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DC Marijuana Initiative Hands in Plenty of Signatures [FEATURE]

It now looks extremely likely that the residents of the nation's capitol will vote in November on whether to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. Representatives of the DC Cannabis Campaign legalization initiative handed in some 58,000 signatures Monday morning, and they only need some 25,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

outside DC election headquarters (drugpolicy.org)
Signature-gathering experts generally expect to see something between 20% and 30% of signatures handed in deemed invalid. For the DC initiative to fail to qualify, the invalidation rate would have to be above 50%.

The measure will be known as Initiative 71 once it officially qualifies for the ballot.

The District of Columbia isn't the only locale where marijuana legalization is almost definitely going to be on the ballot this fall. An Alaska legalization initiative has already qualified, and organizers of an Oregon legalization initiative just last week handed in more than 145,000 signatures, nearly twice the 88,000 valid voter signatures needed to qualify.

Colorado and Washington led the way on marijuana legalization, with voters in both states passing legalization initiatives in 2012. DC, Alaska, and Oregon all appear poised to join them in November.

In DC, campaigners will emphasize the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition. In 2010, black people accounted for 91% of marijuana arrests, even though they now account for less than half the city's population. The District is also currently saddled with the highest per capita marijuana arrest rates in the nation.

The DC initiative is not a full-blown legalize, tax, and regulate measure. It would allow people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and cultivate six plants at home. But District law prevents initiatives from addressing budgetary issues, which precludes the initiative addressing the tax and regulate/marijuana commerce aspect of legalization. But the DC city council currently is considering a tax and regulate bill to cover that.

boxes of signature petitions ready to go (drugpolicy.org)
The city council passed a decriminalization bill that goes into effect shortly, but advocates argued based on other decrim laws in the states that alone is not enough to change police practices. They noted that in Colorado and Washington, where actual legalization is in effect, marijuana arrest rates have dropped dramatically. Those declines not only save millions in tax dollars; they also save thousands of people from the legal and collateral consequences of a pot bust.

After handing in signatures this morning, key players in the initiative gathered for a noon tele-conference.

"In just a few weeks, DC's groundbreaking decriminalization law goes into effect," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which is supporting the initiative. "But decriminalization is just the first step. Today, the DC Cannabis Campaign turned in enough signatures to put Initiative 71 on the ballot."

"Last week, the US celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act," noted Dr. Malik Burnett, recently brought in as DC policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Drug policy reform is the civil rights issue of this century. Prohibition isn't working, and it is leading to poor outcomes, especially in communities of color. We definitely applaud the city council for getting decriminalization done, but in other jurisdictions with decriminalization, we continue to see a large number of racially biased arrests. If we look at jurisdictions that have legalized, arrest rates for small amounts of marijuana are down 75%."

"Today is a big day in this effort," said Councilmember David Grosso, sponsor of the Tax and Regulate Marijuana Act of 2014. "It looks like it will be on the ballot this fall, and I'm confident that people here in DC will vote to legalize marijuana. The people have been in the forefront of this for a long time, starting with medical marijuana back in 1998."

Grosso said he sponsored the tax and regulate bill because of the failures of prohibition.

"I'm a strong believer that the war on drugs has been a failure," he said. "We need to move beyond putting people in jail for marijuana and non-violent offenses. But once we legalize it, it's important to regulate it in a way that is responsible for the District, which is why I introduced the tax and regulate bill. It has to go through a couple of committees, but we're a full-time legislature and could have it done by the end of the year. If not, I will reintroduce it next year."

"This initiative is very different from the other efforts," said DC Cannabis Campaign chair and long-time DC political gadfly Adam Eidinger. "It's very focused on the consumer, how we can keep them out of jail and give them a supply without creating a marketplace. This is looking at the rights of the individual and letting them produce their own at home. This by itself isn't full legalization -- Grosso's bill is the complete picture, but we can't put that on the ballot, so we did the next best thing to enshrine the rights of the consumer," he explained.

"We already passed home cultivation for medical marijuana in 1998, and many us were demanding from the city council that we actually get home cultivation as part of medical," Eidinger noted. "Their failure to do so has fueled the interest in pushing this forward. Medical marijuana is not the destination for every user, nor is decriminalization. The goal is to stop the bleeding, to stop arresting four or five thousand people here every year. My goal is take marijuana arrests down to zero," he said.

DC election workers start validating signatures. (drugpolicy.org)
"I want to note that I am also the social action director for Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a major backer which provided money to get this off the ground," said Eidinger. "We've raised and spent at least $150,000 and we hope to raise another $100,000 between now and election day. A lot of these initiative campaigns are fueled by business interests, but we're not offering a retail outlet as the end result of the initiative. It's a little more difficult to raise money when it's about civil rights -- not making some business person rich."

Even if the initiative makes the ballot and passes, there is still an outside chance that congressional conservatives will seek to block it. That's what happened with the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which Congress didn't allow to go into effect for more than a decade.

Similar moves are already afoot over the District's yet-to-go-into-effect decriminalization law. A Maryland congressmen and physician, Rep. Andy Harris (R), has already persuaded the House Appropriations Committee to approve a rider to the DC appropriations bill that would block implementation of the decrim law. But that measure still has to be approved by the House as a whole, and then by the Senate.

If that were to happen, it wouldn't be without a fight.

"The Drug Policy Alliance and the DC Cannabis Campaign look forward to working with members of the city council to expand on Initiative 71 to develop tax and regulate centered around the idea of racial justice," said Dr. Burnett. "The first step is passing 71 to show the will of the people, followed by legislation from the city council. That combination will show Congress that DC residents are serious about reforming their drug policies, and Congress will respect DC home rule."

Dr. Burnett also had some advice for Dr. Harris, the Republican congressman trying to block DC marijuana reforms.

"I would encourage Dr. Harris to take a continuing medical education class on cannabis and to see the reports from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes on Drug Abuse that teen marijuana use is flat and to understand that the health outcomes associated with incarceration are much worse than those associated with cannabis use," he said.

According to recent polls, support for legalizing marijuana in the District is around 60%. If the initiative actually makes the ballot, it has a very good chance to win in November. And if it wins in November, congressional conservatives will have to explain why DC residents aren't good enough for direct democracy, or get out of the way. And the following spring could see a thousand flowers bloom in the nation's capital.

Washington, DC
United States

An Industry Emerges: The NCIA Cannabis Business Summit in Denver [FEATURE]

The exhibition hall in the Denver Convention Center last week was a wonder to behold. Automated, high-capacity marijuana trimming machines. Industrial strength cannabis oil extraction devices. Marijuana real estate specialists. Marijuana accountants. Marijuana attorneys -- real estate, intellectual property, contracts. Marijuana consultants. Marijuana investment advisers. Point-of-sale marijuana sales tracking systems. Chemical testing companies. Vaporizer sellers. Odor-proof bag producers. Automated rolling machine makers. Anything and everything to do with the business of legal marijuana. All in a high-gloss trade show environment.

It was the National Cannabis Industry Association's (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit, which brought more than 1,200 registrants to the state capital that for now at least is also the capital of legal marijuana. And it represents a new phase in the evolution of marijuana policy.

This is not your father's marijuana movement. There were lots of men in dark suits and ties, lots of women in snappy professional attire. A few dreadlocks here and there, but only a few. And nary a tie-dye to be found. There wasn't a whole lot of talk about how "We have to free the weed, man;" although social justice including ending prohibition came. up. There was a whole lot of talk about business opportunities, investment strategies, and how to profit from crumbling pot prohibition, as well as the dangers and pitfalls facing would-be entrepreneurs in an industry still illegal under federal law.

The legal marijuana industry has been bubbling up for awhile now, building from the quasi-legalization that is medical marijuana in Wild West California and the more regulated, but still thriving medical marijuana industry in states like Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. In the past decade or so, the High Times Cannabis Cup has evolved from a November trip to Amsterdam to a virtual traveling circus of all things pot-related. And marijuana trade expos have drawn crowds in the tens of thousands.

But one can reasonably argue that last week's Cannabusiness Summit represents the maturation of marijuana as an All-American business opportunity. With Colorado this week beginning to accept applications from people who don't represent medical marijuana dispensaries (for the first six months of commercial legalization, only operating dispensaries could apply) and Washington state set to see its first retail marijuana operations next week, the era of legal marijuana is truly upon us. And it's likely to continue to expand, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, poised to join the ranks of the legalizers after elections later this year.

Talking up the product in the exhibition hall.
The Cannabis Business Summit was, unsurprisingly, mainly about the nuts and bolts of operating a legal marijuana business. It could have been any industrial trade show and conference, except this was about weed. Panels covered topics such as "Grow 101: Cultivation Facility Build-Out and Management Best Practices," "Advanced Cultivation: Scalability, Sustainability, and Growth Management," "Protecting Your Investment: Risk Management and Insurance for the Cannabis Industry," and "International CannaBusiness Opportunities." And that was just session one of day one.

Marijuana is an industry on a roll, and the NCIA can point to its own success as exhibit one.

"We now have over 600 marijuana business members, and that has doubled since January," said NCIA founder and executive director Aaron Smith in a keynote speech. "When Steve Fox and I started the NCIA in 2010, we had 20 members. Investors and entrepreneurs are rushing into this new space."

That, in turn, is allowing NCIA to expand its operations, Smith said.

"We're seeing more experienced business people because they understand what a trade association is," Smith explained. "So we've been able to staff up, we have a full-time DC lobbyist, which is a first for the industry, and we've already contacted every congressional office on the Hill and had sit-down meetings with half the House offices and 30 Senate offices. We're also attending campaign fundraisers on behalf of the NCIA."

Although the conference was all about business, Smith made clear that the NCIA had not forgotten that these business opportunities have come about because of a decades-long movement for social justice and human liberation around marijuana policy.

"We have to acknowledge those who came before us," he told his audience of businesspeople. "Before we were an industry, we were a movement, and we are still a social movement. The growth of this new industry will drive the final nail in the coffin of marijuana prohibition, so that no one is put in a cage for using a beneficial, extremely therapeutic herbal product ever again."

NCIA executive director Aaron Smith gives a keynote address.
The industry has to put its best face forward, Smith said.

"We are still under scrutiny, the world is watching Colorado and Washington, as well as the medical marijuana states, and we have to lead by example," he said. "Be a good neighbor and corporate citizen. Reach out to neighborhood associations and work with them. Contribute to the community. Be a model citizen. Be professional. Don't use marketing you wouldn't want your mother to see."

Smith wasn't the only NCIA officer to warn the industry it needed to watch its step. NCIA deputy director Taylor West had more words of wisdom in a session on marketing and communications.

"This is a cultural movement in the midst of an enormous wave, and we have the opportunity to define an idea on the rise, to be responsible, and to do the education around that," she said. "We are building an industry from scratch, and we have to take this opportunity to make this an industry that's not like every other industry."

That requires some maturity within the industry, the communications specialist said as she displayed tacky advertising images of scantily clad women covered in marijuana buds.

"Responsible branding is important," West noted. "Don't screw it up for everybody. We don't have a rock-solid foundation, and we're still very vulnerable from a public opinion and policy standpoint. Don't market to children and don't market like children," she said. "We're like the wine industry or craft beers or wellness. No one is ever drunk in a wine commercial. And," she said, pointing to the tacky ads, "don't alienate half the population."

fundraiser for the Florida medical marijuana initiative, at the Vicente-Sederberg law firm following the summit
There are many issues facing the nascent marijuana industry, but both the conference agenda and the talk in the corridors made it clear that the federal tax issue takes center stage. Under current federal law, marijuana remains illegal, and that means marijuana businesses cannot take standard business tax deductions under an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provision known as 280E.

"This law must be changed, and this law can be changed. If Obama won't do it, we will do it for them," said marijuana tax attorney Henry Wykowski before heading deep into the weeds in a discussion of the intricacies of dealing with 280E.

"There is legislation to address this," said NCIA Capitol Hill lobbyist Mike Correia, pointing to Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR) House Resolution 2240, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2013.

But it's unlikely to go anywhere anytime time soon, Correia said. The congressional bill tracking service GovTrack.us agrees, giving the bill zero percent chance of passage this session.

"This is sitting in Ways and Means," Correia explained. "It's a Democratic bill in a Republican-controlled House, and the committee chairman is not a fan."

There is one back-door possibility for moving the bill, though, the lobbyist said.

"Every few years, the Congress addresses aspiring tax breaks," he noted. "They usually pass it in the middle of the night when no one is watching. I hope to have 280E provisions inserted into a bigger tax bill, but we need to get Republicans to support it. The Ways and Means members are not from marijuana-friendly states, so it's hard to get traction, but next year, Paul Ryan (R-WI) will be chair, and he could be more responsive."

The nascent marijuana industry has other issues, of course, but the Denver conference was a strong signal that the marijuana movement is indeed mutating into a marijuana industry. The power of American entrepreneurialism is very strong, and it looks like it's about to run right over the remnants of marijuana prohibition.

But the industry needs to remember that while we now have legal marijuana in two states, there are still 48 states to go. For people in Alabama or South Dakota or Utah, for example, the issue is not how much money you can make selling marijuana (or marijuana-related products or services), but the criminal -- and other -- consequences of getting caught with even small amounts. If the industry is indeed the movement, it needs to be putting its money where its mouth is to finish the work that remains to be done.

Denver, CO
United States

Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki Talks Drug Reform [FEATURE]

In a conference call Monday morning, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki discussed the impact of his award-winning drug war documentary The House I Live In and where we go from here in the fight to end the drug war and mass incarceration.

Eugene Jarcecki (wikimedia.org)
The call was the second in a series of discussions planned and organized by the Drug Policy Alliance as part of its campaign to deepen and broaden the drug reform movement. The first discussion featured Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. Hear that conversation here.

Jarecki won the Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize for The House I Live In in 2012. The film made a shattering case against the drug war. Since its release, it has been used as a primer in faith institutions, schools and community-based organizations across the nation.

The drug reform landscape has been undergoing tectonic shifts in the two years since The House I Live In was released. It is possible, Jarecki said, that his film has played a role in shifting public opinion.

"One of the great lies that pervades the public imagination is the Hollywood lie that its movies don't shape the violence in this country," he said. "For Hollywood to pretend that movies have no role in shaping behavior is laughable. There are books that start revolutions. While Hollywood should bristle at the notion that movies create violence -- the violence comes in a society where we don't have health service and the roots of unwantedness can lead to violent behavior -- movies do shape public activity," he said.

"My movie is shaping public activity, and I am reminded by friends that this matters," the filmmaker continued. "A lot of young people will look at Michelle Alexander and say 'I want to be like that,' and that kind of example is extremely precious."

The recognition that the film would be an instrument of social change even influenced the title, Jarecki said.

"The making and handling of the film as a tool for public change and discussion" was important, he said. "We called it House over sexier titles, such as Kill the Poor or just Ghetto. I couldn't get it in a church or prison with a title like Kill the Poor. We had to choose a softer title; we weren't just thinking about the most poetic title, but really, how do we make sure this thing has legs where people all across the country can use it? We didn't want to alienate groups on the ground, and I wanted to make sure there were many groups on the ground doing this important work."

It worked. The film is now standard viewing in all the prisons in at least 11 states, and in New York, a viewing serves as an alternate punishment for juvenile offenders. And, Jarecki said, churches have been a key partner in getting the message out.

"We've found churches very welcoming, in large part because of our partnership with the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference," he said. "They've helped get churches across the country seeing the film, and it stretches far beyond the black church community. It's been very useful and robust. We also live stream the showings themselves to other churches. When we broadcast out of Shiloh Baptist Church, 180 other congregations also watched it."

But while Jarecki intended the film to serve polemic purposes, even he was surprised at the rapidity of the changes coming in the drug policy realm.

"The most significant surprise has been seeing the entire climate of the war on drugs change in the public imagination," he said. "When we started out, it was impossible to imagine any systemic shifts from the top. We see that the entrenched bureaucracies and corrupt interests are never open to negotiation, but the combination of the moral bankruptcy of the war on drugs and its economic bankruptcy -- 45 million drug arrests over 40 years, and what do we have to show for it? -- the catastrophic cycle of waste without achieving goals, unifies the left and the right like no other issue. The left sees a monster that preys on human rights for profit, and the right sees a bloated government program."

The policies of the war on drugs are now vulnerable, Jarecki said.

"Community groups see how it brings unfairness to communities and ravages society, so now, Washington is trying to appeal to the public by being more sensible," he argued. "This policy is vulnerable. While we've joined forces with the Drug Policy Alliance and other organizations to fight at the ground level, we're also seeing shreds of leadership from Obama, Holder, and Rand Paul. This is a moment of enormous vitality for us."

With a few exceptions, as mentioned just above, "the political class is isolated and orphaned as supporting something that doesn't make any sense," Jarecki said. "I thought I was choosing a very tough enemy, but it doesn't seem like much of a worthy adversary. The gross expenditures are hard to defend, they don't have the national security card to play anymore, the drug war has worn itself thin. 'Just Say No' and 'This is Your Brain on Drugs' hasn't worked. Instead, people just see family members with damaged lives."

It's not just in the realm of marijuana policy that the landscape is shifting in a favorable direction. The issue of the racial disparity in the drug war is also gaining traction.

"The condition of understanding the black American crisis of the drug war has moved light years in the last two years," Jarecki said. "Black folks are bizarrely and disproportionately targeted by the drug war, and that's become a common discussion. It's not a rare thing."

Still shot from The House I Live In
That understanding is extending to an acknowledgement that the war on drugs has been a brutal attack on the gains of the civil rights era, Jarecki argued.

"In the black American story, there is an argument to be made that the new Jim Crow established with the war on drugs was the final nail in the coffin of the civil rights movement," he said. "Black people are worse off economically than before the civil rights movement, and this critical viewpoint has become more widely understood."

But it's not just race. The unspeakable word in American political discourse -- class -- plays a role as well, Jarecki suggested.

"We've seen a shift from a drug war that could be described as predominantly racist to one that also has elements of class in it," he argued. "Poor whites, Latinos, women -- those are the growth areas for the war on drugs now. But let's not forget that black America is still essentially the leading link. We haven't shifted the drug war from race to class; it has diversified, it preserves its racism, but has seized market share by broadening into other class populations."

Racism and the war on drugs are only a part of a much larger problem, the filmmaker argued.

"We have to invite the country to begin seriously asking itself what kind of country it wants to be," he said. "What we are really looking at is a society that has bought into the notion that we can entrust the public good to private gain. We have industrial complexes that grip American policymaking in almost every sphere of public life, and the prison industrial complex is one of them. It is simply a crass illustration that you can feed a human being into the machine, and out comes dollar signs. This is a country without compassion, a town without pity."

And while change will come from the top, it will be impelled only by pressure from the bottom up, he said.

"Change comes from groups working together, and you start going down that road by getting out and starting walking," Jarecki advised. "It's an illusion to think we're supposed to be rescued by the government."

We have to do it ourselves.

Worldwide Protests Set for UN Anti-Drugs Day This Thursday [FEATURE]

This Thursday, June 26, is the United Nations' International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which has been used by many governments to justify harsh crackdowns and promote harsh punishments, including exemplary executions. This year, activists around the world will hold their own demonstrations calling not for war more drug war, but for less.

While most UN anti-drug events are fairly anodyne -- last year's highlights include a "sharing best practices" seminar in Vienna and the release of the annual World Drugs Report -- other activities associated with the day are downright gruesome. In 2008, Indonesia marked the day by resuming drug executions; in 2009, China celebrated it by executing 20 people, and last year, China got a jump on events by executing six people in the run-up to anti-drug day.

Civil society is saying "enough." In more than 80 cities across the globe, activists gathering under the banner "Support, Don't Punish: Global Day of Action" will be taking to the streets to protest against policies that have led to mass incarceration, the exacerbation of health crises, and the prospering of violent criminal drug trafficking organizations. Instead, "Support, Don't Punish" will call for a more effective and humane approach to the drug issue, one based on public health, harm reduction, and human rights.

While the global drug war is estimated to cost $100 billion a year -- with unclear impact for reducing harms related to substance abuse -- "Support, Don't Punish" calls for investments in proven, cost-effective harm reduction responses for people who use drugs, and for the decriminalization of people who use drugs and the removal of other laws that impede public health services.

The campaign is truly global, with the endorsement of more than 150 organizations, including not only well-known groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the International Drug Policy Consortium, but also local, regional, and national groups from every continent except Antarctica.

Mass demonstrations and other actions are planned in London, New York, Paris, Warsaw, Mexico City, Kathmandu, Rome, Phnom Penh, Tbilisi, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and more than 70 other cities. The actions include peaceful demonstrations, street performances, public meetings and workshops, social media campaigns and advertisements on public transportation and billboards.

A trio of activists in different cities around the globe contacted by the Chronicle provide a hint of what to expect.

"In London, we will be holding a demonstration outside Parliament to highlight the failure of the war on drugs and calling on the UK government to end the criminalization of people who use drugs under the 'Support Don't Punish' banner," said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the British drug NGO Release, which is organizing the London event. "Additionally, we will be writing to the Prime Minister asking for reform of national policy and asking that the British government commit to meaningful engagement in the international discussions leading to the UN drugs summit in New York in 2016 allowing for discussion of alternatives to prohibition."

"In Mexico City, we have created a microsite that summarizes the ten reasons why every Mexican should be involved and interested in drug policy reform," said Adam Barra, program officer for the youth-oriented organization Espolea. "The site includes video capsules of public figures, as well as info graphics that present the most relevant information to form one's own opinion on drug policy. Lastly, the site includes the support of over 20 national organizations from various sectors of society and diverse thematic focuses," Barra added.

"The site will be launched on June 26, as Bee Open Space in Mexico City, and will be followed by a panel with renowned experts on the subject who will make a balance of the punitive versus the health approaches currently used in Mexico," he continued. "After the panel, guests will be invited to watch a screening of the documentary The House I Live In. We expect 50 people be present at the launching, but we expect half a million unique visits to the site over the next month."

"In Katmandu, we will convene a national symposium, as well as demonstrations and marches here and in five other Nepalese cities, said Anan Pun, founder of the Nepalese Coalition for Health, Human Rights, and Harm Reduction (Coalition H3). "We will be doing awareness-raising and media outreach, as well as building the leadership and advocacy skills of various actors, including media, civil society and community groups, and their networks."

While "Support, Don't Punish" protestors around the planet will be united in calling for reform of the UN drug control system -- the legal backbone of global drug prohibition -- each country has its own particular issues, and the campaign will be addressing those as well.

"We will be highlighting the damage caused by our drug laws at a national level," said Release's Eastwood. "In particular, the fact that drug policing disproportionately targets the Black and Asian communities, with black people being six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, and Asian people twice as likely to be searched. This is despite the fact that both groups use drugs at a lower rate than the white population. This is driving the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice System in England and Wales," he explained.

"Our drug laws allow for the mass searching of certain communities. In London, for example, drugs searches make up 60% of all stop and searches. Despite being given ample opportunity to reform their practices the police have not been able to address racial disproportionately and we believe real change can only be achieved by reforming the laws and in the first instance ending criminal sanctions for possession of drugs," Eastwood explained.

"Mexico is one of the countries that has taken the war to its last consequences," said Espolea's Barra. "Official figures report over 60,000 deaths and 20,000 disappeared people in the period 2006-2012. In Mexico, only 1.8% of the population reported using drugs in the last year, yet we are seeing an average of 15,000 killings a year because of our drug policies. Former President Felipe Calderon addressed the UN and joined other countries in the region in calling for al revision of the global drug war consensus, and now we await the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. It is crucial that Mexico improves its drug policy before then."

"In Nepal, we are urging all stakeholders, including the government, policymakers, and parliamentarians to make policy based on science and evidence -- fostering human rights, health and well-being of mankind rather than on total elimination of drugs from the world," said the Coalition 3H's Pun. "This is an important opportunity to build the country capacity for advocacy and mobilize the country for public health and rights-based drug policies. We need to hold our government and every other actors accountable and stand up for humane and evidence based drug policy in Nepal and elsewhere in the globe," he said.

This coming UN anti-drug day is about to get a response like never before. With the global demonstrations, the drug reform movement demonstrates both its worldwide reach and its imperative to change the world not just at the highest international levels, but at home as well. Different countries have different issues, but all of them are burdened by an international drug prohibition regime from the last century. There appears to be a growing consensus that it is time for something new.

What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

DEA Ignores Science, Obstructs Research, New Report Finds [FEATURE]

[Full disclosure: I researched and wrote most of this report and was paid by DPA to do so.]

In a report released this week, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) reveal a decades-long pattern of the DEA ignoring scientific evidence and systematically obstructing medical research that could lead to the rescheduling of marijuana.

The report comes just days after the House issued a stinging rebuke to the DEA by approving a bipartisan measure that bars the use of federal taxpayer dollars for the DEA to undermine medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The House also approved measures stripping the DEA's ability to interfere with hemp production in states where it is legal.

While the report found that the DEA tends to move with excruciating slowness when confronted with evidence that confounds its ideological predispositions, the agency is able and willing to move at lightning speed to criminalize more drugs or schedule them more restrictively.

The report, The DEA: Four Decades of Impeding and Rejecting Science, uses a number of case studies to unveil DEA practices to maintain the existing, scientifically unsupported drug scheduling system. They include:

Failing to act in a timely fashion. The DEA took 16 years to issue a final decision rejecting the first marijuana rescheduling petition, five years for the second, and nine years for the third. In two of the three cases, it took multiple lawsuits to force the agency to act.

Overruling DEA Administrative Law Judges. DEA Administrative Law Judges are government officials charged with evaluating the evidence on rescheduling and other matters before the DEA and making recommendations based on that evidence to the DEA Administrator. In the cases of the scheduling of marijuana and MDMA, the judges determined that that they should be placed in Schedule II instead of Schedule I, where they would be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as prescription medicines, but still retain criminal sanctions for non-medical uses. However, agency administrators overruled their Administrative Law Judges' recommendations, substituting their own judgments and ignoring scientific evidence. The current DEA head, Michelle Leonhart, also rejected a DEA Administrative Law Judge ruling that the DEA end its unique and unjustifiable monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana available for federally approved research.

Creating a regulatory Catch-22. The DEA has argued for decades that there is not sufficient evidence to support rescheduling marijuana or the medical use of marijuana. At the same time, it has -- along with the National Institute on Drug Abuse -- acted in a manner intended to systematically impede scientific research. Through the use of such tactics, the DEA has repeatedly and consistently demonstrated that it is more interested in maintaining existing drug laws than in making important drug control decisions based on scientific evidence.

The report makes two central recommendations: 1) that the responsibility for determining drug classifications and other health determinations should be completely removed from DEA and transferred to another agency, perhaps even a non-governmental entity such as the National Academy of Sciences, and 2) that the DEA should be ordered to end the federal government's unjustifiable monopoly on the supply of research-grade marijuana available for federally approved research. No other drug is available from only a single governmental source for research purposes.

Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) (congress.gov)
"The DEA abuses its discretionary powers over scheduling, making it incredibly difficult for researchers to obtain marijuana for research purposes," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann during a Wednesday teleconference to announce the report. "Our recommendations call for taking the power over drug scheduling away from the DEA. It is essentially a police and propaganda agency. This authority would be better handled by another government agency in the health realm, or a truly independent agency, like the National Academy of Sciences," he said.

"The DEA and Ms. [Michele] Leonhart have constantly been opposing any science that would change her mindset and opinion, which was apparently created around 1937," said Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN), referencing the year federal marijuana prohibition began. "She is totally against marijuana, she will not admit that it is not as harmful as heroin or cocaine, and she is on a war on drugs."

Cohen was the author of another successful amendment that spanked the DEA. His successful amendment redirected $5 million in DEA funding to instead be used to help reduce a back log of rape kits that need testing. He said he was happy to be part of the congressional effort to restrict the agency.

"I was thrilled to be part of that coalition," Cohen said. "Those amendments to the appropriations bill were a great victory. We've been voting on this since 2007, and we always had about 165 Democrats on board, and a few more this time. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) did a great job getting Republicans on board; he got some of the younger, more libertarian members and members who know people marijuana has helped."

"The DEA has opposed efforts to reform federal scheduling policy to acknowledge that marijuana has medical purposes," said Dr. Carl Hart, a Columbia University neuroscientist. "As someone who has studied marijuana, this concerns me. That the DEA has not rescheduled marijuana seems to go against all the scientific evidence and against a society that uses empirical evidence."

MAPS executive director Rick Doblin said his organization, acting as a non-profit pharmaceutical company, had been trying for 22 years to develop Schedule I drugs like marijuana into FDA-approved medications, but that the DEA and other federal agencies had made that impossible.

DEA Administrator Leonhart is on the hot seat. (usdoj.gov/dea)
"Twenty-two years later, I've been unable to start a single, privately-funded study, and the main reason is the DEA's refusal to open the door," he said. "The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a DEA-protected monopoly on the production of marijuana for research, and although we've had two protocols approved by the FDA and review boards, we have been unable to obtain marijuana. We tried for seven years to buy 10 grams of marijuana for vaporizer studies; we were unable to do that. We've been in litigation with the DEA for 12 years and lost on the grounds that NIDA had an adequate supply."

One study -- of marijuana's efficacy in treating PTSD -- has been approved, Doblin said, but even there, the process has been painfully slow.

"We started trying to get that approved four years ago," he said. "We finally got approval from NIDA in March of this year, but they say they won't have the marijuana we need until January 2015."

For Doblin, it's all about ending NIDA's monopoly on marijuana for research purposes.

"DEA is protecting the NIDA monopoly, which should be ended," he said. "That's the action item we should be doing right now."

The DEA has been politically bulletproof since it was created by the Nixon White House in 1973. But that is changing, DPA national affairs director Bill Piper argued.

"When you look at Congress, with so many members driven by frustration that the DEA is blocking research and preventing medical marijuana from moving forward, that's a big reason the House voted for those amendments," he said. "The DEA has said that marijuana is not approved by the FDA, but Congress has figured out that DEA is blocking the necessary trials from moving forward. The more the DEA obstructs the research, the more support there is for changing federal law and cutting the DEA's authority. The days when the DEA can quietly block this stuff are over; they will pay a price if they stand in the way of reform."

Washington, DC
United States

The Ibogaine Frontier: A Report from Durban [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Douglas Greene

Three dozen ibogaine providers, researchers and advocates gathered from May 7-10 in Durban, South Africa for the 4th International Ibogaine Provider's Conference, sponsored by the Global Ibogaine Therapist Alliance (GITA).

Yann Guignon and Jean-Nicolas Denarie with several varieties of iboga fruit (Sarita Wilkins)
The cover of the conference program guide and report features Esu, a deity in several religions with a multitude of responsibilities, including protecting travelers, roads (particularly crossroads), power over fortune and misfortune, and the personification of death. The illustration was highly apropos -- 52 years after the discovery of ibogaine's interrupting effects on opioid use disorders by Howard Lotsof, the father of the modern ibogaine movement, ibogaine advocates and providers are at an existential crossroads, with serious concerns about sustainability, safety and efficacy.

The last GITA conference was held in October 2012 in the harm reduction heaven of Vancouver, Canada. For this conference, GITA wanted to get back to the medicine's root -- iboga, a rainforest shrub native to West Central Africa that is sacred to practitioners of the Bwiti religion. After years of ibogaine's increasing popularity to treat Westerners with substance use disorders, iboga is under intense ecological pressure, and could be extinct in its native habitat of Gabon by late 2016, according to Yann Guignon, who wrote a report on the status of iboga for the Gabonese government in 2011-2012.

Guignon comes from an unusual background. He was born in France, but has been in Gabon since 2006, when he was initiated in the Dissumba branch of Bwiti. In 2007, France banned iboga after a death that had only an incidental connection to iboga.

Guignon gave the attendees a full report on the parlous state of the plant. "Over 90% of the iboga has disappeared from the country," Guignon said, and what it left is unaffordable -- the price of iboga has risen tenfold in less than decade. A bottle of 300 grams of medium quality root bark costs 100 euros (about $136), in a country where the 30% of the population that is employed has a minimum salary of 120 euros (about $163) per month.

There are also many factors endangering the supply of iboga: increasing land development and urbanization, the growing political and social power of evangelical Christians and climate change. As a result, "fake iboga" is now being marketed as iboga root bark and causing fatalities due to its cardiotoxic effects. And some Bwiti have started using alcohol instead of iboga in their ngenza (practice).

In response to these formidable threats to iboga's future, GITA and Guignon are taking action. GITA has proposed undertaking a collaborative effort with the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council to launch the Iboga Dialogues, a multi-stakeholder engagement process to develop fair trade and safety standards for global use of iboga and ibogaine. Meanwhile, Guignon and his associate Jean-Nicolas Dénarié have started a few plantations on private land, and are in discussions with the Gabonese government to develop a plantation in one of Gabon's national parks, with the eventual goal of having a plantation in each of Gabon's 13 national parks.

Concerns about safety have been part and parcel of ibogaine's history as a drug detox. It's not just potent psychologically (about 75% of people treated experience intense personal and transpersonal visions -- not hallucinations, as often described in erroneous media reports). On a physiological level, it can produce bradycardia (a slow heartbeat) and/or arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms). Last year alone, four of the 12 citations for ibogaine on the medical database PubMed were about deaths and toxicity. And rumors of deaths at clinics (as well as sexual assaults and thefts of intellectual property) have served to undermine the disorganized and reputationally disadvantaged ibogaine subculture.

GITA Development Director Jonathan Dickinson discussing GITA's vision (Sarita Wilkins)
However, some pioneering providers are attempting to improve ibogaine's safety profile, not just by taking what should be common sense precautions (using medicine that has been tested for purity, extensive medical screening and monitoring of treatments by qualified medical professionals), but by using cumulative, low dose psycholytic protocols that include iboga root bark, TA (an extract that includes all twelve alkaloids found in the plant) and ibogaine hydrochloride.

According to Clare Wilkins, Director of Pangea Biomedics, this approach has several advantages over the standard practice of using a flood dose of ibogaine hydrochloride: it uses scarce iboga more efficiently, and allows for treatment of high-risk individuals who are normally excluded from ibogaine treatment. Most importantly, it allows clients to be conscious and gradually integrate the insights they glean about their substance use disorders into their awareness and daily practices.

Safety practices were also discussed by Kenneth Alper, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center and Jeffrey Kamlet, M.D., FASAM, a Miami Beach-based specialist in addiction medicine, both during the conference and in a post-conference seminar devoted to provider discussion of treatment protocols and practices. Topics included patient electrolyte levels (the "number one problem in treatment" according to Kamlet), treatment of bradycardia and withdrawal from Suboxone, methadone and alcohol prior to treatment.

Although there's been an enormous amount of anecdotal evidence for ibogaine's efficacy, there has been a lot more popular media than medical articles about ibogaine (including a few stories after the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and a major Al Jazeera piece that aired shortly after the conference). Consequently, most major drug policy reform organizations have remained silent on ibogaine. Even the Drug Policy Alliance, which honored Lotsof in 2009 just before his death with its Robert C. Randall Award for Achievement in the Field of Citizen Action, offers only a tepid endorsement of ibogaine research. ("Our take on ibogaine is that is shows interesting potential to assist some people in recovering from substance dependence. It should be more widely researched," says DPA harm reduction manager Meghan Ralston.)

Pangea Biomedics Director Clare Wilkins discussing her cumulative low-dose protocol (Sarita Wilkins)
Despite ibogaine being an oneirogenic (a substance that produces dream states) rather than a psychedelic, MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has emerged as a major institutional supporter of ibogaine research. MAPS Founder and Executive Director Rick Doblin has spoken enthusiastically about his experience with ibogaine, and MAPS is currently collecting data for two observational studies of ibogaine's long-term efficacy in treating opioid dependence at clinics in Mexico and New Zealand. The lead researchers for these studies presented the assembled iboganauts with the latest updates.

Thomas Kinsgley Brown, PhD of the University of California, San Diego, reported on the preliminary results of the Mexico study. Data entry for the study was completed in April. According to Dr. Brown, "[i]n the first month, 11 of the [30] participants relapsed, another seven in the second month, one person in the third month, another four in months for through six, one person in the seven month and as many as five went all 12 months without relapsing."

These numbers may not be too impressive -- but as GITA's Development Director Jonathan Dickinson has pointed out, most ibogaine providers are using the drug as a detox, not as an ingredient in a comprehensive treatment plan. Dr. Brown also emphasized that six of the 30 participants had some continuing care in the first few months after ibogaine treatment, and suggested that it might be valuable to compare the ASI (Addiction Severity Index) subscores and/or months to relapse of the participants who received continuing care and those who did not. Factors that Dr. Brown suggested might be determinative of successful ibogaine treatment are a patient's drug use history, age, outlook and expectations of treatment, as well as the integration, type and suitability of fit of any continuing care they receive.

Although in an earlier stage of the study, the results in New Zealand tentatively appear to be promising, according to lead researcher Geoff Noller, PhD and Tanea Paterson, a substance use practitioner/ibogaine provider at Ibogaine Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand's only current ibogaine treatment provider). The study enrolled its 14th and final subject in April. Seven of the participants were tracked for all 12 months of follow-up (as well as one who was lost to contact at 11 months), and of the six participants still being monitored, three (50%) remain opioid free. Noller and Paterson hypothesized that the differences between the results of the Mexico and the New Zealand studies could be attributed to (among other factors) ibogaine's status as a non-approved prescription medicine in New Zealand, which allows for an integrated system of care between physicians, pharmacists, ibogaine treatment providers and continuing care providers.

"In Durban we saw some important steps on a long road towards uniting the therapeutic and sacramental communities that use ibogaine and iboga. The important factor was outlining a sustainability dialogue that will affect both communities deeply, and I think beyond the practical function of planting trees this dialogue will have an evolutionary impact for everyone involved. What we have seen is that the situation we're facing with iboga's sustainability is grim, but that contained within it is a massive opportunity for cultural dialogue and healing. I believe that here we have been successful in initiating that," said Dickinson.

A conference report is available here. Ibogaine has a long way to go to achieve mainstream acceptance, and potentially safer ibogaine metabolites and analogs, such as noribogaine and 18-MC, are being aggressively developed. But as this conference demonstrated, there is a passionate, committed group of providers and researchers who are working globally to advance the states of the art and science of ibogaine practice.

Durban
South Africa

ATF's Operation Gideon Raises Questions of Fairness, Justice, and Race [FEATURE]

Special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part I of a series on the ATF's Operation Gideon, targeting inner city "bad guys" with drug house robbery stings

Early in May, a panel of judges from California's 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals denied petitions for an "en banc" hearing that would have allowed the full court to consider overturning long prison sentences for four would-be robbers seduced by an informant into believing they were about to rip-off a stash house loaded with drugs.

The stash house was fictional, those drugs never existed, and the brains behind the plot were not criminals, but federal agents.

The denial of the petition was not a unanimous decision, and it revealed deep fissures on the appeals court. Dissenting judges argued that the practice of enticing poor young men into robbing stash houses raised questions not only of fair play, but also of constitutionality. The dissenters were particularly concerned that federal agents targeted primarily minority neighborhoods filled with desperate, unemployed young men tempted by the lure of fast cash.

"The sting poses questions of whether the government intentionally targets poor minority neighborhoods, and thus, seeks to tempt their residents to commit crimes that might well result in their escape from poverty," Justice Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a blistering dissent. He also called it "a profoundly disturbing use of government power that directly imperils some of our most fundamental constitutional values."

The case involved four Phoenix men -- Cordae Black, Kemford Alexander, Angel Mahon and Terrance Timmons -- who were convicted in 2010 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than five pounds of cocaine, as well as federal firearms charges, for a fake drug rip scheme set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). All four are now serving prison sentences of 13 to 15 years.

Even though federal appeals court judges have joined defense attorneys in calling the ATF drug rip schemes "outrageous conduct," they are not an anomaly, but are instead part and parcel of ATF's Operation Gideon, a nationwide program. The ATF, federal prosecutors, and the Phoenix police said a press release announcing a pilot sweep that rolled up 70 people, including Cordae Black and his crew, that Gideon "involved the deployment of some of ATF's most experienced undercover operatives to team with local agents and police investigators by conducting sting investigations involving violent home invasion crews."

According to a USA Today investigative report, as of last year, the feds had already locked up more than a thousand people who its agents had enticed into conspiracies to rob fake drug stash houses. And it's not just the AFT. The DEA often uses the fake drug rip-off schemes, as well.

US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt
The argument at the 9th Circuit in the Phoenix case centered on entrapment and whether ATF agents illegally enticed the defendants into the crime through "outrageous government conduct" beyond that allowed by entrapment doctrine.

Relying on the US Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in US v. Russell, where the court upheld such schemes if the defendant showed a predisposition to commit the offense, 9th Circuit Judges Susan Graeber and Raymond Fisher rejected claims of entrapment and outrageous conduct by the agents, and argued that the reverse sting was within legal boundaries of law enforcement tactics, which includes officers working undercover to infiltrate criminal organizations.

Fisher and Graeber said the agents' actions were reasonable when they offered the men the opportunity to make money by committing a drug robbery. The pair also held the defendants failed to show they lacked "predisposition to commit the offense."

That provoked a sharp retort from a second dissenter as well, Judge John T. Noonan.

"Today our court gives approval to the government tempting people in the population at large currently engaged in innocent activity, and leading them into the commission of a crime, which the government will then prosecute," he wrote.

It's not just the 9th Circuit. Fake drug stash operations that only target inner-cities have ignited a firestorm of controversy, including other caustic remarks from the federal bench.

"There is a strong showing of potential bias in the robbery stings," US District Court Judge Rueben Castillo wrote in an order last year. Castillo noted that since 2011, federal agents have used such stings to lock up at least 26 people in the Chicago area -- and that all of them were either black or Hispanic.

Federal officials retort that they are not engaging in selective prosecution based on race, but are going where known felons often commit violent home invasion-type drug robberies.

But defense attorneys argue that the operations target people who weren't doing anything, entice them with visions of easy wealth, set them up, and then throw the book at them.

"What the ATF is doing is basically targeting low-level criminals for high-level crimes," said attorney Tara Loveland, who is representing Cordae Black on appeal.

The case against Black and his codefendants raises serious questions about racial profiling. According to evidence introduced at the original trial -- and subsequently heard again at the re-hearing (via the appellate brief) -- ATF Agent Richard Zayas had a paid informant travel from Miami to Arizona to find "bad guys" in a "bad part of town."

That prompted Judge Reinhardt to say that Zavas' instructions obviously meant the informant should recruit people from minority communities. The targeting of the fake drug house robbery scheme was a practice "that creates the appearance of selective prosecution based on race and wealth inequality," he said.

"It is a tragedy when ATF has to drum up a crime that didn't exist," attorney Eugene Marquez, who represented Cordae Black at trial, told the Chronicle.

Chicago Operation Gideon suspect William Alexander just before his arrest (atf.gov)
Defense attorneys who represented the defendants on appeal argued that "fake drug stings initiated by ATF amount to entrapment because there were no drugs -- and none of the defendants would have agreed to participate had it not been for a paid snitch and the ATF's scheme of enticing the men to arm themselves with weapons to rip-off a large quantity of drugs that automatically brings severe mandatory prison sentences."

"Our defense was outrageous conduct and sentencing entrapment," Marquez explained.

But 9th Circuit majorities weren't listening to the defense attorneys. In a separate ruling, they reiterated their original decision denying defense counsel's motion to overturn the original convictions.

"There is no bright line dictating when laws enforcement conduct crosses the line between acceptable and outrageous," Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote for the majority. Outrageous government conduct can only occur when government agents engineer and direct a "criminal enterprise from start to finish -- or creating new crimes merely for the sake of pressing criminal charges," he argued.

Judge Reinhardt again dissented.

"In this era of mass incarceration, in which we already lock up more of our population than any other nation on earth, it is especially curious that the government feels compelled to invent fake crimes and imprison people for long periods of time for agreeing to participate in them -- people who but for the government's scheme might not have ever entered the world of major felonies," Reinhardt wrote.

If getting set up and convicted in a sting weren't bad enough, the defendants also got hit with longer sentences based on the imaginary amounts of drugs that were going to rob. Marquez explained that his client, Cordae Black, was hit a 10-year mandatory minimum because the ATF pretended the imaginary drug house had more than five kilos of cocaine in it.

But while jurists and defense attorneys grumbled, the ATF was pleased with its handiwork.

Arizona ATF agent Thomas Mangan welcomed the convictions of Black and his partners, as well as appeals court rulings upholding them. The stings had resulted in over 70 Arizona arrests, and the crew had "ample opportunity to back out, but had remained committed to carry out the robbery until they were arrested," he said in the Operation Gideon press release.

While court-approved enticement has a lengthy pedigree in this country, so does "outrageous government conduct" that can take it over the line into entrapment. A classic case is that of legendary automaker John Delorean, who was acquitted of cocaine conspiracy charges in 1984, even though prosecutors had Delorean on videotape wisecracking and saying that the cocaine stuffed inside a suitcase was "good as gold."

But Delorean's attorney was able to convince the jury that the FBI had leaned on a convicted drug smuggler, James Hoffman, to draw Delorean into a trap, complete with thinly-veiled threats if Delorean backed out of the sting.

"Without the government there would be no crime," Delorean's attorney told the jury.

Taking Down the Phoenix Crew

Putting together a fake drug robbery stings is like assembling the cast of a gritty crime drama. The Phoenix reverse sting worked against Cordae Black and his eager crew in typical take-down fashion. ATF agent Richard Zayas recruited a paid informant to frequent seedy bars and diffferent places in the "bad part" of town -- to find receptive players to rip-off a drug house. Zayas's informant met Shaver "Bullet" Simpson, a big-talking guy ready to play.

Zayas's informant duped Simpson into believing he had a friend with information on a stash house filled with drugs worth thousands of dollars. Simpson boasted he could find some tough-ass homies to do the job. Agent Zayas reminded Simpson that everyone involved with the plot must keep their mouths shut, and not talk about what goes down.

"My people straight," Simpson replied. "I hate snitchers."

Following the informant's meeting with Shaver Simpson, he introduced "Bullet" to undercover ATF Agent Richard Zayas, who fronted himself off as a disgruntled drug courier interested in having someone rob a dope house owned by Zayas's supposed cartel's connections. Zayas informed Simpson that Simpson's homeboys would need the "balls to do it because this ain't no easy lick."

Simpson then posed a question to Zayas: "My goons want to know whether they need to kill the people in the house."

Zayas responded nonchalantly that he "didn't care what they did as long as they took care of business."

Hooked like a fish, Simpson swallowed the bait, "Don't worry Daddy," he told Zavas. You got a real Jamaican (expletive), that's my family business; it's where I worked; I got this shit down to a science, man."

The beat goes on. Press conference announcing latest round of Operation Gideon busts, Stockton, CA, 2014 (atf.gov)
The trap was set. Shaver Simpson, the braggart, strangely, didn't show up for the showdown. But the work crew did. Once Cordae Black, Terrence Timmons, Kemford Alexander and Angel Mahon showed up at the designated meeting spot, the ATF agents and local police took the hapless crew down with guns drawn. A search of their vehicles produced four loaded weapons (which, according to the appellate brief, Zava insisted the crew have with them).

Despite Simpson's bravado about not being a snitch and hating such creatures, he pounced on the first opportunity to become one by testifying against his four homies. Still, at trial, Simpson accused ATF agent Richard Zayas of pressuring him to quickly find as many guys he could find to pull off the robbery.

Same Sorts of Cases, Different Results

In another Operation Gideon case, Chicago native William Alexander, a street-level crack dealer and beauty school dropout, got stung in a fake drug robbery on February 23 2011, along with his cohorts Hugh Midderhoff and David Saunders. All three were convicted of possession with intent to deliver five or more kilos of cocaine, along with firearms charges. To win a new trial, Alexander's lawyer argued on appeal that ATF's systematic strategy of sending informants into "bad parts of town" to recruit "bad people" meant that racial profiling played a vital role in Alexander's case.

His appeal brief noted that in the 17 stash house robbery stings prosecuted in the Northern Illinois Federal District since 2004, blacks were disproportionately represented. Of the 57 defendants, 42 were black, eight Hispanic, and seven white.

His appeal was denied -- because he couldn't show that the ATF and prosecutors intended racially disparate outcomes.

"To establish discriminatory intent, Alexander failed to show the decision makers in (his) case acted with discriminatory purposes -- and that the Attorney General and US Attorneys has broad discretion to enforce federal criminal laws," the appeals court held.

Antuan Dunlap and his heavily-armed posse-mates, Cedrick Hudson and Joseph Cornell Whitfield, had better luck. They were released from jail in an ATF drug house rip-off scheme when California US District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled the ATF crossed the line into entrapment.

Prosecutors had argued that Dunlap "manifested his propensity to commit robberies" by claiming to have engaged in similar activities in the past, and thus, "the defendant's words justified the reverse sting."

But in a 24-page stinging rebuke, the angry judge said the ATF engaged in "outrageous conduct" by enlisting people in "made-up crime" just so they could bust eager volunteers in drug stings. "Society does not win when the government stoops to the same level as the defendants it seeks to prosecute -- especially when the government has acted solely to achieve a conviction for a 'made-up' crime, Wright wrote. He also noted that such tactics "haven't brought down the crime rate nor taken drugs off the streets."

But the ATF and DEA fake drug rip-off schemes remain in full-swing across the nation despite the brewing controversy over tactics some defense attorneys and jurists regard with loathing. If the Justice Department will investigate whether the stings are aimed disproportionately at minority communities remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Phoenix crew sits in federal prison, while their attorneys plan an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Next in the series: ATF's Deadly Takedown in Fake Drug Robberies.

There's More to Colorado Than Marijuana [FEATURE]

Colorado has certainly garnered a lot of attention since voters there decided to legalize marijuana in the 2012 election, but when it comes to drug reform, there's a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.

Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature's race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.

The bill didn't come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn't work.

"There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention," said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. "People were asking 'How come half your people are going back to prison?' Well, we didn't have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn't have any money, there wasn't any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage."

But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.

"When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn't going to let anything happen," said Clifton. "But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process."

And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.

"That was the landmark legislation that really changes things," said Clifton. "This was the whole state -- prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us -- coming together and agreeing it was the right approach."

The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state -- and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.

Even the prisons are scenic in Colorado, although it is hoped that fewer prisoners will be forced to enjoy the view soon. (CDOC)
"It's too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have," said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It's not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons."

And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.

"The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path," said Way. "The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They've been at the forefront here."

Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.

Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state's drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.

"We've been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins," said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. "Every time we go to the capitol, we've been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction."

After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.

"Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly," said Clifton. "And things are really tricky in Colorado now," she added. "Elections are coming up, and everyone's concerned about what color we're going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now."

Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.

Harm reduction measures in place in Colorado include needle exchanges and overdose reversal drug access. (wikimedia.org)
"This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol," she said. "We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn't, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws."

But that doesn't mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.

"Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization," said Raville. "We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won't ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used."

Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.

"Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn't want to get pricked," she said. "That's inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board."

"We have an overdose issue here in Colorado," Raville noted. "ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we've had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We're trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state."

While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.

"Stopping that bill was our top concern this year," said Way. "We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn't a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill," he said.

"The bill's fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail," he noted. "There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row."

The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn't ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act's provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.

"We've convened a stakeholder group from around the state -- health care and criminal justice people -- to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We're teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it," she said.

And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven't, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.

"The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped," said Raville. "We legalized it and the sky didn't fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it's been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters."

"Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach," said Way. "We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature."

But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.

CO
United States

California's Latinos Are Ready for Sentencing Reform, Poll Finds [FEATURE]

A bill that would significantly reform California's drug sentencing laws is poised for approval in the state Senate, and a new poll showing strong support for sentencing reform among Latino voters could help push it over the top.

California's prisons are still overcrowded. (supremecourt.gov)
Senate Bill 1010, the Fair Sentencing Act, would equalize the penalties for sale of crack and powder cocaine. Under current California law, crack offenses are treated more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. The bill would also equalize probation requirements and asset forfeiture rules for offenses involving the two forms of the same drug.

Sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee last month and the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It now heads for the Senate floor. It needs to pass in its chamber of origin this month or it dies.

The bill is supported by dozens of community, religious, civil liberty, civil rights, drug reform, and other groups. It is opposed by the California Narcotics Officers Association and the California Police Chiefs Association.

Among Latino groups supporting the bill are the National Council of La Raza, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Homies Unidos, the Latino Voters League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Presente.

The poll results released today by Latino Decisions help explain why these groups are supporting sentencing reform efforts and may even encourage them to redouble their efforts. They show strong support for sentencing reform among California's Latino electorate. The poll only sampled registered voters.

When asked if the state should minimize penalties for drug possession, but continue to hold drug sellers accountable, a whopping 69% said yes. The lowest level of support among any Hispanic demographic was 59% among 40-to-59-year-olds.

When asked if racial disparities in law enforcement were a serious or very serious problem, an even more overwhelming 82% said yes. Even among Latino Republicans, the demographic least likely to be concerned, the figure was at 57%.

A third question asked whether respondents favored penalties for personal drug possession of drug treatment, case by case referrals, or zero tolerance. Again Latino voters overwhelmingly supported treatment or case by case (79% combined) over zero tolerance (16%).

"We're very excited to see the results of this poll," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente, during a teleconference announcing and analyzing the results. "It's very clear that the poll findings reaffirm that Latinos want drug sentencing reform and a fix to our broken justice system. If politicians want to mobilize the Latino vote, they need to support these issues. Over the coming weeks and months, Latinos and allied groups will be working to support common sense reforms like this bill."

That only makes sense, Carmona said.

another drug arrest in California. (wikimedia.org)
"These issues are having a significant impact on our society, our state, and increasingly, the Latino community," he argued. "The US imprisons more people than any nation in the world, mostly due to the war on drugs, and blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized than whites. When you add in the federal detention center population, Latinos now make up the largest federal prison population in the country."

Dr. Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, emphasized that the poll was of registered Latino voters.

"These are folks who are part of the political process," he said. "These are the Latinos who will be voting and helping to shape our politics. And among them, we have a rejection of war on drugs strategies and incarceration, with large majorities across the board supporting sentencing reform for drug possession and use."

"It's evident that the Latino community is in a state of crisis," said Armando Gudino, a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the community most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and unprecedented levels of incarceration. Latinos are fully aware of this, and we've begun to shift toward more responsible policies seeking to remove or reduce criminal penalties."

The poll demonstrates that attitudes are changing in the Hispanic community, Gudino said.

"Latinos have traditionally been deemed a conservative group, but we see shifting attitudes, and we could well see support we haven't seen in the past," he noted. "The older generation is more conservative, but the community isn't homogenous, and the same can't be said about other groups within the community, who have already shifted toward favoring issues like decriminalization, medical marijuana, and the efforts around taxing and regulating marijuana. This poll demonstrates that the Latino community is increasingly involved, informed, and willing to make changes."

"Latinos are now a majority in California, we have a seat at the table, and it's critical we're part of this conversation," said Mike De La Rocha, director of strategic partnerships for Californians for Safety and Justice. "Latinos are poised to have a voice in how we address crime and public safety. We understand our approach to crime isn't working, and we're finding our voice in these criminal justice debates."

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