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Philippines Drug War and Human Rights Solidarity Campaign

EVENT: Building Back with Justice? Marcos, Duterte, the ICC and the Philippine Drug War
Thursday July 14, 2022, 7:45-9:00am ET / 1:45-3:00pm CET / 7:45-9:00pm PT

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIqdeigrD0pHd3j2AKnGpgt56EBOqaVIFbJ

EVENT VIDEO: Keeping It Real: Duterte's Drug War Slaughter and the ICC

EVENT ARTICLE AND VIDEO: How the Global Drug War's Victims Are Fighting Back

No Time Like the Present: Drug Policy Reform is More Urgent Than Ever

 

 

 

 
 
Logo created for our Philippines campaign by
artist Cesar Maxit. It combines the universal
human rights logo with imprisoned Senator
Leila de Lima's famous hand gesture.

Thank you for taking the time to read about our global advocacy program on the human rights crisis in the Philippine drug war. Below you will find detailed discussion of work through s, with video and links to statements or news articles, but only updated through July 2018.

Work done since then, about which we'll be adding in detail to this page soon, includes:

  • February 2019 "soft launch" of  "Stand with Human Rights and Democracy: Global Campaign for the Philippines";
  • March 2019 forum at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna;
  • July 2019 forum at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York;
  • December 2019 forum at the International Criminal Court's Assembly of States Parties in The Hague;
  • March 2020 forum at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs;
  • speeches and other participation in allied groups' events in Washington;
  • community meeting on International Human Rights Advocacy at the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform;
  • work we are doing in the US Congress; and
  • other help we are providing to allies.

Material we will be posting from these activities includes but is not limited to:

  • highlights from February campaign events;
  • video footage of the three forums (which bring our total number of events to date to six);
  • presentations on the disinformation and social media manipulation campaigns that underpin Duterte's drug war and moves toward autocracy; and
  • photos from various events.

One particular highlight we will mention here is that our March 2019 event drew significant media in the Philippines, due to the participation by Skype of Law School Dean and then senatorial candidate Chel Diokno, who criticized the "erosion of the Philippine justice system." This in turn drew a public response from the government's Justice Secretary, their equivalent of Attorney General.

As noted above, the video and other resources we will be posting broadens our efforts to include exposing the disinformation and social media manipulation campaigns being carried out by President Duterte and his allies, which are a key plank of his drug war and moves toward authoritarianism. Presentations done for our events including cutting edge academic research and journalism on how appearances are being manipulated through concerted paid online efforts by "trolls" and others.


While much of the world moves toward compassionate drug policy reform, a populist would-be dictator has led one country cruelly backwards.

Since taking office, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has orchestrated a brutal campaign of extrajudicial killings, mainly as part of his "drug war." Credible estimates for the number of dead range from at least 12,000 to a likely 30,000 or more since mid-2016.

Ominously, a "Duterte effect" in the region has led to extrajudicial drug war killings in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and high-level officials in Malaysia and Turkey have also called for killings or other extrajudicial violence. In a move that has comforted human rights violators everywhere, President Trump has praised Duterte's drug war, twice.

 
 
funeral for victim of Duterte's drug war killings

Other abuses in have affected hundreds of thousands, and killings of activists, priests, even mayors are growing as well. In July 2019, the administration filed sedition cases against 35 opposition figures, including Catholic priests and Bishops, current and former Senators and candidates, even Vice President Leni Robredo. After the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary examination of allegations about the Philippine drug war, the administration withdrew the Philippines from the ICC's Rome Treaty.

Duterte is aggressively attacking his critics and the nation's democratic institutions as he seeks to bring about dictatorship. If he succeeds, there's no knowing where or how far the killings may go.

 

"There are 3 million drug addicts (in the Philippines). I'd be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have..." [points at himself]


Rodrigo Duterte, September 2016(source: Reuters)

 

We at StoptheDrugWar.org ask your help in stopping this tragedy, and the threat it represents to democracy and international institutions.

Our Philippines efforts to date include a series of events at important international meetings, mainly of the United Nations; a "soft launch" as well as behind the scenes development for "Stand with Human Rights and Democracy: Global Campaign for the Philippines"; and other pending efforts.

Our UN events have been high-profile. The first, in March 2017, triggered a major political incident in the Philippines, after Vice President Robredo, a human rights lawyer and opposition leader, sent us a speech by video which criticized the President's drug policies. Our March 2019 event drew headlines in the Philippines and forced a response from the nation's Justice Secretary. Full information on the series appears below.

The "Stand with Human Rights and Democracy" campaign links drug policy reform in general terms to big issues of the day including democracy, human rights, rule of law, and the fight against internet-powered disinformation and authoritarianism.

Our work in this area grew our of advocacy we've done at the United Nations since late 2014. As part of a global community of reform-minded NGOs, we call for people-centered approaches to drug policy governed by human rights. Initially this aimed at the April 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). When Duterte was elected and the Philippine slaughter began, we turned our attention there.

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo recorded
a powerful video for our March 2017 UN event.
 

The pro-Duterte forces have noticed us. Duterte allies including the (now former) Speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives have attacked Philippine opposition leaders for working with us. Orchestrated online troll armies have descended on our videos. One of our events even prompted fake news stories.

We are currently crafting plans for moving forward in this campaign in an even bigger way. Please subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don't miss any announcements about it. If you have a particular interest in the Philippines and want to be in touch about this, please email us.

 

Our accomplishments to date have included:

 


UN Events

Under the auspices of our UN-accredited 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation, we have organized events in conjunction with the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meetings in Vienna, the 2018 and 2019 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development meetings in New York, and the 2019 Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

 
 
TIME magazine did the first posting
of the vice president's video,
embedding it from our YouTube account.

Vienna 2017: Our March 2017 event, coorganized with the Manila-based Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, drew massive attention in the Philippines, due to a speech by video from Philippines Vice President Leni Robredo that led to unfair attacks on her by Duterte allies and an (ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment drive. The video also garnered US and international coverage. Robredo's video strongly criticized Duterte's drug war, as well as Duterte-led moves in the Philippines Congress (also so far unsuccessful) to reinstate the death penalty, including for drug offenses, and to lower the age of criminal liability to nine.

We released the video on Monday March 13, three days before our event, offering TIME magazine the exclusive first posting. TIME followed up with an interview with Robredo. Along with extensive coverage in Philippine mainstream media, discussion of the video trended on Twitter, and was covered by wire services and outlets throughout Asia and the Gulf.

Unfortunately though not surprisingly, Duterte's forces hit back. The Speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives and the president's Spokesperson both claimed the vice president's office (OVP) must have timed the video's release to coincide with other events that week. They principally pointed to an impeachment complaint a congressman filed against Duterte the day after we released the video, as well as a resolution in the European Parliament calling for the release of Duterte critic Sen. Leila de Lima. They presented this as evidence Robredo was engaged in a "destabilization campaign" against the government.

 
Robredo's opponents used the
video to attack her politically.

While still in Vienna, we released a statement to media refuting those claims. It documented that UN staff had scheduled side events for the CND nearly two months earlier, and attested that OVP had made no requests of us. (Our event appears on page ten of the 2017 CND side events list; a screenshot of that document's properties page shows it was published on January 23, compared with the event's March 16 date.) Sen. Kiko Pangilinan distributed the statement to the Liberal Party's media list, and we also contacted Philippine media. CNN Philippines, on which the president's spokesperson had first made the false claim about the role of the video, published the most extensive story about our debunking of it. (See news links below.)

 
 
coverage of our statement
defending the vice president, CNN
Philippines mobile home page

While our statement helped to defuse the specific charge of a coordinated campaign by the vice president, Duterte's team had ignited a political firestorm over the video which already had its own momentum, and which turned into a campaign to impeach Robredo. At the height of the furor, opportunistic celebrities even held a concert and rally against Robredo. (Their campaign reached the US west coast, when a Filipino American group in Hayward, California held an affinity rally.)

The political heat that Robredo, a human rights lawyer, took for participating in our event is unfortunate. But she has continued to speak out against the killings, and remains a popular figure.

News reports on our event, the vice president's video, and its fallout, are too numerous to link here, and media continued for a long time to refer to them when discussing the vice president's political trajectory. One example is this analysis in the prominent Philippine news outlet Rappler, as of late 2019 ranked as the 10th more read web site in the Philippines. We post here a selection of key news links, as well as links for video footage of our entire event and other resources.

 
Philippine officials provided the
government's response.
(photo by Joey Tranchina)

Event footage is available online here. Along with the Robredo statement and an Amnesty International video, it includes presentations by Chito Gascon, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines; Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister of Thailand and current chair of event cosponsor the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (video); Lousewies van der Laan, former leader of the Dutch D66 party (Skype); Alison Smith, lead counsel and head of international criminal justice programs at the NGO No Peace Without Justice; Marco Perduca, former Senator from Italy and a member of our board of directors; and a written statement from US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). We also have transcripts and a detailed summary.

 
 

Co-moderator Marco Perduca, former
senator of Italy, and David Borden
speaking with Amnesty International's
Daniel Joloy, other speakers Alison
Smith (just off screen) and Lousewies
van der Laan (on Skype).
(photo by Joey Tranchina)

Following are some key news article and related links:

The Philippines' largest broadsheet newspaper and 8th most read web site in the country as of this writing, The Inquirer, interviewed our executive director David Borden, as well as fellow event speaker Alison Smith, two weeks after the event. The interview, titled "Group says Duterte, not Robredo, upsetting int'l community," was widely read, shared by Inquirer readers nearly 9,000 times.

A transcript of the video is posted on Vice President Robredo's web site.

Articles covering our statement defending the vice president against the Speaker's false attack:

Articles covering our publishing of the full event footage:

 
 
Senator Trillanes displays copy
of Duterte administration's 2017
report, listing 20,000 killings
among its accomplishments

(photo by Joey Tranchina)

Vienna 2018: A year almost to the day after our 2017 event (and in the same room at the UN), we held another event featuring outspoken opposition Philippine Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV. (Duterte has said of Trillanes, "I [will] destroy him, or he will destroy me.")

In a sign of the times, the day before our event when Senator Trillanes arrived at the UN, President Duterte transmitted one-year notice of the Philippines withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, in retaliation for the ICC's preliminary investigation of his drug war. The night before our event, prosecutors in the Philippines indicted the senator on a spurious sedition charge.

Tania Ramírez and Natalie Ginsberg
read Senator de Lima's statement.
Alessandro de Luca also pictured.
(photo by Joey Tranchina)
 

Senator Leila de Lima contributed a written statement to our event as well. Joining Senator Trillanes as featured speaker was Ellecer Carlos, well-known spokesperson for the iDEFEND Philippine human rights coalition. The event was again co-moderated by David Borden and Marco Perduca.

 
 
speaker meeting before the forum
(photo by Joey Tranchina)

Roughly 70 people attended, many forced to stand outside the 30-person capacity meeting room. Attendees represented a range of governments, UN agencies, NGOs, and members of the local Filipino community.

While the sedition charge became the main news story, driving out much of the coverage our event might otherwise have gotten, we did get some media including television:



 

 

 

 

 


- After Robredo, Trillanes Turn to Blast EJKs in war on drugs, Inquirer article published in advance of our event

State of the Nation with Jennifer Soho

News 5 Aksyon Tonite

Philtizen article noting State of the Nation report (over 9,700 shares on Facebook)

Trillanes not backing down on sedition case (The Philippines' top news outlet, ABS-CBN, filmed for this report at our event. The sedition indictment, which was issued the night before, became the main story.)

How many more Filipinos will suffer under Duterte? De Lima asks (Inquirer article -- over 7,700 shares)

Rights Reporter interview with Senator Trillanes

 

 
 
fake news story with fabricated
statement attributed to us

In another sign of the times, Filipinos working in Vienna attended our event, including both supporters and critics of President Duterte. One member of the "Die Hard Duterte Supporters contingent (DDS -- a play on the infamous "Davao Death Squad" Duterte operated as mayor) challenged Senator Trillanes on the number of killings during the discussion time, while others videorecorded. The pro-Duterte media forces selectively edited the video in order to create an appearance that Trillanes didn't have an answer for him (as the senator and his staff had predicted). An example from a local newspaper in the Philippines appears here. Our Facebook Live video shows that Senator Trillanes did respond, however, and that the encounter was a civil one. The two spoke at length following the event.

Our visit to the UN cafeteria the day before the event led to a series of misleading and fake news stories. A Filipino cashier noticed Senator Trillanes was wearing an NGO badge, rather than one issued by the Philippines' Mission to the UN, and sent a picture to a pro-Duterte blogger. The blogger's post, which misidentified us as a Filipino American NGO, is online here, and has over 7,700 shares. An article posted on two Philippines-focused sites (here and here) "confirmed" that the senator had entered the UN through our auspices.

This information in these pieces isn't fake per se, but they attempt to imply a scandal or problem where there was none. A fake news story followed on the blog post, includes a photo of us on the lunch line with Trillanes, but claims falsely that the senator was "scolded" by a UN security guard who told him to "eat last." A follow-up fake news piece features a fabricated statement attributed to our organization. >A third piece by the same writer provided video from our event of a Filipino Duterte supporter contesting Trillanes' information, but implied falsely that the senator fell silent instead of responding to him.

The Facebook Live video stream from this event follows below. We will post an edited playlist copy and transcript in the near future. In the meanwhile, a realtime transcript from the CND Blog can be read here, and individual speeches can be accessed by going to the following points in the video. (We're not able to link to specific times within Facebook videos.)

  • Statement of Senator Leila de Lima, read by Tania Ramírez and Natalie Lyla Ginsberg (13:38)
  • David Borden (20:17)
  • Marco Perduca (21:03)
  • Senator Antonio Trillanes (26:42)
  • Ellecer Carlos (27:12)
  • Discussion (59:20)

See our September 2018 statement regarding another attempt by the Duterte administration to imprison Trillanes, their most serious one yet.

New York 2018: On July 16, we hosted the third event in the series, "Human Rights Challenge: Judicial and Extrajudicial Killings in a Time of Authoritarianism," expanding the scope of the discussion to include the death penalty for drug offenses. The event was held at the Church Center of the United Nations, in conjunction with the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.

 

Prominent opposition leader Senator Risa Hontiveros of the Philippines provided a video for our event, calling for international solidarity for human rights and an end to Duterte's drug war. The two hour event also featured Professor Jason Wright of the Washington & Lee Law School, speaking on behalf of the California-based group Death Penalty Focus; and Justine Balane, International Secretary for Akbayan Youth in the Philippines, via Skype.

The largest Philippine news outlet, ABS-CBN, filmed the event, and a report ran on their US station, Balitang America.

Following is the Balitang America's YouTube copy of the TV report:

Following is full video of the event. An edited playlist copy and transcript will be posted in the near future. In the meanwhile, individual sections can be accessed by clicking on the time indications in this list:

  • Welcome and Acknowledgments by David Borden, Executive Director, StoptheDrugWar.org (0:00)
  • Video message from Senator Risa Hontiveros, Republic of the Philippines (4:16) | (original copy of Hontiveros video here)
  • Remarks by David on Borden on the UN Sustainable Developments Goals, and Background for This Event (7:47)
  • Justine Balane, International Secretary, Akbayan Youth (14:11)
  • Professor Jason Wright, Washington & Lee School of Law, representing Death Penalty Focus (25:55)
  • David Borden remarks (48:34)
  • Invited remarks from audience by Shilpa Nandwani, Northeast Coordinator, International Coalition for the Philippines US Chapter (53:50)
  • Invited remarks from audience by Terrenze Rienton (1:01:18)
  • General Discussion (1:06:43)
  • audience remarks by Rev. Levi Bautista (1:12:57)
  • General Discussion (1:17:23)

 

In March 2019, we returned to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting, where we were joined via Skype by Chel Diokno, Dean of the De La Salle University School of Law, and at the time a candidate for the Philippine Senate. Attorney Diokno's keynote speech garnered strong media attention in the Philippines, and a comment he made about the "erosion of the Philippine justice system" drew a response from Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra.

With this event we also began to address the role of social media manipulation and disinformation in the Philippine crisis. The program included a presentation by video from a scholar of online disinformation campaigns, Pamela Combinido, whose group had interviewed the organizers and rank-and-file "trolls" who carry them out; and a video from BuzzFeed News on Facebook's role in fueling Duterte's drug war, which accompanied an award-winning article on the topic by technology reporter Davey Alba.

videos:

    1

news articles about Diokno's speech:

    1

news stories about the Justice Secretary's response:

    1

HLPF 2019

ASP

 


 

Protest at Philippines Embassy, Washington, DC

  

For the one-year mark of the jailing of Duterte critic Senator Leila de Lima on spurious drug charges, we organized a protest at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC. The event featured street theater with Duterte and Philippine National Police figures arresting Senator de Lima and pretending to shoot attendees.

Allies in the Philippines helped to promote the event's Facebook Live video stream, and it went viral in the Philippines, with nearly 470,000 views as of this writing. Among our cosponsors in the action were Amnesty International, the Filipino American Human Rights Alliance and the Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines.

 

Other Philippines-focused groups such as Gabriela-DC and the International Coalition on Human Rights in the Philippines-US were participated as well. The event represented a step for Philippines-focused groups with various different ideological roots working together. Video of the action went viral in the Philippines, and has garnered nearly 470,000 views. Since that time our executive director, David Borden, has been a go-to person about the drug war for demonstrations organized by Filipino American groups.

Facebook Live video:

 

      

(photos and video done by event cosponsor DCMJ)

 


Global Sign-On Statement

In the lead up to the November 2017 Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was hosted by Duterte in the Philippines, we organized a global sign-on statement which calls for a UN-led investigation of the drug war killings; for the leaders of ASEAN member states and other world leaders attending to speak up about the issue; and for international aid donor governments to impose human rights conditions on law enforcement assistance to the Philippines, while funding positive programs that could serve as an alternative to the Philippine drug war, and funding the work of human rights advocates.

 
InterAksyon article

Nearly 300 NGOs and prominent individuals endorsed the statement. Of the 240 NGO endorsers, more than 50 are based in Asia, including a majority of ASEAN member states as well as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There are also several Asia-wide networks devoted to issues such as HIV, transgender and drug user concerns, and youth democracy activism.

Some notable signatories on the document include the National Organization for Women (NOW), Doctors of the World, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG, a nationwide Philippines human rights lawyers group founded during the Marcos dictatorship years), Treatment Communities of America, prominent human rights advocate and actor of MASH fame Mike Farrell, former police chief of Seattle Norm Stamper, and others.

A political component of the statement's outreach efforts, which was in its early stages at the time of the statement's release, secured endorsements from legislators in Canada, Italy, Cambodia, and Washington State, as well as other political and governmental officials from Singapore, Canada and the UK.

The statement was covered by four important Philippines news outlets:

The Interaksyon article credited our coalition with renewing global calls for a UN-led probe into the drug war killings.


Legislative Lobbying

 
 
April 2018 lobbying coalition

A bipartisan bill in the US Senate, "The Philippine Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017," would enact human rights conditions on some law enforcement assistance to the Philippines, based on certifications by the US State Dept., while funding public health programs to address substance issues as well as human rights work. There is similar language in the current version of the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. We are working with a coalition that includes Filipino American organizations and faith networks, to pass this legislation as part of the upcoming appropriations process, or if not then later during the 2018 session of Congress.

In April 2018, StoptheDrugWar.org's executive director David Borden was invited to join a lobbying group that included advocates visiting from the Philippines as part of the Stop the Killings Speaking Tour 2018 of the Caravan for Peace and Justice for the Philippines, as well as representatives of Filipino American organizations, faith groups participating in the Ecumenical Advocacy Days the weekend before, and others. Key organizers of the lobbying effort were the Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines US Chapter. Borden is regularly asked by Filipino American advocates to address the drug war in meetings and demonstrations.

An update and action alert we published is online here, and includes information on what the most key states and congressional districts are. We have a write-to-Congress form supporting S. 1055 online here.

  

We view this legislation as important not only for its potential impact on the Duterte administration's political cost-benefit analysis on this issue, but also because of the inconsistent approach to the matter taken by the current US administration. While the State Department has raised some concerns about the drug war killings, President Trump has made comments which seem to green-light them.

Specifically, in December 2016 Trump and Duterte spoke on the phone, after which Duterte claimed that Trump praised his drug policies. While Duterte could have made that up, the Trump team never rebutted the claim.

After Trump and Duterte spoke again in April 2017, a statement on the White House web site said they discussed " fighting very hard to rid its country of drugs," with no qualification of that statement to exclude extrajudicial killings from Trump's apparent praise. A transcript of the April conversation leaked to Rappler quotes Trump congratulating Duterte for doing an "'unbelievable job' in the war on drugs."

Finally, Trump was silent about the issue during his appearance at the ASEAN Summit, at least publicly. A White House spokesperson said that Trump and Duterte talked briefly about human rights, but did not elaborate. Duterte has recently claimed that a White House visit is in the works, pending scheduling.


Coalition Building

As the above sections show, we have actively sought partners in this campaign, both in the Philippines and in the Filipino American community, including groups spanning a range of the ideological spectrum. But we have also sought to bring others in to the effort -- from drug policy reform, international criminal justice advocacy, the anti-death penalty movement and others.

 

In March before heading to Vienna for our event with Senator Trillanes, we organized a panel for the Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in Baltimore, "Human Rights Challenge, Responding to extrajudicial killings in the Philippines." Our panel featured Eric Lachica of US Filipinos for Good Governance; and Shamah Bulangis and Justine Balane, National Secretary General and International Secretary respectively of Akbayan Youth, who are also SSDP Ambassadors for the Philippines.

The panel was well attended, and following it, we brought signs from Philippines-related demonstrations (our 2/28 embassy protest and others) to the plenary hall, where conference attendees, following a group picture, took a second group pictures with the signs, while holding hands up in a Philippines protest symbol. The photo, posted to Facebook by an attendee, went viral in the Philippines.

The energy of the event and level of interest in this campaign that was shown there, following our successful protest a week earlier, makes us believe that a larger movement can be built on this issue, capable of bringing greater pressure on the Duterte administration over the killings. Please subscribe to our email list to be updated as plans progress, and feel free to contact us directly in the meanwhile.

David Borden met with members of the Filipino American Human Rights Alliance San Francisco chapter in July 2018. In this video, filmed by FAHRA leader Ago Pedalizo, Borden remarks on the recent awarding of the prestigious "Prize for Freedom" award to Senator de Lima:


These efforts, which continue into 2018, are part of a global drug policy reform program StoptheDrugWar.org has pursued decisively since fall 2014. Much of that involves the United Nations, and our 501(c)(3) US nonprofit organization, DRCNet Foundation Inc., is an accredited NGO in Special Consultative Status with the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Our international drug policy program is headed by our founder and 24-year executive director, David Borden, who tweets as @stopthedrugwar, and who starting in the near future will tweet on Philippines matters as @BordenUNEventPH. In the near future our organization's blog and newsletter will have a significant focus on the Philippines as well. Our Philippines-related content can also be accessed through our category archive at https://stopthedrugwar.org/philippines.

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Biden DOJ Opposes Gun Rights for MedMJ Patients, MO Legal Pot Initiative Qualifies, More... (8/10/22)

A  Florida marijuana legalization initiative campaign aimed at 2024 gets underway, a Colorado natural psychedelic initiative comes up short, and more.

Marijuana testing is contributing to the truck driver shortage. (Creative Commons)
Report: Spike in Marijuana Positives Fueling Truck Driver Shortage, Supply Chain Disruptions. Amid chronic shortages of long-haul truck drivers, federal data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows that more than 10,000 truck drivers have been ordered off the road after testing positive for marijuana just between January 1 and April 1 of this year. That is a 33 percent increase over the same period in 2021. DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has also doubled the frequency of drug testing of truck drivers. Under federal law, CDL licensed drivers are not permitted to consume cannabis under any circumstances, regardless of whether marijuana use is legal where they live. Currently, more than 89,000 commercially licensed truck drivers are barred from the road because of positive drug tests; more than half of them are for people testing positive for marijuana.

Florida 2024 Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Launched. A group calling itself Smart & Safe Florida filed a marijuana legalization initiative aimed at the 2024 ballot Monday. The campaign is initially being bankrolled by Trulieve, the state's largest medical marijuana provider. The measure would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over and allow existing medical marijuana retailers to sell to the recreational market, which would benefit Trulieve. It includes a provision that allows for—but does not require—the state to issue additional retail licenses. It does not include provisions for expungement, social equity, or home cultivation. The campaign will need to come up with roughly 900,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot. Previous initiative campaigns have been rejected by the state Supreme Court, but Smart & Safe Florida says its bare-bones initiative should be able to avoid or overcome legal challenges.

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot. A marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by Legal Missouri 2022 has qualified for the November ballot, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced Tuesday. The initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment that would remove bans on the possession, manufacturing, and sales of marijuana from the state constitution for people 21 and over. Building on an earlier medical marijuana constitutional amendment, the measure would also increase the number of retail sales licenses. It also includes a provision for the expungement of records.

Medical Marijuana

Biden DOJ Says Medical Marijuana Patients Too "Dangerous" to Own Guns. The Justice Department on Monday sought to persuade a federal court to overturn a policy blocking medical marijuana patients from buying or owning guns. The department was responding to a lawsuit filed by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and several medical marijuana users that argues that the policy deprives patients of their 2nd Amendment rights. The Justice Department told the court that it would be too "dangerous to trust regular marijuana users to exercise sound judgment"around guns. The department also argued that gun rights are reserved for "law-abiding" people, noting that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. "This memorandum uses the phrase ‘medical marijuana’ for convenience, but Congress has found that marijuana ‘has no currently accepted medical use.'’

Psychedelics

Colorado Natural Psychedelic Decriminalization Initiative Falls Short on Signatures. Campaigners for Initiative 61, "Legal Possession and Use of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi," announced Monday that the measure would not qualify for the ballot. Monday was the last day to turn in signatures, and organizers said their all-volunteer signature-gathering campaign had come up short. Another psychedelic reform measure, Initiative 58, the "Natural Medicine Health Care Act," has already qualified for the November ballot. It would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin and allow for its use in state-regulated settings.

Chronicle Book Review: American Cartel

American Cartel: Inside the Battle to Bring Down the Opioid Industry, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz (2022, Twelve Press, 400 pp., $30.00 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, with contributions from David Borden

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/americancartel.jpg
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz have been on the opioid beat for years, teaming up (with others) on the Post's "The Opioid Files" series, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2020. Now, with American Cartel, the pair provide a deeply-sourced account of how opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies waged an all-out campaign to fend off DEA efforts to stanch the flow of billions of opioid pain pills, and to evade any culpability, even as the overdose death toll mounted year by year.

The picture Higham and Horwitz paint of corporate and political malfeasance is damning. But the laser sharp focus with which they paint it, omits much of the context in which the opioid crisis has unfolded. And that context is also very important.

An article in yesterday's Guardian shows one of the reasons why. In much of the world, very few pain patients are able to access opioids at all. Much suffering results, sometimes leading to suicide attempts. Dr. MR Rajagopal, chair of Pallium India, told the Guardian, "Pain is not visible. It happens in hospital beds or patients' rooms and is not visible to the world. Addiction, on the other hand, is very visible in headlines which quote the US epidemic and overdose deaths. No one talks about the western European success over decades; all the news is about the opioid crisis in the USA. This means that when we try to have discussions, our work becomes harder because many minds are primed against opioids."

In other words, by speaking too solely to one side of an issue, one risks adversely impacting the other sides. Whether "opiophobia" is real or significant in the US is another question. Higham and Horwitz don't venture a view on this, at least not in American Cartel.

One entity that has warned about opiophobia (without using the term) is the US Centers for Disease Control. In a 2019 memo, CDC writes that a 2016 guidance the agency issued on prescribing opioids for chronic pain had seen "misapplication[s]" by some physicians that put patients at risk. The memo cites a New England Journal of Medicine commentary by the authors of the 2016 guidance. It warns against "hard limits" on opioid dosages or cutting patients off; abrupt tapering of prescriptions; applying the guidance to acute pain situations patients face in situations like active treatment for cancer or sickle cell anemia or post-operative care; and applying it to medication-assisted treatment prescriptions for addiction.

Technically the CDC memo addressed a period of a few years beginning in 2016. But the dynamics it describes are inherent risks in a situation where providers are charged with supplying a substance that's useful but also addictive and potentially deadly if misused, and for which they can be sanctioned professionally or even prosecuted and imprisoned if things go wrong or someone disagrees. Pharma-driven promotion of their new opioid products was a factor in driving up prescribing rates to where they reached. But a part of the increase was also the medical community reacting to a real problem of under-treatment or non-treatment of pain for some patients, a problem that coexists with over-prescribing to some other patients. That increase in turn came with a learning curve.

The authors also give short shrift to the impact of today's woes and inequalities in driving the so-called deaths of despair -- a concept coined by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton -- alienation and anomie, helplessness and hopelessness afflicting many Americans who have been left behind in the modern economy, especially in the opioid use heartlands of the Midwest and Appalachia. The Midwest deindustrialized beginning in the 1970s, and both regions largely missed out on the tech boom of the '90s and '00s. Then came even more pain with the Great Recession, followed by COVID and more economic and social disruption. People there (and elsewhere) are dying not just of opioids, but of smoking, drinking, and suicide. Big Pharma is easily (and oh so deservingly) demonized, but the laser focus on the companies allows us not to have to look in the mirror about the pain our society produces.

That factors like these should play a role in the opioid crisis, though, doesn't exonerate Big Pharma. Rather, the misleading promotions of their products carried out by pharma, took an even greater toll due to the vulnerabilities those other factors had brought to the fore.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to mount -- over 100,000 per year, and with a new record high every year. Prescription opioids still figure prominently in overdoses. But the greatest part of the problem by far is black-market fentanyl, used deliberately by some high tolerance heavy users of opioids, but primariy causing overdose as an adulterant in heroin, counterfeit prescription pills, and other street drugs, essentially a poisoning crisis. But as Higham and Horwitz note, that is part of a wave of opioid use that began with pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma taking Oxycontin onto the market in the late 1990s. The first decade of this century also saw other prescription opioids -- oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Opana, et al. -- hit the market.

Higham and Horwitz are fond of tossing around astounding numbers of pills produced by manufacturers or sold by certain pharmacies, such as Mallinckrodt producing 3.5 billion 30 milligram hydrocodone pills in one year, and critics could protest that those numbers need context, too. A prescription for a medication doesn't just have a number of pills to take. It specifies how large a dosage there is inside each pill. A smaller number of pills that each contain a higher dose might mean more than a larger number that each contain a smaller dose. And a higher dose prescription sometimes reflects a patient's tolerance to opioids built up through past medical (or non-medical) use. Maybe West Virginia didn't really need 81 million pain pills during a five-year span. But maybe it did. Without more information, it's just not clear what these numbers mean.

They do provide some context, though, for example by comparing pain pill sales across all drug stores in a region and pointing out anomalies not easily explainable by, say, differing rates of cancer or other serious illness. And they demonstrate that plenty of businesses -- from Big Pharma to the drug store chains and individual pharmacies -- were either in it for the money or at best screwed up, both through detailed analysis and telling anecdote. For example, there was the guileless Florida pharmacist who explains to investigators that she fills pain pill prescriptions all day long, but always keeps a certain number of pills on reserve "for my real pain patients."

When the DEA cracked down first on Wild West internet sales of opioids and then on the "pill mills," medical practices with perfunctory examinations and huge numbers of opioid prescriptions whose entire business model seemed to be writing opioid prescriptions, it succeeded in reducing access to those drugs. But the people using opioids didn't stop; they went to black market drugs, fueling first a resurgence in heroin use and now an opioid crisis driven by fentanyl.

A key figure in the tale is Joe Rannazzisi, who as head of DEA's Office of Diversion Control from 2006 to 2015 oversaw the agency's endless effort to ensure that prescribed opioids are only prescribed for legitimate medical purposes and not leaking into the black market. We are inclined to think of the DEA as a prohibitionist agency, but in this case, it is acting as a regulatory agency. And what Higham and Horwitz uncover is a case of regulatory capture -- when the industry being regulated manages to set the terms under which it is regulated, for its own benefit, not that of the public.

Rannazzisi and his team of DEA lawyers spent years going after opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains who were repeatedly (administratively) busted for failing to do due diligence about just who was buying their products. The companies would pay huge fines, promise not to do it again, and then continue to pump massive amounts of opioids through the supply chain.

The companies mobilized against Rannazzissi and his campaign, forming industry front groups, undertaking lobbying efforts, hiring legions of high-priced law firms, and crafting legislation that would rein in what they saw as an out-of-control agency. As Higham and Horwitz document in great detail, it worked.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), both of whom received substantial contributions from the industry, but written by industry lobbyists, the nicely named Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act removed from the DEA tools that Ranizzisi had been using to try to force drug distributors to monitor and report suspicious orders, such as the 1.2 million oxycodone tablets one distributor bought from Mallinckrodt in one day, only to order another 1.2 million the next day.

The bill passed, only to be drastically revised amidst scandal after an earlier Post report on the opioid bill derailed then-President Trump's effort to name Marino drug czar. But Higham and Horwitz also detail rot inside the DEA, where the industry managed to get to high-ranking officials who sidelined Rannazzisi, forcing him into retirement and forcing many of his team members into bureaucratic Siberia. It's an ugly little story of money and power, the sort that is all too common in Washington.

If the first part of American Cartel reads like a detective novel, the second part is more like a legal thriller, It covers the massive wave of civil lawsuits filed against the drug companies, and it is not particularly edifying reading. You see hundreds of high-powered attorneys from the country's top litigating firms -- including dozens of former DEA attorneys working now working for the industry they regulated -- facing off against armies of lawyers for the thousands of states, cities, and counties. You see massive settlements from the companies and massive damages wrested from companies that went to court and lost. While it is unclear just how the moneys won or negotiated by the various plaintiffs is actually being used to help people who suffered from the opioid crisis, what is clear is that it has been a bonanza for the legal profession, with winnings -- excuse me, earnings -- by attorneys reaching well over a billion dollars.

They weren't all in it for the money, though. Some, like West Virginia attorney Paul Farrell, whose state was one of the epicenters of the pain pill epidemic, were sickened by the toll of addiction they saw all around them. Not willing to settle for the pittance the town and county he represented would receive under a massive settlement agreed to by most of the suing entities, he gambled on going it alone against the drug distributors. As this book went to print in April, he was still waiting for a decision. Earlier this month, he lost, with a federal judge ruling that drug distributors were not responsible for the area's opioid crisis.

The litigation goes on, and the dying goes on. Sometimes the drug companies settle, sometimes they lose and have to pay even more. But sometimes they win.

The profit-driven wave of opioids that engulfed the country in the last couple of decades is not an anomaly. The pharmaceutical companies have a historical pattern of creating and marketing drugs that later wreak havoc. That's what they did with amphetamines, that's what they did with barbiturates, that's what they did with benzodiazepines. It's almost enough to make one wonder if profit-driven capitalist enterprises should be in charge of the nation's drug supply.

Read Higham and Horwitz's book. But read Case and Deaton's too. And when you see the next "pill mill" story, don't assume that it is, or isn't, what it seems.

Russian Court Sentences American Basketball Star Brittney Griner to Nine Years in Prison

A Russian judge sentenced American basketball star Brittney Griner Thursday to nine years in a Russian penal colony after earlier being found of bringing cannabis oil into the country in her luggage. The guilty verdict was virtually a foregone conclusion in a criminal justice system that wins convictions in 99 percent of cases.

This is what got Brittney Griner a nine year sentence.
Russian authorities detained Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and she is widely viewed as having become a pawn in the conflict between Washington and Moscow over the war. Griner's attorneys say they will appeal the verdict.

President Biden, who has been under pressure to win her release from her wife and the athletic community and whose administration is attempting to negotiate a prisoner swap for Griner, called her sentence "unacceptable," and vowed to continue to make every effort to free her.

The US has offered a prisoner swap of Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, in return for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiring to sell arms to Colombia's leftist rebels, the FARC. But the Russians have so far demurred, first saying that Griner's trial had to finish and, more recently, showing littler interest in the matter.

While Griner's sentence seems stiff to Western sensibilities, it is in line with Russia's draconian, zero-tolerance drug laws. Drug offenders make up a quarter of the country's prison population. As Penn State University law professor William Butler noted: "To many in the US, nine years' imprisonment may seem like a harsh penalty for cannabis possession. But in Russia, it is par for the course for this crime."

Another American citizen, 61-year old Marc Fogel, is currently serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for marijuana possession. Fogel and his wife were returning to Russia for the last year of a ten year teaching stint, when he was caught. According to family, Fogel uses marijuana to treat chronic back pain.

AR Legalization Init Has Enough Signatures, UN Experts Criticize Singapore Drug Executions, More... (7/29/22)

Marijuana seizures at the US-Mexican border are down again, Colombia's Gulf Clan is escalating its attacks on police as it jockeys for position in upcoming negotations, and more.

San Francisco could become the largest US city to decriminalize psychedelics. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Feds Report Significant Year-Over-Year Decline in Marijuana Seizures at the US Border. The amount of marijuana seized at the US-Mexico border has dropped dramatically this fiscal year, with seizures averaging 408 pounds a day, down from an average of 874 pounds a day during FY 2021, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Other drug seizures at the border are up, but the decline in marijuana seizures is part of a consistent downward trend in recent year. As the DEA has noted, "In US markets, Mexican marijuana has largely been supplanted by domestic-produced marijuana."

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative Set to Qualify for Ballot. State officials have confirmed that a marijuana legalization initiative from Responsible Growth Arkansas has submitted enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. But the state Board of Election Commissioners must first approve the popular name and ballot title of the measure. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over, but not home cultivation. It would also set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Psychedelics

San Francisco Psychedelic Decriminalization Resolution Filed. Supervisors Dean Preston (D) and Hillary Ronen (D) have filed a resolution to decriminalize psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. The resolution also calls for broader statewide reform. If the resolution is passed, San Francisco would be the most populous city in the country to decriminalize psychedelics.

International

Colombia's Gulf Clan Trafficking Group Stepping Up Attacks on Police. The Gulf Clan, the country's most powerful drug trafficking organization, is stepping up a campaign of violence against police that began in May, when its leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, known as "Otoniel," was extradited to the United States to face trafficking charges. But now, as the country approaches the transfer of power from conservative President Ivan Duque to leftist former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, is ratcheting up the violence, apparently in a bid to bolster its prospects in potential negotiations with the new government. At least 25 police officers have been killed by the Gulf Clan, 12 of them in the last month, and three in just the past week.

UN Experts Call for Immediate Moratorium on Singapore Executions for Drug Offenses. UN experts have condemned the execution of Nazeri Bin Lajim, a 64-year-old Malay Singaporean national convicted of drug offenses and urged the Government of Singapore to halt plans to execute individuals on death row for drug-related charges. There has been a sharp rise in execution notices issued in Singapore this year.

Nazeri Bin Lajim was arrested in April 2012 and convicted for trafficking 33.39 grams of diamorphine under the 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act in September 2019. The mandatory death penalty was subsequently imposed in his case and enforced on 22 July 2022. "Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the 'most serious crimes', involving intentional killing," the experts said. "Drug offences clearly do not meet this threshold."

The experts reiterated that, as per the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention's report on arbitrary detention relating to drug policies andits subsequent jurisprudence, imposing the death penalty for drug-related offenses is incompatible with international standards on the use of the death penalty.

Senate Democrats File Marijuana Legalization Bill, Bipartisan Psychedelics for Terminally Ill Bill Filed, More... (7/21/22)

Singapore is set to hang a drug offender today, Sensators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed a bill to allow the terminally ill to use certain psychedelics, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Senate Leadership Introduces Legislation to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), today introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). The legislation repeals the federal criminal prohibition of marijuana, provides deference to states' cannabis policies, and establishes mechanisms to help repair the harms associated with the racially and economically disparate enforcement of prohibition. The CAOA removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act schedule entirely, ending the threat of federal prosecution for possession and licensed commercial activity, and allows states to implement their own cannabis policies free of federal interference. It also eliminates many problems facing regulated state cannabis markets, including lack of access to financial services, the inability to deduct standard business expenses when filing federal taxes, and the lack of uniform national regulatory standards and guidelines. The legislation also directs funding to reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition and helps improve diversity and inclusion in regulated cannabis markets. The bill's prospects in the evenly-divided Senate are unclear, at best.

Psychedelics

Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Amend the Right to Try Act to Assist Terminally Ill Patients. US Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation Thursday to clarify that the Right to Try Act should allow terminally ill patients to have access to Schedule I drugs for which a Phase 1 clinical trial has been completed. Specifically, the Right to Try Clarification Act would remove any obstacle presented by the Controlled Substances Act with respect to Schedule I substances when they are used by doctors and patients in accordance with the federal Right to Try law. Companion legislation will be introduced in the House by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Nancy Mace (R-SC).

The federal Right to Try law permits patients who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases or conditions, and who have exhausted all approved treatment options, access to certain treatments that have not yet received final FDA approval. In general, a drug is eligible for Right to Try use after a Phase 1 clinical trial has been completed for that drug but prior to the drug being approved or licensed by the FDA for any use. In other words, in limited conditions involving life threatening illness and for drugs that have been proven to be safe, the federal Right to Try law removes the FDA out of doctor-patient decisions and reverts regulation back to the states. Under the terms of the federal Right to Try law, states remain free to permit or prohibit Right to Try use under their own laws.

International

Singapore Set to Hang Drug Offender Today. The city-state is set to hang 64-year-old Singaporean citizen Nazeri Lajim for drug trafficking today. This would be the fifth execution since March after a long pause in hangings during the coronavirus pandemic. He was handed the death sentence in 2017, some five years after being arrested during an anti-narcotics operation. Nazeri was found with two bundles of what was analyzed to be 35.41 grams of heroin, exceeding the 15 gram legal threshold for the imposition of the death penalty.

The country is increasingly out of step with its neighbors on drug policy. Thailand legalized most forms of marijuana last month, and Indonesia and Malaysia are discussing medical marijuana. The government defended its hardline approach: "It really is incumbent upon us to present the choices in very vivid terms and persuade our people, including young people, that we have to make the right choices for them and for society," said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Sudan Defense Lawyers Charge Political Detainees Forced to Undergo Drug Tests. The legal group Sudan's Emergency Lawyers, which defends people seeking to protest against rule by the military-dominated government, is charging that people being arrested at protests are now being subjected to unlawful drug tests. Detainees including at least 15 minors and six women were released after being beaten, assaulted and subjected to drug tests, the group said.

The lawyers said "what is really disturbing is that these people are now subjected to a drugs test," which they stressed "is completely contrary to the law". The lawyers say that those detained were not in possession of drugs and were not found in any suspicious situation that necessitates this procedure or would give authorities common cause. They pointed to the fact that any referral for examination must be made by the prosecution. "This procedure is purely criminal, it violates the rights of the detained, and it is against the principle of assumption of the accused's innocence, and completely contrary to the law. It degrades dignity and has a profound psychological impact," the lawyers added.

Rumors have been circulating that young protesters are using drugs, meth in particular, because they don't seem to show hunger or fatigue, but there has been no evidence to back up the rumors.

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

AZ Churches Sue Feds Over Ayahuasca Seizures, Schumer's Legalization Bill Coming Within Days, More... (7/20/22)

Indonesia's Constitutional Court rejects medical marijuana but calls for "immediate" study, DC Mayor signs bill providing workplace protections for marijuana users, more.

Weed will be on the Senate's mind next week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Senate Hearing on Marijuana as Filing of Legalization Bill Looms. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on "Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms." The hearing, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a strong proponent of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's pending legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, comes amid word that the bill will drop any day now. Schumer has blocked incremental marijuana reforms, such as the SAFE Banking Act, saying he wants a full-blown legalization bill.

Kentucky Democrats Announce Plan for Legalization Bill. Frustrated by the failure of the Republican-controlled state legislature to act even on medical marijuana, state Democrats announced Thursday they will be filing legislation to legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use. They said they would fill "LETT's Grow" bills in both house. LETT is short for Legalizing sales, Expunging crimes, Treating medical needs, and Taxing sales. "Our legislation is the comprehensive plan that Kentuckians deserve, and it builds on what's worked in other states while avoiding their mistakes," said Rep. Roberts of Newport. "This would be a boon for our economy and farmers alike, plus give state and local governments a major new source of revenue."

DC Mayor Signs Bill Providing Workplace Protections for Marijuana Users, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has signed into law a bill that most employers from firing or refusing to hire workers because they use marijuana. The bill would "prohibit employers from firing, failing to hire, or taking other personnel actions against an individual for use of cannabis, participating in the medical cannabis program, or failure to pass an employer-required or requested cannabis drug test, unless the position is designated safety sensitive or for other enumerated reasons." There are exceptions for police, safety-sensitive construction workers, people whose jobs require a commercial drivers' license, and people who work with children or medical patients. The new law must still be approved by Congress before it can go into effect.

Psychedelics

Arizona Churches Sue Over Seizure of Sacramental Ayahuasca. Two Arizona churches, the Arizona Yagé Assembly and the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, have filed suit in federal court over the seizure of ayahuasca, a key element in their religious practice, by federal agencies. In separate lawsuits, the two churches charge that the federal government has violated the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law bars the government from burdening the exercise of religion unless there is a compelling government interest and only if that action if the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor says that US Customs and Border Protection has been seizing and destroying its ayahuasca since 2020. The churches say drinking ayahuasca is "an essential mode of worship" for members, but federal agencies say any possession of ayahuasca, a Schedule I substance, violates the Controlled Substances Act. "The church and its members are aware that their sacrament is proscribed by law, but they have partaken in their sacrament both before and after the United States made a credible threat of enforcement of the CSA against them," the suit says. "Plaintiffs are violating and intend to continue to violate applicable law, rather than compromise or terminate their sincerely held religious beliefs and practices."

International

Indonesia High Court Rejects Medical Marijuana But Calls for Immediate Study. The Constitutional Court on Wednesday nixed a judicial review of the country's drug law that could have opened the door for medical marijuana. Three mothers of children with cerebral palsy backed by civil society groups had sought the review, arguing that marijuana could be used medicinally to treat medical conditions. The court held there was insufficient research to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, but called on the government to "immediately" conduct research on the medicinal use of the herb… The results of which can be used to determine policies, including in this case the possibility of changing the law," said judge Suhartoyo.

Big Increase in Injection Drug Use, House Passes Another Spending Bill with SAFE Banking, More... (7/18/22)

British Tories audition a new scheme for punishing drug users that effectively decriminalizes somebody's first two drug busts, a new study finds racial disparities in Pennsylvania marijuana arrests are increasing, and more.

The number of Americans injecting drugs increased five-fold in the past decade. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Passes Defense Spending Bill with Marijuana Amendments. The House last Thursday approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes nine amendments pertaining to marijuana and other drug policies. Included in the House version of the bill is language from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, language allowing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to allow medical marijuana recommendations, and two psychedelic research amendments. The SAFE language, which the legal marijuana industry is clamoring for, has been passed in the House as part of several earlier omnibus spending bills, only to be killed in the Senate by Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and his allies, who have been holding out for passage of a full-blown marijuana legalization bill. We shall see if it turns out any differently this time.

Black Pennsylvanians See More Racial Bias in Marijuana Arrests. A new study from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) finds that racial disparities in marijuana arrests jumped upward in 2020, even though overall pot arrests declined. Black Pennsylvanians were five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana statewide. The largest disparity was in Cumberland County, where Blacks were 18 times more likely to be arrested for pot than Whites. "I will say that the numbers moving in the wrong direction is certainly a concern," said Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition Meredith Buettner. "This is all the more reason that we really need to dig into adult use policy here in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvanians." The Republican-controlled state legislature has so far blocked any moves toward legalization.

Drug Policy

CDC Finds Huge Increase in Number of People Injecting Drugs. A new study from the Coalition for Applied Modeling for Prevention (CAMP) and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a rapid increase in the number of people shooting up drugs in the past decade. The most recent data, from 2018, put the number of injection drug users at about 4 million, five times the number in 2011, the last previous estimate. The study also found that overdoses -- both fatal and non-fatal -- had also increased dramatically, with deaths related to injection drug use rising threefold during that period, which was before the current spike in overdose deaths, now around 100,000 a year. For every fatal injection drug overdose, there were 40 non-fatal ones, the study found. The CDC estimates that a third of people who inject drugs share syringes, needles or other drug injection equipment.

International

British Tories Plan to Punish Drug Users, Could Seize Their Drivers' Licenses, Passports. The Home Office has announced a scheme to punish drug users in a bid to "tackle the scourge of drug abuse in society." Under the "three-strikes" proposal, first-time illicit drug offenders, including marijuana offenders, would have to pay for and attend a drug awareness course. A second offense would merit a formal warning, another drug awareness course, and up to three months of mandatory random drug testing. For a third offense, people would be criminally charged and, upon conviction, could be banned from nightclubs and other entertainment venues and could have their drivers' licenses and passports confiscated. But, hey, that is effectively decriminalization for the first two offenses. The proposal will now undergo a three-month consultation period before being amended or implemented as is.

What Comes Next in the Philippine Drug War and Will Duterte Pay for His Crimes? [FEATURE]

As the month of June came to an end, so did the term in office of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for presiding over a bloody and still-continuing "war on drugs" that has left more than 30,000 dead at the hands of police and shadowy vigilantes, according to Filipino and international human rights organizations. Duterte's human rights violations sparked the interest of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) opened an investigation into the matter last year.

ICC headquarters, The Hague, Netherlands
Following a formal request by the Duterte administration in November, OTP paused the investigation in order to reevaluate whether government's accountability efforts touted by the administration were sufficient and credible. Late last month OTP requested court authorization to resume it.

Replacing Duterte is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., known as "Bongbong." Marcos comes with his own baggage; he is the son of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, infamous for her shoe collection. And his vice president is none other than Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte. Between them, the pair provide a double dose of strongman genes for a population that has proven eager to embrace them.

With the Duterte government now in the rear view mirror, the question now are what happens next in the Philippine drug war and will there ever be justice for the crimes of the past six years?

In a parallel event to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development on Thursday, "Building Back with Justice? Marcos, Duterte, the ICC, and the Philippine Drug War," took on those issues. Sponsored by DRCNet Foundation (also known as StoptheDrugWar.org -- publisher of this newsletter), a US-based NGO in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and the Italy-based Associazone Luca Coscioni, the event was moderated by StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden and Italian former senator Marco Perduca of the Associazone. The event focused on Goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, "Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions."

In the virtual event conducted via Zoom, participants heard from three Filipino experts: human rights activist Justine Balane, Ruben Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and Dr. Aurora Parong of the Philippine Coalition for the ICC and the Philippines branch of Amnesty International.

"One of the goals is #16, is peace, justice, and strong institutions. Issues like human rights, accountability and so forth fall within that topic," said Borden, who noted, "Our first event held in March 2017 at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where we were privileged to present a video from then Vice President Leni Robredo, a video which became controversial in the Philippines due to attacks being made on her for it by political opponents. Robredo was in the first year of her term as vice president, having narrowly defeated Bongbong Marcos to win that post."

"I will lastly note it's nearly 5 ½ years since then Senator Leila de Lima was jailed [on bogus charges for criticizing Duterte's drug war], and we share the widespread hopes in the international community that she will be released soon, particularly since... three of her key initial accusers have recanted their accusations and stated that they were made under pressure."

Perduca followed with a short history of the ICC, explaining that the core crimes with which it is concerned are war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, with the crime of aggression added later.

"The court has jurisdiction over countries that have signed and ratified or have acceded to the treaty, and have... put in place all the necessary measures to... allow the court to take action if local authorities are unwilling or unable to pursue alleged criminals, at any level of the state hierarchy," he explained. "[W]e have made the case before competent authorities at the ICC... that the way in which the war on drugs in the Philippines had been waged amounted to crimes against humanity. It was massive and systematic, and it was the result of a specific order given by someone in charge... The Philippines was party to the treaty until a few years ago [when Duterte withdrew from it], so some of those heinous actions still fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC."

The new boss looks too much like the old boss, according to Balane, who in his day job serves as Secretary General of the organization Akbayan Youth.

"In the first half of the year, during the campaign season, the streets were blaring with the jingle of the new president and vice president, which started with the lines "Bagong Pilipinas, Bagong Mukha." It roughly translates as new Philippines and new faces," he said. "But in reality, it's not. In the first half month under Marcos and Duterte, we're been shown the same drug war tactics and the same level of government oppression... The killings haven't stopped with Duterte leaving... and how the killings have remained largely uninvestigated, and the killers let loose under Duterte and possibly Marcos."

"Data from the University of the Philippines (UP) Third World Study Center show that there have been 155 deaths for the first half of the year," Balane noted. "Even in Duterte's final year in office, the killing of children in the drug war continued... [including] two children in the last month of Duterte in Malacanang (the Philippines' executive branch headquarters)." In UP's research, from January to July 2022, 68 of the deaths were carried out by state agents... I'm relying on this UP data because there is a huge underreporting crisis on drug war numbers... This year, before Duterte left office, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported that there have been a total 6,248 drug war deaths since Duterte took office. This is a figure that is at least 24,000 lower than the estimates of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups... [I]t's even lower than the figure provided by the office of Duterte... [I]n 2017... the presidential office... admitted... that the drug war killed 20,000 people and listed in its annual accomplishments report, under the section 'fighting illegal drugs in 2017.' This... report became the basis of the Supreme Court order to the Duterte government to explain and release data on the 20,000 deaths which could be state sponsored," Balane said.

Balane was critical of the Duterte government's claim that it would investigate the killings, obviating the need for the ICC to step back in.

"Last year... the Philippine Department of Justice vowed to the international community that they are able and willing to conduct a domestic review of the drug war cases, just to show that the justice system is still working... But this year, the Department of Justice announced to the United Nations that only four cases have led to actual new prosecutions. Imagine that!" he exclaimed. "Four cases out of more than 30,000 reported or suspected cases under the drug war... [T]hat's showing this government has been noncommittal and not... serious about its obligations to the international community, not upholding its human rights obligations."

The Duterte government clearly failed to pursue the police and shadowy vigilante groups behind the killings, Balane said.

"To date, there remains only one case that has led to a guilty verdict against killer cops, and that was in 2018... That's because the norm is of acquitting and letting killer cops go scot-free... Seriously, the prospects of investigation bringing to justice the cases and the killings that happened under the Duterte admnistration remain bleak."

Balane was not optimistic about the prospects under the new Marcos administration.

"As we enter Bongbong Marcos's presidency, one person a day is killed, approximately. This is according to [UP data]... An official of the Marcos government also vowed that the drug war will be as intensive as before. Even President Marcos himself during the campaign trail said that he would continue the drug war with the same vigor but a different approach. But we continue to question the government's seriousness to put into law any program that is an alternative to what the law enforcement agencies have already been accustomed to under Duterte, because they have already been so comfortable with getting away with their crimes," he charged.

As early as 2017, Senator Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan already filed a bill in the Senate providing a framework for a public health approach on the drug problem. But until now there has been no push from others in the Senate or anyone else in the legislative chamber or the executive to pass it or adopt elements of it highlighting harm reduction instead of the punitive, violent and largely failed approach of the Duterte administration."

Balane concluded by noting, "Marcos Jr., who sits in the office of the president, refuses to be accountable for the extrajudicial killings that happened under his family's regime in the '70s.

"It's important to note that the drug war is not over," said Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice. "There's this famous quote from The Wire, that TV show about drug wars, that 'drug wars are not actual wars, because drug wars never end.'

Carranza explained, "On the first day of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president... there were drug war killings in the University of the Philippines... involving two brothers who were... from a very poor family... The brothers were invited by a supposed friend to help fix a car, but instead they were taken by plainclothes armed men in a car that was unmarked, taken from the university, and then their bodies were found two days later," he noted.

"I mention this because... part of what Duterte unleashed has been the creation of a national death squad that has now come to exist apart from Duterte himself... [So] I don't think we can reckon with accountability in the drug war based on who the president of the Philippines is. It's important to look at the institutions that enforce the drug war, both the formal state institutions, the Philippine National Police, and the non-institutional and yet much more powerful creations that the drug war has led to. A death squad that used to be local -- Davao City -- has become national under Duterte, and this national death squad continues." "Vicente Danao, the current police chief, was Duterte's former police chief in Davao City. Vicente Danao has a record, not just of being involved in the drug wars in Davao, but also domestic abuse, for which he was exposed by his wife and had to take a leave from his police duties in Davao -- until Duterte, of course, forgave him and said that he will back him up," Carranza explained.

"Vicente Danao is likely to be one of those that, if the prosecutor goes ahead with the investigation that has already been authorized previously by the pre-trial chamber of the ICC.. [will] be investigated," he continued. "It's difficult to say at this point whether Vicente Danao, or anyone else for that matter, will be charged. But obviously those who have been linked to the death squad in Davao, and now operate on a national scale, are likely to be those who will be investigated and potentially charged. This isn't only because of their links to the death squads in Davao and then nationwide. This is also because the ICC prosecutor, with the approval of the pre-trial chamber, has actually extended the coverage of the investigation of the Philippines drug war to the period when Duterte was mayor of Davao, in other words after the ICC treaty took effect for the Philippines in 2011, and years before Rodrigo Duterte became president... During this period, Rodrigo Duterte was mayor, but there were periods when his daughter was mayor of Davao because they took turns being mayor."

It's important to remember... that the International Criminal Court is not the only institution that can pursue accountability for the drug war. It's important to remember that prosecution is not the only measure by which extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity committed in the drug war, can be pursued and those behind them be held accountable. Justice doesn't only equate with courts; justice can be pursued elsewhere, outside of courts," Carranza argued.

"There are two ways in which I think accountability and justice for the drug war can be pursued even outside of the International Criminal Court process. One is through a truth-telling process that can be organized at the local level, perhaps at the community level in the Philippines among the urban poor communities that have been targeted by the drug war," he said. "Part of that work is being done now by priests like my friend Father Flavie Villanueva and the exhumations and the reburials and cremations of those whose bodies were buried in cemeteries whose families cannot afford to... pay for the burial plots. That process of removing remains and then having -- my friend as well, one of the forensic pathologists in the Philippines, Dr. Raquel Fortun -- exhume and examine the bodies, conduct autopsies -- is a truth-telling process. It's important for the international community to support that, because this not only empowers communities, empowers families of the victims into acting on their demands for justice, but gives them some hope that even if there's no formal state process that seeks accountability within the Philippines, even if the ICC prosecutor will take longer to actually conduct the investigation, and even if... the ICC as a court cannot proceed because the Philippines does not cooperate... that there are local processes going on that are outside of court processes," he said.

"The second approach to justice for the drug war involves reparations for families of the drug war victims. Reparations isn't new in the Philippines; the Philippines actually passed a law in 2013... to provide reparations for victims of the Marcos dictatorship."

Carranza pondered, "It is possible to give reparations to be given to victims of the drug war, but it is possible under Marcos? ... The sister of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator, Imee Marcos, actually supported a bill that became a law... that gave reparations for those who were victimized and displaced in the siege in Marawi City involving a conflict between a violent extremist group in the Philippine south and the government," Carranza continued.

"But will Marcos Jr. pursue the killings, pursue accountability of those involved in the killings in Duterte's drug war? That is a question that will be fully answered over time, but two things we need to take into account: Marcos Jr. is no stranger to maintaining impunity. He and his family have an interest in maintaining the impunity of Duterte, because any action that might open accountability of presidents past, and even further in the past, will obviously reopen questions around the accountability of the Marcos family," he argued. And "The Marcoses will defend their ill-gotten wealth for as long as they can."

Finally, Carranza argued, "Marcos Jr. will say what the global north's elites will want to hear, what the west, particularly the Europeans in the western part of Europe want to hear, that he will pursue accountability for human rights violations. He has said this... That he will pursue preventive health-related policies for drug users... This is, of course, appealing to Westerners, but does not deal with the root causes of drug use in urban poor communities in the first place, and the economic and social rights violations that then lead to drug use in the Philippines."

Parong and the Philippine Coalition for the ICC are not giving up on the international community.

"The [coalition] is calling on the UN to review and assess the effectiveness of its technical assistance, and review its decision not to probe into the war on drugs. Given the findings of Dr. Raquel Fortun, and of course also the statement of Prosecutor Khan of the ICC that there is no effective investigation, and looking into the systematic nature of the crimes... and therefore have called for the UN Human Rights Council to review its decision..." she said.

"There should be key result areas, or impact assessment of its assistance to the Philippines. Perhaps one would be effective prosecution of perpetrators of the killings in the war on drugs, and then a result that should be achieved. Because there should be changes in the behavior and values of those who are trained during this technical assistance. And then of course there should be the effort to really look at the enablers, those who made it possible that there are >massive killings in the tens of thousands," the humanitarian law expert suggested.

"We also believe that if President Marcos Jr. is really committed to high accountability and to pursue the control on drugs within the rule of law, they should develop a program against drug abuse that integrates a human rights and public health perspective," she continued. "And of course, the Philippine government has to really give complete results of what it says it will pursue the fight against drugs within the rule of law and make high accountability possible, then it should now come out with a very, very complete plan... There has to be specific, there has to be terms of reference, items on the plan, and concrete results in key result areas that can be measured, and not just those general commitments to the rule of law or accountability."

Parong had a specific suggestion for the Marcos-Duterte administration too: "If they really want unity as well as peace so that we can get out of this pandemic crisis... they should review the withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, and consider the possibility of getting back, if they really want higher accountability."

But given the workload of the ICC -- the Office of the Prosecutor is looking at abuses in 16 countries right now, it lacks the resources to do all it needs to be doing," she said.

"We think that the internationally community, especially the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should in fact provide the resources which the court needs in order to be able to really act as a court of last resort and deliver justice. Faster also, rather than being at the back burner for investigation, and then it's only after some time that the court can act on them, because they have no resources that is adequate enough to pursue all these cases that they are either investigating, on preliminary investigations, or even those which are on trial. So there has to be more resources and support, not just from the state parties... because if other members of the UN really believe in international justice and support it, then they should support whatever is in the international court's purview to review and make decisions."

And it's not just funding but having the back of the ICC when it is attacked.

"The Philippine president has in the past attacked the ICC as an institution," she noted. "He also attacked UN officials and ICC personnel... During the campaign, the current presient said he would only allow the ICC personnel to come in as tourists, not as investigators... We think the UN members, as well as the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should be giving political support to the ICC when there is an effort to attack them or diminish their capacities to do their work because they don't have access to the countries that need to be investigated."

For those seeking radical change away from Duterte's drug war, some of the early indicators -- especially the continuing killings -- are not good. And while Bongbong is talking about some limited reforms, it remains to be seen whether he will pursue even those modest goals. For those seeking justice and accountability for Duterte's crimes, the path remains arduous, but that has not stopped them.

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