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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," by Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen (2007, State University of New York Press, 268 pp., $27)

There is probably not a single drug reformer alive who, at some point, has not sputtered into his coffee cup upon hearing some inane pronouncement from drug czar John Walters. We know what he is saying is wrong and unjustifiable. Sometimes we even go to the effort of thoroughly debunking one of his outrageous claims. It's not that hard to do, really, but up until now, no one had thoroughly deconstructed the claims made by the Office of National Drug Control Strategy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office), testing them against the norms of science and reason.

That has changed with the recent publication of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics," by Appalachian State University Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Matthew Robinson and Associate Professor of Political Science Renee Scherlen. Since the annual National Drug Control Strategy reports put out by ONDCP form the basis for crafting federal drug policy, this pair of professors decided to systematically put to the test the claims made by ONDCP as a foundation for those policies.

ONDCP misrepresents 'Just Say No' connection, 2003 strategy (graphic appears courtesy Prof. Robinson)
Every federal bureaucracy has to justify its budget, and it does so by setting goals and demonstrating how well it has or has not met those goals. But, as Robinson and Scherlen so admirably demonstrate with example after example of the misleading use of statistics and visual graphics, ONDCP is, in many, many ways, distorting reality to paint a rosier picture of its "successes" in waging the war on drugs. They do so in a calm, deliberate, and understated manner rather than engaging in a partisan attack on a set of policies they clearly feel are a disaster.

In order to gauge the accuracy of ONDCP pronouncements, the authors look at three broad sets of claims made by ONDCP: Claims of success in reducing drug use, claims of success in "healing" America's drug users, and claims of success in disrupting drug markets. Robinson and Scherlen examine the annual National Drug Strategy reports beginning in 2000 and extending through 2005 to look at what ONDCP says it is accomplishing in these three broad areas. These three categories describe what it is ONDCP is supposed to be achieving, but, as the authors so comprehensively illustrate, ONDCP is all too ready to resort to deceptive and misleading information.

Let's take claims of success in reducing drug use, for instance. In the 2001 National Drug Strategy, ONDCP produces a chart that shows a dramatic downward trend in teen drug use in the mid-1980s before remaining essentially stable throughout the 1990s. But since ONDCP and its mandate didn't exist before 1988, the chart is misleading. What it really shows is that throughout ONDCP's tenure, it has failed in its stated goal of reducing teen drug use.

Similarly, in the 2003 National Drug Strategy, in an effort to justify its prevention campaigns, ONDCP sought to show that Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign was effective in reducing teen drug use. But to do so, ONDCP relied solely on data involving 18-to-25-year-olds. Since the "Just Say No" campaign was aimed at kids, using data about young adults is "a selective and inappropriate use of statistics," as Robinson and Scherlen so gently put it.

ONCDP also has the curious habit of mentioning "successes" in one year, but failing to revisit them in following years when the numbers don't back them up. In 2000 and 2001, for example, ONDCP crowed about declining marijuana use, even though national drug surveys failed to back it up except in selective categories. But in the annual reports from 2002 to 2005, with marijuana use remaining steady, ONDCP doesn't make any specific claims regarding rates of marijuana use, nor does it provide easily accessible charts or figures. As Robinson and Scherlen note, "Indeed, it appears ONDCP ignores statistics that point to outcomes counter to the drug war."

Robinson and Scherlen go on to systematically dissect ONDCP claims about reducing drug use, "healing" drug users, and disrupting drug markets. Sometimes, they even find that the claims are justified, but this is rarely the case. What the authors repeatedly demonstrate is that ONDCP is unable or unwilling to accurately report its failures to achieve its goals and is willing and able to resort to statistical chicanery to cover up those failures.

In the final two chapters of the book, Robinson and Scherlen attempt a fair assessment of the drug war and ONDCP's ability to meet its self-imposed drug war goals, and offer a series of recommendations for what a more rational drug policy might look like. For one thing, the authors suggest, ONDCP ought to be either terminated or removed from the White House. For an accurate rendition of the numbers regarding drug use, they must be removed from the hothouse political atmosphere of the White House. Currently, the authors argue, ONDCP acts as a "generator and defender of a given ideology in the drug war."

"Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics" is surprisingly easy to read, and Robinson and Scherlen have done a huge favor not only to critics of current drug policy by compiling this damning critique of ONDCP claims, but also to anyone interested in how data is compiled, presented, and misused by bureaucrats attempting to guard their domains. It should be required reading for members of Congress, though, sadly, that is unlikely to happen.

U.S. drug czar urges Canada to crack down on pot

Ottawa, ON
Canoe Network (Canada)

Op-Ed: Canada must not follow the U.S. on drug policy

Ottawa, ON
Ottawa Citizen

Reuters Article with ONDCP Spin Concerning CMCR Medicinal Marijuana Research

WASHINGTON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Smoking marijuana eases a type of chronic foot pain in people with the AIDS virus, according to a study published on Monday that the researchers touted as demonstrating marijuana's medicinal benefits. But the White House drug policy office said the research was flawed and offered only "false hope." The study, appearing in the journal Neurology, focused on sensory neuropathy -- a kind of severe nerve pain usually felt as aching, painful numbness and burning in the feet -- associated with human immunodeficiency virus infection. HIV-infected people who smoked marijuana reported a 34-percent reduction in daily pain from this condition, compared to a 17-percent decline among those who smoked placebos. Fifty HIV-infected adults, mostly men, who had this pain but otherwise were in stable health took part from 2003 to 2005. All were previous marijuana smokers but not considered drug abusers. They were told to stop using it prior to the study. Half of them smoked marijuana cigarettes three times a day for five days. The other half smoked placebo cigarettes that were identical other than having had the cannabinoids -- the primary active components of the plant -- extracted. Half the marijuana smokers said their pain level had declined by more than 30 percent, while a quarter of the placebo group reported similar pain reduction. The volunteers had no serious side effects. Sensory neuropathy affects about a third of HIV-infected people, making walking or standing hard. 'SMOKE SCREEN' Lead researcher Dr. Donald Abrams, one of the first doctors to study AIDS at the start of the epidemic, said the research demonstrated in a carefully conducted clinical trial that smoking marijuana provides some benefit to these patients. "I think that there are people out there who say there is no evidence that marijuana is medicine, that this is all just a smoke screen," Abrams, of San Francisco General Hospital and University of California San Francisco, said in an interview. Abrams said he hoped his findings would provide evidence "to help answer this question in an intelligent fashion." There is a fierce debate over whether marijuana, an illegal drug under U.S. federal law, should be legal for medical uses like treating pain or nausea in AIDS or cancer patients. David Murray, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's chief scientist, said the suffering of AIDS patients is an issue of great concern. "Unfortunately, this particular study is not terribly convincing," Murray said, citing what he saw as methodological problems. "Unfortunately, it will lead many people into a false hope that street marijuana is somehow going to be the thing I can use that will make me feel better and won't jeopardize my health. Now that is a fraud and a dangerous one," he told Reuters. The study found the relief from smoking marijuana was comparable to that provided by pills now used to treat this nerve pain. But some patients are not helped by these anti-seizure medications, and others cannot tolerate them, drawing interest in marijuana as an alternative. Californian Diana Dodson, a 50-year-old grandmother who got AIDS via a contaminated blood product, said some pain medications leave her in a stupor. "I just want people to understand that this is about sick people who deserve a quality of life. If it's something that can help us, we should have safe access to it," Dodson, one of the patients in the study, said of marijuana.
United States

Drug test angers family

East Windsor, NJ
United States
The Times (NJ)

Press Release: Vote Hemp Exposes ONDCP and DEA Lies about Hemp Farming

(press release from Vote Hemp)

Canadian Govt. Can Tell Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana, Why Can't the US?

WASHINGTON, DC -- On January 28, 2007 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune story "Industrial hemp producer? Plan raises feds' suspicions," Tom Riley of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) was quoted as saying:

"You have legitimate farmers who want to experiment with a new crop," Riley said. "But you have another group, very enthusiastic, who want to allow cultivation of hemp because they believe it will lead to a de facto legalization of marijuana." Mr. Riley continued with "The last thing law enforcement people need is for the cultivation of marijuana-looking plants to spread. Are we going to ask them to go through row by row, field by field, to distinguish between legal hemp and marijuana?"

"The ONDCP is wrong in its characterization of industrial hemp advocates, and there is no evidence that farmers who grow industrial hemp are hiding marijuana plants in their fields, whether in Canada or anywhere else," says Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra. "Because cross pollination of low THC industrial hemp and high THC marijuana is inevitable illicit marijuana growers avoid industrial hemp fields to protect the potency of their drug crop. It's simply illogical that a farmer's industrial hemp fields are ideal places to hide marijuana plants with all the extra scrutiny that comes with growing the crop. It's sad that, instead of a real policy debate on the issue of farming industrial hemp in the United States based on legislative intent and agronomic facts, the ONDCP and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) resort to false hyperbole and character assassination," says Steenstra. "Tom Riley is welcome to join me in Canada this summer for the Hemp Industries Association annual meeting and see for himself how our neighbors in the north can easily tell the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana crops."

Hemp farming in Canada is well regulated ensuring that only legitimate farmers are licensed and that they only grow government approved low-THC hemp. Requirements include applicant background checks, GPS coordinates of hemp fields, the use of approved low-THC seeds purchased from authorized seed vendors, and random inspections and testing. This licensing scheme ensures that farmers are only growing non-drug industrial hemp and not marijuana. Even though law enforcement is able to distinguish the difference between hemp and marijuana, the licensing process eliminates the need for them to visually distinguish between industrial hemp and its drug psychoactive cousin.

The lies about industrial hemp are prevalent in the public policy of the DEA as well. Steve Robertson, a DEA special agent in Washington, has also weighed in on the North Dakota debate with similar statements:

"The DEA does not have the authority to change existing federal law," Robertson said. "It's very simple for us: The law is there and we enforce the law," he said Wednesday. "We are law enforcement, not lawmakers."
-- "State's first hemp farming rules aimed at clearing federal hurdle," Grand Forks Herald, May 3, 2006

"It's interesting that Special Agent Robertson pretends that the DEA is purely a law enforcement entity, as they are not," says Tom Murphy, National Outreach Coordinator for Vote Hemp. "Like many Federal agencies, the DEA has been granted broad authority by Congress to interpret the statutes in the United States Code, such as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This includes re-scheduling substances and promulgating detailed rules and regulations. The DEA could easily negotiate industrial hemp farming rules with North Dakota under the Administrative Procedures Act, 5 USC 563. It is obvious that the current rules are not set up for farmers to grow an agricultural crop that has no potential for use as a drug" says Mr. Murphy. "Instead the DEA chooses to interfere in the legislative process by confusing legislators, reporters and the public with needless and misleading rhetoric."

Industrial hemp plants have long and strong stalks, have few branches, have been bred for maximum production of fiber and/or seed, and grow up to 16 feet in height. They are planted in high densities of 100 to 300 plants per square yard. On the other hand, drug varieties of Cannabis are shorter, are not allowed to go to seed, and have been bred to maximize branching and thus leaves and flowers. They are planted much less densely to promote bushiness. The drug and non-drug varieties are harvested at different times, and planting densities look very different from the air.

The last commercial hemp crops in the United States were grown in central Wisconsin in 1957, and these crops were purchased and processed by the Rens Hemp Company in Brandon, about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. The primary reason industrial hemp has not been grown in the US since then is because of its misclassification as a Schedule I drug in the CSA of 1970. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 had provisions for farmers to grow non-psychoactive hemp by paying an annual occupational tax of $1.00. The exemption for hemp products was contained in the definition of marihuana in the Act:

"The term 'marihuana' means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L. ... but shall not include the mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of such plant, any other compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks (except the resin extracted therefrom), fiber, oil, or cake, or the sterilized seed of such plant which is incapable of germination."

The language of the exemption was carried over almost verbatim to the definition of marihuana in the CSA [21 USC. §802(16)] which superseded the 1937 Tax Act, but since there was no active hemp industry at the time the provisions for hemp farming were not included in the new Act.

There is also an exemption for hemp farming in the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961. Article 28 states that:

"2. This Convention shall not apply to the cultivation of the cannabis plant exclusively for industrial purposes (fibre and seed) or horticultural purposes."

Laws allowing the farming of industrial hemp would not be in conflict with the Single Convention which the US is a signatory.

Seven states (Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia) have now changed their laws to give farmers an affirmative right to grow industrial hemp commercially or for research purposes. All require a license from the DEA to grow the crop. Only Hawaii has grown hemp in recent years, but its research program ended when the DEA refused to renew the license. California's AB1147 addressed the DEA's bad faith interference by providing that the federal government has no basis or right to interfere with hemp grown in California pursuant to AB1147.

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- 2008 US Federal Drug Control Budget

The Bush administration released its fiscal year 2008 budget Monday, and when it comes to drug policy, it's pretty much business as usual. According to an Office of National Drug Control Policy fact sheet, the overall federal drug control budget requested for next year is $12.91 billion, up $200 million from the $12.7 million requested this year.

same old, same old again
The budget includes $1.6 billion for prevention programs or, as the National Drug Strategy puts it, "stopping drug use before it starts," $3.1 billion for drug treatment ("healing America's drug users"), and $8 billion for law enforcement ("disrupting the market for illegal drugs"). This roughly two-to-one ratio between spending for law enforcement and spending for treatment and prevention is consistent with past federal drug control budgets.

ONDCP highlighted increases in controversial and unproven programs, such as an increase in funding for random student drug testing to nearly $18 million, up from $7.5 million in 2007. Another controversial program seeing a budget increase is the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, from $100 million in 2007 up to $130 million next year.

Also seeing significant increases are the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral and Treatment (SBIRT) program, which aims to promote early diagnosis of drug use and intervention by health care providers, up $11.5 million to $41.2 million in 2008, and the Drug Courts program, with its funding more than tripled from $10.1 million this year to $31.8 million next year.

Funding for Plan Colombia, or as it is now officially known, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative will decline from $721 million in 2007 to $635.5 million in 2008. Funding for anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, on the other hand, will increase from $297 million this year to $327.6 million next year.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will see its budget increase from $1.684 billion to $1.803 billion. Similarly, the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Drug Task Force will get $509 million, up from $485 million this year.

Some of the items ONDCP wasn't bragging about include cuts in funding for the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (down 20%), the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (down 12%), and state grants under the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, which were slashed dramatically from $346.5 million this year to a proposed $100 million next year. The budget also zeroes out completely state grants for Alcohol Use and Reduction programs. Those grants totaled $32 million this year.

Also facing continuing efforts to cut its budget is the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, with the Bush administration seeking to cut its current year budget of $224.7 million down to $220 million. And while it is not yet clear whether the Bush administration will continue its efforts to eliminate the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, a coalition of law enforcement lobbying groups is already urging Congress to fund it at $1.1 billion, more than double the $450 million it will get this year. The Byrne grants pay for the notorious multi-agency drug task forces running roughshod around the country, but they can also be used for prevention and treatment grants.

"This is the same approach they've been using for years," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "They continue to shortchange treatment and prevention and they spend most of the money on enforcement and interdiction. They continue to use sloppy accounting; for instance, ONDCP puts the overall drug budget at $12 billion, but they don't include the costs of imprisoning 100,000 federal drug offenders."

"This $12 billion figure is a sham, just as the federal drug control budget has been for the past few years" said Doug McVay, research director for Common Sense for Drug Policy. "It excludes the $3 billion we're paying each year to incarcerate drug offenders, and there are hidden, black budget intelligence and military funds that go to the drug war. I'd estimate the feds are really spending more like $22 billion in drug control across the agencies."

"I see they want more money for student drug testing and the anti-drug media campaign, which is a bit of a surprise given all the evidence of the failure of these programs," Piper said. "Given that they're talking about balancing the budget by 2012, it seems like they wouldn't be expanding failed programs, but they are."

Efforts to restore Byrne grant funding concerned Piper. "I'm worried that the Democrats are going to restore funding to that program that funds the drug task forces," he said. "Still, some states are using the funds for reentry programs, treatment, drug courts, things like that. The $500,000 grant we got in New Mexico was a Byrne grant," Piper laughed. That grant funds a methamphetamine prevention and education program.

"I think the Byrne grants should be done away with," said McVay, "and the money should be used to put police on the street to stop property crime and violent crime. As drug reformers, we have to be careful. We don't want to put ourselves in the position of telling the public we don't want enough police on the streets to keep them from getting mugged."

Time will tell with the Byrne grant program, as it will with the entire 2008 Bush budget. At this point, the budget is a fantasy document, a wish list that is sure to be hacked to pieces in Congress. But it also lays out the Bush administration's position on where the nation's drug policy should go and how much we should pay for it, and the answers are down the same old path and a few billion more.

Tom Riley Narcs On Ryan Grim

It all started when The Politico's Ryan Grim called ONDCP's Tom Riley for a quote to include in this story about Bush's attempt to increase funding for ONDCP's counterproductive National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

The story itself is definitely worth reading, but this side-column is priceless:

Ryan Grim, who wrote today's story on the anti-drug campaign program of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), previously worked for the Marijuana Policy Project, which lobbies to legalize marijuana. Grim worked at the project from June 2004 until May 2005, a fact that has been on his official bio since he joined Politico.com.

Grim called the ONDCP for comment for his story early Wednesday. Instead of returning Grim's call, Tom Riley, the agency's spokesman, called The Politico's senior publisher and editor, Martin Tolchin, to point out Grim's previous work with the Marijuana Policy Project. He then threatened to complain to Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz about a conflict of interest.

The ONDCP did not return Grim's call Wednesday.

This is a rare glimpse into the frustrated mind of a drug warrior scorned. In Riley's world, Ryan Grim's association with drug policy reform is some sort of dark secret; a mental defect that clouds his judgment, rendering him incapable of reasoned analysis. Grim's superiors should be warned, lest he should poison impressionable minds with his mischievous pen.

Riley's McCarthian finger-pointing is typical drug warrior subterfuge, but it's usually done publicly in an effort to discredit contradictory sources. In this case, however, Riley acted surreptitiously in what can only be described as an attempt to undermine an opponent's employment status.

The best part is that Riley obviously believed his ploy would work. That his complaint would provoke amusement and find its way into the paper never entered his mind.

Further hilarity will ensue when Riley tries to rat out those hippies at the GAO.

United States

They Only Have One Argument Against Hemp…And Its Wrong

The Columbia Tribune reports on the ongoing challenges faced by North Dakota farmers seeking to grow industrial hemp. Though the state of North Dakota has passed legislation authorizing hemp cultivation, farmers must obtain approval from DEA, which isn't exactly fast-tracking this.

Monson plans to raise hemp on only 10 acres at first, a demonstration crop, but under federal regulations, the acreage still must be completely fenced and reported by GPS coordinates. All hemp sales also must be reported.

"That’s a per-acre cost of about $400, and that would be prohibitive," Monson said.

So basically the DEA hasn't decided for sure, but in case they do allow hemp cultivation, they've created roadblocks to make it unprofitable.

Here's ONDCP's Tom Riley explaining the logic of this:

Growers could hide pot plants in hemp fields, complicating agents’ efforts to find them, said Tom Riley, of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy.

"You have legitimate farmers who want to experiment with a new crop," Riley said. "But you have another group, very enthusiastic, who want to allow cultivation of hemp because they believe it will lead to a de facto legalization of marijuana.

"The last thing law enforcement people need is for the cultivation of marijuana-looking plants to spread," he said. "Are we going to ask them to go through row by row, field by field, to distinguish between legal hemp and marijuana?"

After being humiliated in The New York Times, it's impressive that they still have the nerve to raise this backwards argument. Cross-pollination would decimate any commercial marijuana in proximity to a hemp field. You can't mix them, Tom Riley. Stop saying that. Seriously, stop.

For a period of time, I assumed that they were simply ignorant of the cross-pollination issue. Perhaps upon coming to understand it, they would endorse hemp cultivation, which more or less ensures the absence of commercial marijuana growing in its vicinity. But now that this issue has been exposed in The Times, it seems much more likely that they're willfully ignoring it and proceeding with their usual nonsense.

The question, therefore, is why? They have one argument against industrial hemp, and it makes absolutely no sense. It's been proven to be comically wrong, and they have no other anti-hemp talking points to fall back on. When legitimate farmers with no interest in the drug culture ask for permission to grow hemp as an agricultural commodity, why do ONDCP and DEA grasp in desperation for even the most pitiful justifications to oppose them?

The answer is that for decades they've arbitrarily denied American farmers the right to participate in a multi-billion dollar industry. They are drug warriors waging battle against economic activities over which they hold no constitutional authority. As with so many other colossal drug war errors, to stop now would be to acknowledge the childish stubbornness and rank incompetance that have motivated their actions from the beginning.

Just another thing we shouldn't even be arguing about. It's not even a goddamn drug.

United States

Parents Say The Darndest Things

Here's ONDCP's Bertha Madras from an online debate over student drug testing:

Newsweek: Is there a risk that kids who test positive for drugs will be stigmatized?

Madras: The thing that I have heard is that everyone knows who's using drugs; there are no surprises amongst the kids. Kids know who are the users, their friends know, so when a kid is not engaged in sports for one game, nobody is surprised. I've been a parent all my life, and I knew which one of the kids I didn't want my kids near.

This level of incoherence is an ONDCP specialty. Leaving aside the matter of whether Madras already had kids when she was born, there's still a lot of good stuff here.

Madras claims to know which kids use drugs, which basically undermines her whole point throughout the debate. If this information is widely available, who needs a urine collection program? Why waste precious educational resources to confirm what super-mom Bertha Madras already knows?

Obviously, she delights in stigma rather than refuting it. She admits to having a very negative impression of certain kids, and encourages her children to avoid them rather than offer support. Her statement is an endorsement of stigma and an unambiguous admission that singling out students is part of her agenda.

What a coward. Bertha Madras is as yellow as the urine she wants to collect from innocent children.

United States

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