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The War on Cocaine Only Strengthens Drug Cartels, Study Finds [FEATURE]

If you've spent nearly a half-century and $250 billion trying to stop the flow of cocaine into the US and the white powder is now cheaper and more plentiful than ever, maybe it's time to rethink. That's the implicit lesson lurking behind a new study on the impact of drug interdiction efforts on drug trafficking organizations.

cocaine interdicted by US Customs (dhs.gov)
Interdiction is the supply side approach to reducing drug use. Rather than reducing demand through education, prevention, and treatment, interdiction seeks to reduce the supply of drugs available domestically by blocking them en route to the US or at the border.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by scientists from a half-dozen American universities, the study relied on a computer model called NarcoLogic that shows how drug traffickers respond to interdiction strategies and tactics. More sophisticated than previous attempts to simulate the drug trade, NarcoLogic models local- and network-level trafficking dynamics at the same time.

"Our team consists of researchers who worked in different parts of Central America during the 2000s and witnessed a massive surge of drugs into the region that coincided with a reinvigoration of the war on drugs," David Wrathall of Oregon State University's College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences said in a press release announcing the research results. "We asked ourselves: did drug interdiction push drug traffickers into these places?"

The short answer is yes, and that has implications that go far beyond drug policy. The Central American migrants who are at the center of the current "border crisis" are fleeing not only poverty but also high levels of violence generated by the movement of Mexican drug trafficking groups into the region a decade ago as they faced increasing interdiction efforts at home and from US authorities.

In fact, although it is not addressed in this new research, it was earlier interdiction efforts aimed at Colombian cocaine trafficking groups in the 1980s that led directly to the transformation of formerly small-scale Mexican cross-border smuggling organizations into the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition that the cartels are today. With the Colombians under intense pressure, Mexican traffickers rose to the occasion and have been making billions of dollars a year ever since.

This despite five decades of US interdiction efforts with an average annual expenditure of $5 billion. Instead of curbing the flow of cocaine into the United States, all that has been accomplished is making the drug trafficking operations more widespread and harder to eradicate. Putting pressure on one route or location simply leads traffickers to scatter and regroup. This is the "balloon effect," where suppressing traffic or production in one area prompts it to pop up elsewhere, and the "cockroach effect," where traffickers simply decentralize their operations.

"Between 1996 and 2017, the Western Hemisphere transit zone grew from 2 million to 7 million square miles, making it more difficult and costly for law enforcement to track and disrupt trafficking networks," Wrathall said. "But as trafficking spread, it triggered a host of smuggling-related collateral damages: violence, corruption, proliferation of weapons, and extensive and rapid environmental destruction."

And for all that effort, the impact on cocaine price and availability has been negligible -- or even perverse.

"Wholesale cocaine prices in the United States have actually dropped significantly since 1980, deaths from cocaine overdose are rising, and counterdrug forces intercept cocaine shipments at a low rate. More cocaine entered the United States in 2015 than in any other year," Wrathall said. "And one thing people who support interdiction and those who don't can agree on is that change is needed. This model can help determine what that change should look like."

The main takeaway from the study is not that drug trafficking became more widespread and resilient because of ineffective interdiction efforts, but because of interdiction itself. The policy aimed at suppressing the drug trade has only made it stronger and wealthier.

"The study is a victory for observation and theory. This model successfully recreates the dynamic our team had observed," Wrathall said. "It tells us that increased interdiction will continue to push traffickers into new areas, spreading networks, and allowing them to continue to move drugs north."

Maybe it is time to try something different.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Year in Drugs II: Good, Bad, and Ugly Global Drug Policy in 2018 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Domestic Drug Stories of 2018 piece here.)

It's been a year we couldn't wait to put behind us, but as 2018 comes to an end, we can look back on some advances on the international drug policy front, as well as continued brutal and regressive responses from some quarters. Here are 10 of the global drug policy stories that shaped the year, for better or worse:

Iranian drug executions have come to a screeching halt in one of the good news stories of 2018. (handsoffcain.info)
1. Drug Death Penalty Reforms Cause Massive Drop in Executions

Early this year, it became official: Iran had reformed its death penalty statutes to radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses, and it had done so retroactively, saving the lives of thousands already on death row. By mid-year, it was clear that the move was having an impact, as human rights observers reported a 99% reduction in drug executions, with only one person being executed for drugs as of June, compared to more than a hundred during the same period in 2017.

2. Canada Becomes the First G8 Country to Legalize Marijuana

Justin Trudeau pledged that he was elected prime minister, his government would legalize marijuana. It didn't happen as fast as he would have liked, but the Liberals' legalization bill passed parliament in June and went into effect on October 17. So far, the sky has not fallen.

3. Medical Marijuana Earns Growing Acceptance

The year began with Thailand announcing a plan to allow medical marijuana and ended with Thailand approving it and becoming the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But in the meantime, Israeli pharmacies began selling medical marijuana in April, Zimbabwe legalized it in May, and Portugal and Luxembourg followed suit in June. In November, Great Britain joined the club, and Greece issued its first medical marijuana production licenses. Late in the year, in South Korea, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's drug laws that will pave the way for the use of medical marijuana by prescription, and New Zealand also approved it in December Not a bad year for medical marijuana.

Canadian Senate
4. The Philippines Drug War Continues, But Pressures Mount…

The bloody drug war of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continued apace in 2018, with a death toll now put at 12, 000 (20,000 by some estimates), but Duterte has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. In February, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aimed broadsides at the Philippines even as the International Criminal Court began "preliminary examinations" of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case before the court. In March, activists called out drug war human rights abuses at the embassy in Washington, DC. By July, an unbowed Duterte was vowing to continue a "relentless and chilling" drug war even as national human rights groups said he was using it as a cover for assassinating political opponents. In September, he unleashed an attack on a second drug war critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, after last year imprisoning critic Senator Leila de Lima on trumped up drug charges. She is still imprisoned.

5.. ...and the Rot Spreads in the Region

Following the lead of the Philippines, other countries in the region have also embraced drug war thuggery and human rights abuses. In May, the Bangladeshi opposition warned of a wave of police killings of drug suspects, and within weeks, more than a hundred were killed and 20,000 arrested, even as evidence emerged that the crackdown was being used to hide political assassinations. The situation was fraught enough that the UN human rights head and even the US State Department expressed concern. Drug war killings were also reported in Indonesia, although there were mixed signals about moves toward reforms there, and Sri Lanka vowed to begin hanging drug dealers. Paradoxically though, a Malaysian court's imposition of a death sentence on a man for providing cannabis oil to patients now appears to have resulted in a moratorium on the death sentence and could end the death penalty in its entirety in the county.

6. The US President Aligns Himself With Global Drug War Authoritarians

President Donald Trump was a baleful presence on the global drug policy stage this past year, sympathizing with drug war authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, as well as drug death penalty countries such as China and Singapore. He said early in the year he wants to execute all drug dealers and admires the Singapore approach (mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking), a statement that moved more than 150 organizations to condemn his call. At year's end, he was singing a similar tune with a ghoulish call for more Chinese drug executions. In between, he went to the United Nations to try to gin up a reinvigorated global drug war.

coca leaves drying by highway
7. South Africa Legalizes Marijuana

In a case brought by three marijuana users, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the private possession, cultivation, and consumption of marijuana is legal. "It will not be a criminal offense for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wrote in his ruling. It will, however, remain illegal to use cannabis in public and to sell and supply it. The ruling did not set allowable quantities, with the court saying parliament had two years to come up with a new law that reflected the ruling.

8. Glimmers of Hope in Mexico

then-President Felipe Calderon unleashed the latest chapter of the country's drug wars, bringing violence to levels not seen before in the country, Mexico is showing signs it is ready for change. The death toll from prohibition-related violence is higher than ever, and that is impelling a psh for change, most notably with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is very open to finding exits from the drug war, whether it's legalized opium production in Guerrero, granting amnesty for non-violent drug trafficking offenders, or legalizing marijuana. And speaking of legalizing marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court in November struck down the ban on marijuana possession, cultivation, and use. Now, Lopez Obrador's governing MORENA Party has filed a bill to legalize marijuana sales. Tackling the violence, may be a bit more difficult.

9. Colombia Sees a Record Coca Crop as US Cocaine Deaths Rise

Efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels have not gone well, and that's causing rising worry in Washington. In June, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2017 production was at an all-time high, prompting expressions of concern from the drug czar's office and support from President Trump for new rightist Colombian President Ivan Duque's "head-on fight against drug trafficking." That could include a renewed resort to aerial fumigation, even drones, as well as forced eradication of coca crops, leading to renewed conflict in cultivation zones. Meanwhile, cocaine is now the third leading cause of drug overdose deaths, trailing only fentanyl and heroin.

Vienna International Centre, home to the UN drug agencies
10. Historic UN Cannabis Review Hits Last-Minute Procedural Delay

In June and again in November, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) met to consider the evidence on cannabis (marijuana) and its placement in the UN drug scheduling system, which determines whether or what level of control the UN drug conventions mandate that countries maintain for the substance. The conventions specify that substances should receive such an evaluation before being scheduled, but that never happened for marijuana. Observers believe the process should lead to marijuana being moved to a less restrictive schedule than it is in currently -- if the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) votes to adopt such a recommendation from ECDD.

That didn't happen when, earlier this month, WHO voted to delay release of ECDD's recommendations until January, for unexplained reasons. That may mean they get taken up at the main annual CND meeting in Vienna in March, rather than December's intersessional. The delay seems unusual, and probably political, but its intent is unclear.

The next few months may tell. In the meanwhile, ECDD says that CBD shouldn't be scheduled at all. But that didn't stop the US FDA from saying that treaties require it be scheduled, even though they also think it shouldn't be.

The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

What's Killing Us: The Ten Drugs Most Implicated in Overdose Deaths [FEATURE]

While there are signs that the country's drug overdose crisis may have plateaued, the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to be unconscionably high. Shockingly, the number of overdose deaths has increased tenfold since 1980 when there were only 6,000 nationwide and nearly doubled just in the past decade to more than 72,000 last year.

The number of drug overdose deaths remains unconscionably high.
Now, in a new report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sheds some new light on precisely which drugs are most implicated in these deaths. While the report examines overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016, we're going to zero in on the 2016 data to get as close as possible to the present.

Three drug classes are involved: prescription and non-prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Often, fatal overdoses involve more than one drug, whether it is drugs in the same class (heroin and fentanyl) or combinations of drug classes (heroin and benzos or fentanyl and cocaine.

Before we get into the number-crunching, it's worth taking a moment to consider that each single overdose death is a tragedy. A human life has been lost prematurely, the potential snuffed out, and friends and family members suffer greatly. It doesn't have to be that way. While we're going to look at deadly drugs, it behooves us to remember that many of these deaths are a function not just of the drugs themselves, but of drug prohibition.

People overdose on fentanyl, for example, because in a black market there is no packaging, no quality control, no dosage information to inform them of just how powerful is that powder they're snorting or injecting. Added to heroin or crafted into counterfeit prescription opioids by unscrupulous black market operators, fentanyl kills people who didn't even know they were taking it. Even more insidiously, fentanyl is turning up in black market cocaine and methamphetamine, whose users aren't even looking for an opioid high and haven't developed any tolerance to them (although some may be speedballing, that is, taking both an upper and a downer at the same time.

That said, here are the drugs making the greatest contributions to the 63,352 overdose deaths in 2016. (The numbers add up to more than that figure because in some overdoses, more than one drug is mentioned.)

1. Fentanyl -- 18,335

In 2016, fentanyl vaulted into first place in the deadly drug sweepstakes. As recently as 2011, the synthetic opioid was in 10th place, with some 1,660 overdose deaths attributed to it, but the death toll has increased more than tenfold in just five years. More than two-thirds of fentanyl overdose deaths also involved other drugs, and fentanyl is involved in more than a quarter (28.5 percent) of all overdose deaths, including 40 percent of cocaine overdose deaths and nearly a third (32 percent) of heroin deaths.

2. Heroin -- 15,961

At the tail end of the prescription opioid phase of the current overdose crisis in 2011, more people died from oxycodone than heroin, but between 2012 and 2015, heroin resumed its role as the leading opioid linked to fatal overdoses, only to be overtaken by fentanyl in 2016. The vast majority -- 70 percent -- of people who died from heroin were also using other drugs. More than a third were also using fentanyl, while nearly a quarter (23.8 percent) were also using cocaine. As prescription opioids became more difficult to obtain, the number of people dying from heroin skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the five years ending in 2016.

3. Cocaine -- 11,316

Cocaine deaths rose dramatically beginning in 2015 and by 2016 the annual death toll was double what it had been five years earlier. With bumper crops in Colombia in recent years, cocaine is cheap and plentiful. It is also increasingly being cut with fentanyl, which is implicated in 40 percent of cocaine deaths, and mixed with heroin, which is implicated in a third of them. Cocaine is named in 17.8 percent of all overdose deaths.

4. Methamphetamine -- 6,762

Meth-related overdose deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016, a dramatic increase in what has become America's forgotten drug problem. In 2016, slightly more than one out of ten drug overdose deaths involved meth. Of the top ten overdose drugs, meth is by far the one most likely to have been the sole drug implicated in the death, but even so, fentanyl was implicated in one out five meth deaths and heroin in one out of ten.

5. Alprazolam -- 6,209You know it as Xanax. This short-acting benzodiazepine is a favorite of stimulant users seeking to take the edge off, but also often forms part of a sedative cocktail with opioids or other benzos. About three-quarters of Xanax overdose deaths involve other drugs, with fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone each involved in about one-quarter of Xanax deaths. Xanax deaths increased by about 50 percent over the five year period.

6. Oxycodone -- 6,199

It's most infamous formulation is OxyContin, but it is also sold as Roxicodone, Xtampza ER, and Oxaydo. It may have been the primary killer opioid a decade ago, but has chugged along at around 5,000 deaths a year before going over 6,000 in 2016. Four out of five people who overdose on oxycodone were also using another drug, most often Xanax (25.3 percent), followed by fentanyl (18.6 percent).

7. Morphine -- 5,014

The granddaddy of opioids. Morphine deaths increased slowly beginning in 2011, but have still increased by about 40 percent since then. More than eight out of 10 morphine deaths involve other drugs as well, particularly fentanyl, which is involved in one out three morphine deaths. Cocaine (16.9 percent) and heroin (13.7 percent) are also frequent contributors to morphine ODs.

8. Methadone -- 3,493

Prescribed as an opioid maintenance drug, methadone is one of the few drugs on this list to have seen the number of deaths decline between 2011 and 2016. They've dropped from more than 4,500 a year down to less than 3,500, a drop of roughly a quarter. Nearly three-fourths of all methadone deaths implicate other drugs, with Xanax being most common (21.5 percent), followed by fentanyl (15.1) and heroin (13.8).

9. Hydrocodone -- 3,199

This semi-synthetic opioid is sold under a variety of brand names, including Vicodin and Norco, and has proven remarkably stable in its overdose numbers. Between 2011 and 2016, it never killed fewer than 3,000 or more than 4,000, almost always (85 percent of the time) in concert with other drugs. Xanax was implicated in one-quarter of all hydrocodone overdoses, followed by oxycodone (17.2 percent) and fentanyl (14.9 percent).

10. Diazepam -- 2,022

The most well-known diazepam is Valium. Like Xanax, this anti-anxiety drug can be used to take the edge off a stimulant binge, but it's not coke heads and speed freaks who are dying from it. In more than nine out of 10 fatal Valium overdoses, other drugs are involved, most commonly the opioids oxycodone and fentanyl, each implicated in about a quarter of the deaths, and heroin, implicated in a fifth.

Using these drugs is dangerous. Using them under a prohibition regime is even more so. Users don't always know what they're getting, and that lack of knowledge can be fatal. If you're going to be messing with these substances, be extremely cautious. Try a test dose first. And don't do it alone. Stay safe out there.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Chronicle AM: Legal MJ Shortages, Mexico to Move Toward Legal MJ Market, More... (11/3/18)

The Granite State has a new guide to marijuana legalization, ONDCP releases coca cultivation and cocaine production figures for Peru and Bolivia, Canada suffers legal pot shortages, and more.

North America is becoming a very weed-friendly continent. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Commission Issues Marijuana Legalization Report. The Commission to Study the Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana has released its report, complete with 54 separate recommendations on how legalization should be implemented. Among them are creating a state-level Cannabis Commission to regulate it, similar to the way the state regulates alcohol. The group estimated that legalization could bring in revenue of $36.6 million a year once the market stabilizes, and possibly reaching $47 million. The report is designed to help guide any legislative moves toward legalization.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Regulators Reject Bid to Raise THC Cap on New Medications. The state's Medical Cannabinoid Board voted unanimously last Friday to rebuff an effort to raise the 3% THC cap on new medications. Proponents argued that more THC is more effective in treating some conditions, while critics worried that lifting the limit could encourage abuse. "I'd like to get another year or two under our belts and see how people respond with the current THC cap," said board member Lonny Miller, a family physician from Creston.

Foreign Policy

ONDCP Releases Data on Coca Cultivation and Cocaine Production in Peru and Bolivia. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released the US government's annual estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production for Bolivia and Peru last Friday. Although Peru produces more coca and cocaine than Bolivia, and although Peru's coca cultivation and potential cocaine production are trending up while Bolivia's are trending down, ONDCP was more critical of Bolivia. "The ongoing coca --cultivation in both Peru and Bolivia pose a threat for us as a nation, and aggravates our domestic drug addiction crisis," said ONDCP Deputy Director Jim Carroll. "It is important that our governments work together to take action against cultivation and production, and to save lives of those affected by drug trafficking. Peru continues to be a great partner and we have a shared responsibility to address this problem. In Bolivia, we would like to see real efforts against cultivation and production."

International

Canada Struggles to Meet Huge Demand for Legal Marijuana. Just two weeks after legal retail marijuana sales began, Canadian pot retailers -- both physical and online -- are having problems dealing with unexpectedly high demand. In much of the country, the legal supply has almost entirely dried up. "There is not enough legal marijuana to supply all of recreational demand in Canada," said Rosalie Wyonch, a policy analyst at the CD Howe Institute. "The shortages are happening faster than I would have expected, but our research suggested quite strongly that there would be shortages in the first year of legalization."

Colombia Announces New Strategy to Disrupt Drug Trade. Last Thursday, Colombian Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez announced a new "disruption policy" of going after the cocaine trade by cutting access to alkaloids and power sources in rural areas. He called for "petrochemical innovation" so that fuels stop yielding the factors needed to create cocaine hydrochloride, as well as restricting the sale of government-subsidized gasoline in cocaine and marijuana producing regions. But one analysis says the proposals "might sound innovative on paper but are unlikely to have a major impact on the drug trade and may end up hurting long-suffering residents."

Mexico's Ruling Party Plans Legislation To Legalize Marijuana Sales. Less than a week after the country's Supreme Court ruled that laws barring the personal use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana are unconstitutional, key figures in the ruling MORENA Party are already moving to craft legislation to create a legal marijuana market. First, they say, they will move to repeal the now null and void criminal laws against marijuana, and then, "We are going to take a step forward in the regulation that may already involve the production, marketing and distribution of marijuana," said Olga Sánchez Cordero, a senator who is expected to become interior secretary in the incoming government of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. "I say it from the heart: we celebrate it, the Court is setting a marvelous precedent for us to walk in that direction," Sánchez added.

Chronicle AM: MA Pot Shops to Open This Month, Coca Comes to Central America, More... (11/2/18)

A record number of gubernatorial candidates are endorsing marijuana legalization, Bay State pot shops will be open this month, cartels are experimenting with coca production in Central America, and more.

A cocaine lab discovered by Honduran authorities last year. (Honduran Prosecutor's Office)
Marijuana Policy

Record Number of Governor Candidates Call for Marijuana Legalization. A new analysis from Marijuana Moment finds that at least 21 major party gubernatorial candidates support legalizing marijuana, far more than any previous election cycle. But there are differences: Some candidates make legalization a centerpiece of their campaigns, while others embrace it only reluctantly or if pressed on the issue. For a list of those pro-legalization would-be governors, click on the link.

California Cities, Counties to Vote on Marijuana Taxes. More than two dozen cities and counties will have marijuana taxation proposals on their local ballots next week. Among the most controversial proposals is a San Francisco move to impose a 5% tax on gross sales receipts. That would come on top of the 15% state retail tax and the city's 8.75% sales tax, meaning pot sales would be taxed at a whopping 28.75%. The fear is the high levels of taxation will drive potential purchasers to the black market.

Massachusetts Legal Marijuana Sales to Begin This Month, State Says. The chairman of the state's Cannabis Control Commission said Thursday that legal marijuana sales would get underway "within the next week or two" after final inspections of pot shops are performed. "Everything is happening as quickly as we can," Chairman Steven Hoffman said. "There are no lags. We're working closely with the licensees so they understand the process. We're getting very close." It's been two years next week since Bay State voters approved marijuana legalization.

Medical Marijuana

First FDA-Approved Marijuana-Based Drug Now Available by Prescription. As of Thursday, the marijuana-based drug Epidiolex is now available by prescription in all 50 states. The FDA approved the drug in June, but manufacturer GW Pharmaceuticals had to wait for the DEA to reclassify its compounds out of Schedule I before it could begin selling it. That has now happened. Epidiolex is used for treating a rare form of epilepsy and a genetic btylerain dysfunction called Dravet syndrome, both of which can cause seizures.

International

Cocaine Production Beginning to Pop Up in Central America. Cocaine production is starting to pop up in Central America, a development that could bring the supply of the drug closer to the US. Officials in Guatemala and Honduras have found at least four separate coca plantings this year and last year. Although the total acreage involved -- about 125 acres -- is a tiny fraction of total coca planting, local officials said the fields constituted pilot projects by drug cartels exploring whether they can reduce transportation costs and risk by moving their product from major cocaine-producing countries to Central America.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: Opioid Overdoses Decline, But Cocaine ODs at Record High, CDC Reports, More... (10/24/18)

The CDC's latest drug overdose numbers are out, Arizona's attorney general retreats on hashish, the Justice Department clears the way for harm reduction measures at music venues, and more.

Overall drug overdose deaths are finally declining, but cocaine deaths are rising, the CDC reports. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Delayed Again, New Target is By Year's End. Top lawmakers now say they are no longer aiming at approving marijuana legalization by October 29, but are now looking at doing so before year's end. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Woodstown) and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) say they still need to iron out differences with Gov. Phil Murphy (D). It's not clear what those differences are.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Attorney General Withdraws Arguments Saying Hash Isn't Medical Marijuana. Citing fears of unintended consequences for patients, Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) on Monday withdrew his agency's arguments that the state's medical marijuana law doesn't include hashish. The state was responding to an appeal by a medical marijuana patient who was convicted of a felony for possessing 0.05 ounces of hash. "The last thing the attorney general wants is to deny medicine to legitimate patients that may be ingesting their marijuana an in extract or a tincture-type of a form," said his spokesman Ryan Anderson.

Cocaine

Cocaine Overdose Deaths at Record High, CDC Reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 14,205 Americans died of overdoses involving cocaine in the past 12 months, an all-time high. The country is awash in Colombian cocaine after two years of large coca crops there, but the CDC also warned that more and more cocaine is being laced with fentanyl, which is likely driving up overdoses.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Opioid Overdose Deaths Finally Declining, CDC Reports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that from April 2017 to March 2018, the number of fatal opioid overdoses declined by 2.3 percent compared to the 12 months ending in September 2017. "There are two major takeaways," said Leo Beletsky, a drug policy expert at Boston-based Northeastern University. "One is that we are not out of the woods yet, since these rates are still sky high. [And] we need to be doing much more of what works to get the rates down further."

President Trump Signs Opioid Package Today; Drug Policy Alliance Responds. President Trump Wednesday signed into law the omnibus opioid package aimed at curbing the overdose crisis. The package is the product of bipartisan efforts to pass opioid legislation in both the House and Senate in recent months. "This legislation takes some critical steps toward making lifesaving medication-assisted treatment more accessible, but should be seen as only one small step toward addressing overdose deaths rather than a comprehensive plan," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Missing from the package is a sustained commitment from Congress and the Administration to deliver funding for evidence-based treatments, like methadone and buprenorphine, at the levels needed to meet the demand. For decades our nation's treatment infrastructure has been short-changed, while billions of dollars have been poured into arresting and incarcerating people who use drugs. Trump's opioid package doesn't even begin to close this gap. The opioid package could do much more to expand life-saving tools, like naloxone distribution and supervised consumption services. While Congress should be applauded for not including new mandatory-minimum sentences in this package, it doesn't reflect the kind of bold and innovative action needed to address the crisis."

Harm Reduction

Justice Department Clarifies That Harm Reduction Measures at Music Events Don't Violate Federal Drug Laws. The Justice Department has conceded that the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation (IDAP) Act of 2003, which aims to punish people who operate facilities that knowingly allow or facilitate drug use, does not prevent venue owners from providing harm reduction services at their events. The clarification came after Virginia US Sens. Tim Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D), acting on the request of harm reduction activist Deirdre Goldsmith, whose daughter died of heat stroke after taking MDMA, asked the DOJ to clarify.

Chronicle AM: Colombia Moves Backwards on Drug Policy, NYPD Pot Arrests Now Halted, More... (9/4/18)

Colombia's new president moves resolutely backward on drug policy, New York City's era of mass marijuana possession arrests is over, the California legislature has been busy, and more.

The era of New York City as the world's marijuana arrest capital has come to an end. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill that Will Support Local Cannabis Equity Programs to Increase Representation in the Industry by Persons from Communities Most Harmed by Cannabis Prohibition. The legislature has approved Senate Bill 1294, which helps create equity in the cannabis industry through the distribution of grants to localities offering assistance to persons most harmed by cannabis prohibition and generational poverty. SB 1294 will offer grants to localities with existing equity programs -- such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco -- to support them as they offer equity-qualifying applicants and licensees business loans and grants, regulatory compliance and technical assistance, and licensing fee waivers. SB 1294 reflects a nationwide movement to ensure that this growing industry is representative and accessible to all persons, no matter their financial or criminal history background. Advocates, entrepreneurs, and local governments now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

Delaware Governor Signs Marijuana Expungement Bill Into Law. Gov. John Carney (D) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 197, which "provides mandatory expungement eligibility to individuals who were convicted of the possession [of one ounce or less], use or consumption of marijuana prior to Delaware's decriminalization of these offenses." The provision only applies to people who have no other criminal convictions on their records.

New York City Change in Marijuana Arrest Policy Now in Effect. As of Saturday, the NYPD is no longer arresting people for small-time marijuana use or possession in most cases. The city arrested more than 10,000 people on such charges last year. Officials said the change came because the arrests had nothing to do with public safety and were racially disproportionate. "Our new policy, we're going to see a humongous drop in people in communities of color being arrested for marijuana," NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison said. "And that was one of the whole goals of this whole new policy."

New Psychoactive Substances

DEA Makes Synthetic Cathinone Schedule I Substance. The DEA last Friday announced it was placing the synthetic cathinone N-Ethylpentylone into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This is a temporary scheduling action good for up to 24 months, during which time research will be conducted to see if the drug should be permanently scheduled. DEA said the drug was linked to 151 deaths in the US since 2015.

Sentencing Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Giving Judges the Power to Set Aside Ineffective and Punitive Five-year Sentence Enhancement. The legislature last Friday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1393, which would restore judicial discretion to the application of a five-year sentence enhancement for each prior serious felony on a person's criminal record. Current law requires judges to add an additional five-years to cases, even when the judge believes that the punishment is unjust and unwarranted. If signed into law, judges would have maximum flexibility during the penalty phase of a trail to impose, or not impose, the additional five-years. A coalition of people who are directly impacted, their families, service providers, and advocates now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

International

Colombian President Moves to Recriminalize Drug Possession. President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday measures to give police the power to seize personal use quantities of drugs that had previously been legalized. "This week will sign the decree through which, in development of the police code 02 of the 2009 legislative act, we will give the authorities tools to confiscate any dose of drugs or hallucinogens in the streets of Colombia, and thus face the root of micro-trafficking problems," said Duque. The measures would appear to contradict rulings by the country's Constitutional Court, which in 2012 approved the decriminalization of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use.

Chronicle AM: Colombia's New President Vows Drug Crackdown, ND Pot Init Lives, More... (8/8/18)

The Northern Mariana Islands could be the first US territory to legalize weed, a North Dakota legalization initiative looks like it will probably make the ballot, Colombia's new president vows to resort to old prohibitionist drug war policies, and more.

Newly installed Colombian President Ivan Duque vows a drug crackdown. (Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Legalization Bill Passes Northern Mariana Islands House. The Northern Marianas Islands House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 20-178, on an 18-1-1 vote. The bill legalizes the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but also for adult use. People can possess up to an ounce and grow a limited number of plants, and the bill creates a regime for legal, regulated, and taxed production and sales. It now goes before the territory's Senate. If it passes, the Northern Marianas would be the first US territory to legalize marijuana.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Likely to Make Ballot, State Officials Say. State election officials have told Marijuana Moment that the organizers of a marijuana legalization initiative have very likely come up with enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The group, LegalizeND, submitted about 18,700 raw signatures; it needs 13,452 valid voter signatures to qualify. The elections office is currently finishing the signature verification process and will announce on August 13 whether the measure qualified.

Congressional Bar on DC Regulated Sales Leading to Distribution Arrest Surge, Report Finds. More than 900 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in the nation's capital last year, a jump of 37% over 2016 figures, according to new data from the DC Metro Police. Pot arrests bottomed out at 323 in 2015, the first full year of legalization. Prior to legalization, the vast majority of arrests were for possession, but since then, distribution and possession with intent to distribute account for the majority of pot arrests. Analysts pointed to the congressional bar against the District allowing legal, regulated sales as being behind both the overall jump in arrests and the increasing percentage of sales and possession with intent arrests.

International

Colombia's New President Takes Office, Vows Drug Crackdown. Ivan Duque, a conservative ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, was installed as president Tuesday. He immediately pointed to the expansion of coca production, corruption, and the violence of drug trafficking groups as problems he will address. "The time has come for us to unite to confront all illegalities," including drug trafficking and production, he said. "We will be effective in the eradication and substitution of illegal crops, accompanied by productive opportunities" for farmers and a crackdown on drug traffickers, Duque promised. "Building peace, Colombians, means to defeat the drug cartels," he said.

Chronicle AM: OK Legalizes MedMJ, Colombia Drug War Could Be Gearing Up, More... (6/27/18)

Oklahoma voters pass a very progressive medical marijuana initiative, legalizers win the Democratic gubernatorial nominations in Colorado and Maryland, Maine passes a major medical marijuana overhaul, and, with rightists now in power in Washington and Bogota, it looks like a new drug war is looming in Colombia.

Cocaine supply is at record levels and Colombia's newly elected president wants to do something about it. (CBP)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Legalizers Win Democratic Gubernatorial Nominations in Two States. Colorado US Rep. Jared Polis, a leading congressional proponent of marijuana legalization, won the nomination in his state, while former NAACP head Ben Jealous, who has also called for marijuana legalization, won the nomination in Maryland.

Florida Medical Marijuana Proponent Now Wants 2020 Legalization Initiative. Orlando attorney John Morgan, the man behind the state's successful 2016 medical marijuana initiative, now says he wants to put a legalization initiative on the 2020 ballot. It would "pass overwhelmingly," Morgan said. The longtime Democratic fundraiser pointed to President Trump's recent comments on marijuana: "And I believe in light of President Trump's position, America is ready and willing."

Texas Poll Has Narrow Majority for Legalization. More than half of Texas registered voters polled in the newest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll support legalizing marijuana. Some 53% said they favored legalizing either small amounts (30%) or any amount (23%). Another 31% would support legalizing medical marijuana, leaving only 16% against legalizing marijuana in any form. A much larger majority -- 69% -- supported reduced penalties for the possession of small amounts.

Medical Marijuana

Maine Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana Overhaul. The legislature has passed a sweeping overhaul of the state's medical marijuana program. The bill removes current qualifying conditions and allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any ailment and allows caregivers to expand their operations in exchange for tighter regulations. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Paul LePage.

Oklahoma Legalizes Medical Marijuana. One of the reddest of red states went green on Tuesday. Voters in Oklahoma approved a remarkably progressive medical marijuana initiative by a healthy margin of 56% to 43%. The initiative, State Question 778, allows registered patients to possess up to three ounces of marijuana anywhere and up to eight ounces at home. Patients also have the right to grow up to six mature and six immature plants or have designated caregivers do it for them. It also creates a system of licensed dispensaries, cultivation, and processing facilities and sets taxes at a relatively low 7%. The initiative also bars localities from using zoning laws to block dispensaries (although they wouldn't be allowed within 1,000 feet of a school). But what is most striking about Question 778 is that it does not restrict access to medical marijuana to a list of qualifying conditions. In fact, the initiative language explicitly states that "[T]here are no qualifying conditions" and that the only limitation on a doctor's recommending medical marijuana is that it must be done "according to the accepted standards a reasonable and prudent physician would follow when recommending or approving any medication."

Harm Reduction

Ohio Officials Dragging Feet on Federal Needle Exchange Funds, Advocates Charge. The advocacy group Harm Reduction Ohio is accusing the state Health Department of using a bureaucratic delaying tactic to prevent needle exchange programs from accessing any of the funds the state is expected to receive for HIV prevention. Group head Dennis Cauchon said the department is failing to submit a necessary form to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Preventing HIV, hepatitis and drug overdoses are crucial health measures and save massive amounts of money and treatment," Cauchon wrote. Surrounding states submitted the necessary paperwork in 2016, he noted. "The Ohio Department of Health's refusal to support this would be nothing short of reckless, irresponsible and ignorant."

International

UNODC Says Cocaine, Opium Supplies at Record Levels. In its 2018 World Drug Report released Tuesday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that both cocaine and opium supplies were at their highest ever recorded levels last year. UNODC also described the non-medical use of prescription opioids, such as fentanyl, as a major threat to public health. "Drug markets are expanding, with cocaine and opium production hitting absolute record highs, presenting multiple challenges on multiple fronts," said UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov in a statement. "The real problematic issues for us have been the increase in opium production in Afghanistan and the massive increase in cocaine production, particularly because of Colombia," added Thomas Pietschmann, a drug research expert at the UNODC, and one of the lead authors of the report.

Colombia's New Rightist President-Elect Welcomes Trump's Support in New War on Drugs. President-elect Ivan Duque said Monday he welcomed Donald Trump's support for his agenda of a "head-on fight against drug trafficking" during a congratulatory phone call from the US leader. "Today I received a call from the US president where he congratulated us for the results achieved in the last elections and also his commitment to support our security, justice agenda, our agenda of a head-on fight against drug trafficking," Duque told reporters. The US wants Duque to clamp down hard on coca cultivation, which is at record levels. During the campaign, Duque vowed to reinstate the forced eradication of coca crops and the aerial spraying of herbicides over coca farms.

Colombia's Outgoing President Authorizes Use of Drones for Aerial Coca Eradication. Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday authorized the use of drones to spray herbicides on coca crops. The move comes a day after the US said Colombian coca cultivation had increased 11% last year and cocaine production jumped 19%. Santos' government suspended aerial eradication of coca crops with glyphosate in 2015 after the World Health Organization linked it to cancer. Using low-flying drones would limit the dangers associated with glyphosate, he said.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

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