries to address and reduce drug overdoses. Crucially, the resolution included mention of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can effectively reverse opiate overdoses and which does not carry any danger of abuse.

Naloxone can save lives, the CND recognized Friday (wikimedia.org)
The resolution was introduced by the Czech Republic and cosponsored by Israel and Denmark (the latter on behalf of the European Union). Earlier in the week, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the US Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) affirmed US support for overdose prevention. In his opening statement at the week-long session, Kerlikowske endorsed training public health and medical personnel in overdose recognition and response, as well as the use of naloxone and other overdose reversal medications.

"Every life is worth saving," said Dasha Ocheret, policy and advocacy program manager for the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network. "Everyone knows someone who has died from an overdose. It's thrilling that the United Nations recognizes this is a problem to be taken seriously and something can be done."

"This represents a critical step towards improving global public health," said Donald McPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver. "The global overdose epidemic can be addressed with meaningful, evidence-based interventions to reduce the immediate potential harms associated with opioid use, and prevent unnecessary death. It is heartening to witness CND member countries take this step together to save lives."

The biggest risk of fatal overdose is around opiates and opioid pain medications. According to the UNODC, "the ingestion of opioids accounts for nearly half of the global drug-related deaths, and the majority of deaths could have been prevented." The UNODC puts the number of user of opium derivatives, both medical and non-medical, at around 21 million worldwide.

Opioid overdose deaths are generally preventable for three reasons: The deaths occur gradually after drug use, there are typically other people present, and the effects of overdose can be reversed with naloxone, also known under its brand name, Narcan.

In some countries, including some states in the US, there are ongoing programs to offer naloxone to drug users, their friends, and family members. Last fall, Massachusetts announced its 1,000th overdose reversal using naloxone. New Mexico has also been a pioneer in expanding the use of naloxone.

"Naloxone is a safe and effective medication that has been available for more than forty years," said Sharon Stancliff of the New York City-based Harm Reduction Coalition. "It's exciting that the UN has officially recognized the importance of making this life-saving medication more widely available. It is vital that it is made accessible to people who need it, both inside the hospital setting and outside, through emergency services and to family members of opioid users."

Vienna
Austria

Giving Addicts Heroin More Effective Than Methadone, Study Finds

Treating intractable heroin addicts with a pharmaceutical version of their drug is more cost-effective than providing them with methadone, a common opioid substitute, a study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests.

Diacetylmorphine AKA pharmaceutical grade heroin (wikimedia.org)
The study analyzed data from the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI ), a 2005-2008 study that compared the use of diacetylmorphine (heroin) and methadone in street addicts. In the NAOMI study, researchers selected 250 subjects in Vancouver and Montreal who had been strung out for at least five years and had twice previously failed on methadone maintenance. Participants were randomly chosen to take either heroin or methadone.

Researchers in this study examined the cost-effectiveness of the two approaches in one-year, five-year, 10-year increments, as well over the lifetimes of the users. The study found that those using methadone generated an average lifetime social cost of $1.14 million, while those using heroin had a cost of $1.1 million, a difference of about $40,000 per user. An estimated 60,000 to 90,000 Canadians are addicted to heroin or other opioids.

"If you are on treatment, you're basically well-behaved," principal investigator Aslam Anis, a health economist at the University of British Columbia told the Canadian Press Monday. "When you're not taking treatment, for instance when you relapse, you're doing all kinds of bad things, criminal activity, getting into jail. The cost benefit is through an indirect effect," said Anis, through fewer robberies and other crimes, which have an adverse impact on victims and drive up criminal justice system costs.

"People who take (medical) heroin are retained on the treatment for longer periods of time and they have shorter periods of time when they relapse," Anis said. "And when you add it all up, you find that you've actually saved money."

"Methadone can be a very effective medication for some people, but it doesn't work for everybody with heroin addiction," said coauthor Dr. Martin Schechter, an epidemiologist at UBC's School of Population and Public Health. "And there is a subset of folks who go in and out of treatment and ultimately end up back using street heroin. They would be unlikely to be attracted into yet another methadone program," he said.

"But giving them injections of medically prescribed heroin in a clinic setting staffed by doctors, nurses and counselors gets them back into the health-care system. It also cuts the risk of infection with hepatitis C and HIV from needle-sharing. So diacetylmorphine is a medically prescribed heroin that we show in the study was more likely to keep people in treatment. And we know that keeping people in treatment is a very important predictor of success."

No matter what this or any other study finds, the Conservative Canadian government is opposed to harm reduction measures, such as safe injection sites and heroin maintenance therapies. Still, said Schecter, the government needs to face reality.

"The fact is that these people are taking heroin right now. They're in the back alleys in the Downtown Eastside, they're buying the heroin on the street, contributing to the black market and crime and violence," he said. "And they're not in any treatment and they're costing the system lots and lots of money. So our proposal says rather than having them do that in the back alley, why don't we attract them into a clinic where they will be in contact with doctors and nurses and counselors, we stabilize them by getting them out of a life of crime."

So, is anybody listening in Ottawa? Probably not, but the current government won't be in power forever.

Canada

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

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