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Afghanistan: The DEA Is on the Way

The Obama administration has shifted gears in Afghanistan, rejecting the Bush administration's emphasis on opium poppy eradication in favor of attacking Taliban-linked drug trafficking networks as it increases the number of US military personnel in the country to nearly 70,000. Along with that increase in American servicemen and women in Afghanistan, the administration is also ramping up the DEA presence in the country.
opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
The number of DEA agents in the country will increase five-fold this year, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. The agency currently has 13 agents in Afghanistan; that number will jump to 68 by September and 81 by 2010. An unspecified number of additional agents are also being sent to Pakistan, through which a large portion of the Afghan drug trade flows.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium poppy supply, from which heroin is derived. One province now in the sights of a 4,000 strong US Marine expeditionary force, Helmand province, by itself produces more than half of all Afghan opium and if it were its own country, would be the world's largest opium supplier.

While all factions in Afghanistan have their fingers in the poppy pie, including numerous officials and warlords linked to the Karzai government, the US and NATO are especially interested in disrupting those portions of the drug trade that help finance the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from taxing poppy crops, acting as armed escorts for drug caravans, and running international drug trafficking operations.

In the past, the Taliban has benefitted from eradication campaigns in at least two ways. First, to the extent such campaigns are successful, they drive up the price of opium, which the Taliban has abundantly stockpiled. Second, the eradication campaigns have proven a fertile recruiting tool for the Taliban as farmers angry at seeing their livelihoods destroyed look to join those who ostensibly oppose eradication.

Latin America: Washington, Bogota on Verge of Deal to Make Colombian Military Air Base Regional Hub for Counter-Narcotics, More

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that US and Colombian negotiators are nearing agreement on a plan to expand the US military presence in Colombia by allowing the US to base hundreds of Americans at a Colombian Air Force Base in the Magdalena River valley to support US anti-drug interdiction missions. A fifth and final round of talks later this month could seal the deal.
anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The base would take up the drug war slack left by the ending of interdiction operations from the international airport at Manta, Ecuador, which is set for this week. The Manta base had been home for some 220 Americans supporting E-C AWACS and P-3 Orion surveillance planes scouring northern South America and the eastern Pacific for vessels and planes they suspect are carrying drugs. But Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa refused to renew the US lease, saying the US military mission there violated his country's sovereignty.

Colombian officials told the AP the plan was to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations. The current draft of the plan, they said, would allow more frequent visits by US aircraft and warships to two naval bases and three air bases in Colombia, with the Palanquero air base being the centerpiece of the plan. Palanquero had been off limits to US forces until April for human rights reasons -- a Colombian military helicopter operating from Palanquero had killed 17 civilians in 1998.

But that's ancient history now. A bill already passed by the House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for new construction at the base, which is home to the Colombian Air Force's main fighter wing. That funding would be released 15 days after an agreement is reached.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one of America's few remaining staunch allies in the region, and acceptance of the base deal could further stress already strained relations between Colombia and its more left-leaning neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. It's also certain to raise concerns about Latin Americans wary of US interventions in the region.

Such concerns are not helped by Pentagon planning documents that suggest that beyond its anti-drug mission, Palanquero could be a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed." In other words, a jumping off point for US military expeditionary forces.
coca eradication
The US has pumped several billion dollars of primarily military and police assistance into Colombia since Plan Colombia began in 1999. Originally defined as a purely anti-drug program, under the Bush administration, it took on the additional burden of counter-insurgency, defining the rebel FARC guerrillas as narco-terrorists who must be defeated.

Despite all those billions of dollars in anti-drug aid, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. Neighboring Peru is second, and Bolivia is third. Bolivia under President Evo Morales also forms part of the emerging left-leaning bloc in Latin America.

Former Colombian defense minister Rafael Pardo, who is running for president in the May 2010 elections, told the AP that the radar and communications interception ability of US surveillance planes extends well beyond Colombia's borders and could cause problems with its neighbors.

"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said.

Feature: US Gives Up on Eradicating Afghan Opium Poppies, Will Target Traffickers Instead

Thousands of US Marines poured into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province this week to take the battle against the Taliban to the foe's stronghold. But in a startling departure from decades of US anti-drug policy, eradicating Helmand's massive opium poppy crop will not be part of their larger mission.

US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations Saturday that attempting to quash the opium and heroin trade through eradication was counterproductive and bad policy. Instead, the US would concentrate on alternative development, security, and targeting drug labs and traffickers.
Afghan anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul
"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke told the Associated Press during a break in the G-8 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban, so we're going to phase out eradication," he said.

"The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living. It's the drug system," Holbrooke continued. "So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, which generates multiple streams of income for them. Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers in areas under their control, provide security for drug convoys, and sell opium and heroin through smuggling networks that reach around the globe.

As late as last year, US policymakers supported intensifying eradication efforts, with some even arguing for the aerial spraying of herbicides, as has been done with limited success, but severe political and environmental consequences in Colombia. That notion was opposed by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, as well as by the US's NATO partners, particularly Britain, which supports expanded manual eradication of the poppy fields.

On Sunday, Afghan counternarcotics minister General Khodaidad disputed Holbrooke's claims that eradication was a failure, telling the Canadian Press that Afghanistan had achieved "lots of success" with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields. Still, he said he was open to the new American strategy. "Whatever program or strategy would be to the benefit of Afghanistan, we welcome it," Khodaidad said. "We are happy with our policy... so I'm not seeing any pause or what do you call it, deficiency, in our strategy. Our strategy's perfect. Our strategy's good."

Britain and US are at odds over opium field eradication plans. According to the London newspaper The Independent, British officials said Sunday they would continue to fund manual eradication in areas under their control. Those officials downplayed any dispute, however, saying details remained to be worked out.

But eradication has met with extremely limited success. According to the UN Office on Crime and Drugs, eradication peaked in 2003, while the Taliban were in retreat, with more than 51,000 acres destroyed. By 2007, that figure had declined to 47,000 acres, and last year, it was a measly 13,500 acres. Similarly, a survey of villages that had participated in eradication last year found that nearly half of them were growing poppy again this year.

The shift in US policy drew praise from observers across the ideological spectrum. It also aroused speculation that it could be emulated elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.

"The new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan which scales down eradication and emphasizes rural development and interdiction is exactly right," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs, development, and security expert with the Brookings Institution. "Under the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, eradication has been not only ineffective; it has been counterproductive because it strengthens the bond between the rural population dependent on the illicit economy and the Taliban. Backing away from counterproductive eradication is not only a right analysis, it is also a courageous break on the part of the Obama administration with decades of failed counternarcotics strategy worldwide that centers on premature and unsustainable eradication," she added.

"This is clearly a positive, pragmatic step," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It seems that the Obama administration is so deeply invested in succeeding in Afghanistan that they're actually willing to pursue a pragmatic drug policy. This is an intelligent move," he added. "It is an implicit recognition that you are not going to eradicate opium production in this world so long as there is a market for it. Given that Afghanistan is the dominant opium producer right now, the pragmatic strategy is to figure out how to manage that production rather than to pursue a politically destructive and ineffective crop eradication strategy."

"This administration is finally showing some pragmatism," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We are beginning to understand that our policies are affecting the policy outcomes we want. We didn't see this under the previous administration, so this is definitely very promising," she added.

But it doesn't necessarily mean there is light at the end of the tunnel, she was quick to add. "Sadly, this doesn't make me more optimistic about our prospects," she said. "This will win us more hearts and minds on the ground, but it also has to be linked to fewer targeted killings, fewer airstrikes that generate civilian casualties, or any good will is likely to be canceled out," she said.

Similarly, Felbab-Brown cautioned that the Obama administration must be prepared to defend the shift at home. "It is imperative that the administration lay down the political groundwork and inform Congress, the public, and the international community that it is unlikely that the new policy will result in a substantial reduction of cultivation or of the dependence on the illegal economy any time soon since rural development is a long-term process dependent on security," she said. "Setting the right expectations now is necessary so that accomplishments of the new strategy in two or three years are not interpreted as failures since the numbers of hectares cultivated with poppy has not dramatically decreased."

Nadelmann suggested that the new strategy is not likely to significantly impact the drug trade. "With the alternative measures they're proposing, such as the focus on traffickers, there's not much reason to think it will have any significant impact on Afghan opium and heroin exports, but it will enable the US, NATO, and the Afghan government to pursue a more discriminating and productive strategy, at least at the political level," he said.

"The really potentially interesting implication of this is for Latin America," said Nadelmann. "It makes one wonder if the Obama administration might come to realize that the same strategy they are pursuing for opium in Afghanistan makes sense in Latin America for coca cultivation in the Andes."

That may be premature. With analysts predicting no decrease in the poppy crop and little impact on the drug trade, in the medium term, the only political selling point for the move away from eradication will be success in defeating or significantly weakening the Taliban insurgency. That will be a difficult task, one whose success is by no means guaranteed.

Latin America: Obama Administration Declines to Restore Bolivian Trade Preferences, Cites Government's Acceptance of Coca Production

President Barack Obama has declined to restore trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference Act to Bolivia, citing the Bolivian government's acceptance of coca growing. The decision came in a Tuesday report from the office of the US Trade Representative.
coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare area of Bolivia
The report also complained about Bolivian nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector and increases in tariffs, but it was the pro-coca policies of the government of President Evo Morales that drew the sharpest language. Even while acknowledging that the Bolivian government continues to undertake significant interdiction efforts against the cocaine trade, the report criticized Bolivia for failing to adhere to US demands to decrease coca cultivation and for expelling the DEA from the country last fall.

Since assuming the presidency, Morales has dramatically changed Bolivian drug policy from "zero coca" to "zero cocaine, not zero coca." Coca production has seen slight annual increases under Morales, but Bolivia remains only the third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

"The current challenges include the explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government; government tolerance of and attractive income from increased and unconstrained coca cultivation in both the Yungas and Chapare regions; and increased and uncontrolled sale of coca to drug traffickers," the report scolded. "The efficiency and success of eradication efforts have significantly declined in the past few years."

Tensions between La Paz and Washington have been high in recent years as Morales has defended the use and cultivation of coca and expelled US diplomats after accusing them of intervening in Bolivian internal affairs. Bolivia's close relationship with Venezuela under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez hasn't helped, either.

And this won't help, either. President Morales reacted angrily Wednesday, saying the move contradicted Obama's vow to treat Latin America countries as equals. "President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners," he told reporters. The report, he added, used "pure lies and insults" to justify its decision.

Sharks Filled With Cocaine!!!

It was really just a matter of time if you think about it:

The lengths to which drug smugglers will go to conceal their consignments was revealed when the Mexican navy said it had seized more than a tonne of cocaine stuffed inside frozen shark carcasses.

Masked naval officers cut open more than 20 carcasses filled with slabs of cocaine after checking a cargo ship in a container port in the state of Yucatan. [The Guardian]

Maybe the drug traffickers should train live sharks to smuggle cocaine, because that would be awesome and nobody would mess with them. Actually, if the drug war continues long enough, it's statistically probable that it will happen.

Regardless, this is another one of those crazy stories that just shows how ridiculous the drug war has become. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen, and if our drug policy made any sense, they wouldn't.

Drug War Robots Are Not the Answer

Time Magazine reports on the proliferation of flying drones that spy on drug smugglers from the sky. I'm sure our brave drug war soldiers love sending in remote control robots to do their dirty work, but Time takes things way too far by surmising that these creepy drones might become a game-changing force in the war on drugs:

Indeed, with drones playing an increasing role in U.S. military operations — some 7,000 are in use today, up from just around 100 in the year 2000 — it only stands to reason that drug drones will soon join America's growing stealth arsenal. That's especially true at a time when many in Congress are questioning the cost-effectiveness of a drug war (which has poured more than $5 billion in U.S. aid to Colombia alone this decade) that intercepts tons of narcotics each year but rarely seems to put appreciable dents in eradicating crops like coca, the raw material of cocaine, or reducing the flow of marijuana, coke, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S.

This is backwards logic. The fact that the drug war consistently and colossally fails to reduce the drug supply is not an argument for spending millions on gigantic flying drones. We should have learned the opposite lesson by now.

Seriously, stop building futuristic drug war machines. We've taken things way, way too far already.

Drug Smuggling Scientists are Always Ahead of the Game

The harder we try to stop people from sneaking drugs into the country, the better they get at doing it:

It turns out the woman was allegedly smuggling cocaine - but not inside her luggage. Instead, the suitcases themselves turned out to be made of the drug.

Detectives discovered smugglers had figured out a way to combine the coke with resin and glue fibre to form a useable set of suitcases. They were then packed as normal and the suspect allegedly attempted to get them onboard a departing flight.

A chemical process could be used to separate the drug from the other contents, if it had ever reached its final destination.

But sharp eyed security prevented that from happening and the 26-year-old Argentinean has been taken into custody after literally getting caught holding the bag. [CityNews]

Well, that'll teach those crooks to scientifically engineer super-smuggling technology. So much for that brilliant idea. Oh, wait. What if there are other suitcases?

Seriously, think about where we're headed here. If they can make anything out of cocaine, then we're rapidly approaching a point when every traveler is a cocaine suspect and every item, no matter how mundane, will have to be swabbed and inspected. The whole thing will be massively inconvenient for everyone, except the rich and powerful drug lords who thoroughly enjoy all of this.

The Drug Czar: Harm Reductionists, Treatment and Recovery Advocates Come Down on Different Sides of Rumored Ramstad Nomination

Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.
Jim Ramstad
It may all be for naught. Ramstad himself has asked the Obama transition team to consider him to head SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a post where his appointment would arguably be less controversial. And President Bush's last-minute appointment Monday of current acting ONDCP deputy director Patrick Ward to replace outgoing drug czar John Walters only muddies the waters further.

While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.

"While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma. While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover."

Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.

A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.

"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."

And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.

The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."

The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.

West Africa: Here Come the Narcs

In the last three years, South American cocaine traffickers aiming at lucrative European markets have increasingly turned to West Africa as a way station in the intercontinental trade. Now, the narcs are following them. Several countries, including the US, Brazil, and Colombia, are either increasing or establishing an anti-drug presence in the region in a bid to dent the traffic.

The countries of West Africa are poor, crime-ridden and beset with weak institutions, making them attractive to traffickers able to buy protection on the cheap. And with half of the world's cocaine now going up the noses or into the crack pipes of Europeans -- use rates there have doubled in the past four years, according to the UN -- traffickers are rushing to set up shop in places like Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. One quarter or more of all cocaine headed for Europe now transits West Africa.

Colombian National Police Commander Gen. Óscar Naranjo said last week that he will soon send a 10-man anti-drug team to the region, with a headquarters in Sierra Leone. "We want to establish a common front with these countries, to help identify the Colombian traffickers who come and go," Naranjo said.

Brazil, which is itself a major consuming country as well as a transshipment point, is also sending narcs across the water. About a half-dozen agents are headed for West Africa, one foreign narcotics agent told the Los Angeles Times.

And the US DEA is getting in on the action, too. While for years, the DEA had only one office in the entire continent, in Lagos, Nigeria, it is now expanding its activities in West Africa, agency spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Times. "The drug traffic is now going both ways. Cocaine is moving through Africa and on to Europe, while precursor chemicals from China and India for making methamphetamines are now transiting through on the way to Central America and Mexico," Courtney said. Profits from the trade could be funding terrorists, he warned.

Drug busts are already on the rise in the region. In 2001, less than a ton of cocaine was seized in West Africa; by 2006, the figure was up to 14.6 tons, according to the UN. Last year, four tons were seized in Mauritania and Senegal alone, 2.5 tons were found on a Liberian freighter, and another half-ton on board a plane that crashed at Sierra Leone's international airport.

Guinea-Bissau has been an especially tempting spot for traffickers. One of the poorest nations in the world, it has a two-ship navy, no prison, and a few dozen police. Under last year, when tougher laws were passed, the maximum penalty for drug trafficking was a $1,000 fine, even if the quantity in question weighed in the tons. Two suspected members of the Colombian FARC guerrillas were arrested there in 2007 while on a drug trafficking mission -- and mysteriously released.

Now, West Africa will be treated to the tender mercies of the DEA and its homologues.

The Drug War Only Causes Violence. It Can't Create Peace.

Someone help me understand what Mexico’s U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza is thinking:

"Calderón must, and will, keep the pressure on the cartels, but look, let's not be naïve – there will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That's the nature of the battle," Garza said. "The more pressure the cartels feel, the more they'll lash out like cornered animals." [Dallas Morning News]

This is correct except for the part about how Calderón has to do this (no, he doesn't) and the part about how things will get better (no, they won't). We’ve heard all this a thousand times before and it just gets sillier every time. The bottom line is that cracking down on the cartels either works or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to say that aggressive drug war policies will create violence in the short term, and then eventually that same approach will begin reducing bloodshed. That’s not logical.

The drug war causes violence. Just admit it. Stop pretending that it’s going to produce the opposite result at some point in the future. It isn’t going to.

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