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Chronicle AM: Sessions Meets With Anti-Marijuana Activists, MA Considers Cannabis Clubs, More... (12/8/17)

The attorney general hunkers down with marijuana foes, the federal ban on going after medical marijuana where it's legal gets a reprieve, Hawaii cops back away from their plan to seize patients' guns, and more.

Trying to fight multiple drug wars is keeping Jeff Sessions a busy man these days. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Meets With Anti-Marijuana Activists. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions met Friday with marijuana legalization foes to discuss marijuana and drug policy. Sessions declared that "this is not a healthy substance" and that "the public is not properly educated on some of the issues related to marijuana. At the meeting were Project SAM head Kevin Sabet, former drug czar's office staffer Dr. Bertha Madras, Drug Free Schools Coalition head David Evans, former NIDA head Robert DuPont, and, just for old times' sake, Reagan era Attorney General Ed Meese.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Consider Cannabis Clubs. A Cannabis Advisory Board subcommittee is calling for the creation of businesses that would allow the purchase and smoking of marijuana. The move would help out of state tourists, as well as residents who don't want to smoke pot at home, supporters said.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Medical Marijuana Protection Gets Two-Week Reprieve. The passage of a stop-gap spending bill Thursday means the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment ban on spending federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal remains in force for at least another two weeks. That's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in a statement: "While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them," Blumenauer said. "As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs -- and adult use -- from federal interference."

Honolulu Police Chief Admits Department Erred in Trying to Take Guns from Patients. Chief Susan Ballard acknowledged to the Honolulu Police Commission Wednesday that the department's abortive move to make medical marijuana patients turn in their firearms "was incorrect." She said the department will return two guns to people who turned them in voluntarily, but she also said the department will continue to deny new gun permits to cardholders.

Nevada High Court OKs State's Medical-Marijuana Registry. The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that the state's medical marijuana registry does not violate constitutional provisions of due process, equal protection, and the right against self-incrimination. "We conclude Nevada's medical marijuana registry does not impinge upon a fundamental right," said the opinion written by Justice Ron Parraguirre. "We further conclude the registry is rationally related to the legitimate state interest of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public."

Foreign Policy

US, Colombia Vow to Battle Record Surge in Coca Production. At a meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Colombian counterpart, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, vowed to redouble efforts to suppress coca planting and the cocaine trade. "We're gonna make progress," Sessions vowed. Colombia is seeing coca cultivation grow dramatically in the wake of a peace treaty between the government and leftist rebels of the FARC.

Chronicle AM: San Francisco, LA Pass Legal Weed Rules, Sales Begin Next Month, More... (12/7/17)

California's big cities clear the way for legal weed sales, California's small marijuana farmers worry about big grower competition, Delaware cops want pot people's guns, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California NORML Recommends Priority Licensing for Small-Scale & Outdoors Cultivators. The marijuana activist group is calling on state regulators to create a licensing priority scheme that would favor small outdoor grows of up to an acre over both indoor mixed lighting and indoor high-intensity lighting operations and leave large-scale operations out of consideration. The group fears that emergency licensing regulations as written could "open the door to large-scale, industrial mega-grows that could monopolize California's limited available acreage, exacerbate environmental harm, and stifle participation by smaller growers."

Los Angeles City Council Approves Legal Marijuana Rules, Sales Set for January 1. The city council agreed Wednesday to a package of regulations for legal marijuana commerce, clearing the way for legal sales to begin on January 1. The approved rules include a "social equity" program aimed at prioritizing communities that have historically been affected by the war on drugs. Under that program, cannabusiness operators that meet "social equity" criteria would be moved to the head of the line for license applications.

San Francisco Mayor Approves Legal Marijuana Rules, Sales Set for January 6. Mayor Ed Lee Wednesday signed into law legislation setting rules for legal marijuana commerce in the city. But because the city has been slow in reaching agreement on the pot rules, it won't quite be ready on January 1. Instead, city officials are looking at January 6 as the legal sales date.

Delaware Police Look at Gun Ban for Marijuana Users. Law enforcement officials Wednesday told a task force studying legalization that marijuana users should be forced to have an endorsement on their drivers' licenses indicating they use marijuana to help ensure that they cannot own guns. "It would make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that prohibited people are not buying firearms in Delaware," he explained after the meeting.

Indiana Prosecutors Formally Oppose Marijuana Legalization. The Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys, Inc. formally opposed the legalization of marijuana in any form for any reason at a news conference in Indianapolis Wednesday. Also on hand were the Boone County Sheriff's Department, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, and the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Senator Manchin Calls on FDA to Adopt Changes in Opioid Fight. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has sent a letter to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb calling for three major changes in opioid policy. Manchin wants mandatory and continuing education for healthcare providers, a review of every opioid on the market, and for the FDA to remove one opioid from the market for each new one it approves.

International

Dutch Justice Officials Accused of Interfering With Marijuana Research to Advance Their Political Agenda. Senior justice ministry officials are accused of interfering with research on marijuana tourism. According to a whistleblower, researchers concluded that a policy of repression and banning sales to foreigners was not needed because there was very little actual nuisance from drug tourism in many places. But ministry officials didn't like those conclusions, so they deleted research questions and removed an entire chapter with conclusions and recommendations on a better policy. This took place under then Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten. Current Justice Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus said Thursday he had commissioned an external inquiry in the matter.

Looking Back: The Biggest International Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

With a thousand issues of Drug War Chronicle under our belts, we look back on the biggest international drug and drug policy stories of the past 20 years. (A companion piece looks at the biggest US domestic drug policy stories.) Here's what we find:

The 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. We've made some progress since then. (Creative Commons)
1. Global Prohibitionist Consensus Starts to Crumble

In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), with anti-prohibitionist voices in the room but metaphorically on the outside, pledged itself to eradicating drugs in 10 years. That didn't happen. Now, nearly 20 years later, it is duly chastened, and the chorus of critics is much louder, but the UN still remains a painfully slow place to try to make change in global drug policy.

Yet, despite the foot-dragging in Vienna and New York, albeit at a glacial pace. The 2016 UNGASS couldn't bring itself to actually say the words "harm reduction," but acknowledged the practice in its documents. It couldn't bring itself to resolve to be against the death penalty in drug cases, but a large and growing number of member states spoke out against it. It couldn't officially acknowledge that there is "widespread recognition from several quarters, including UN member states and entities and civil society, of the collateral harms of current drug policies, and that new approaches are both urgent and necessary," even though that's what the UN Development Program said. And the UN admitted to having dropped the ball on making opioid analgesics available in the developing world.

It certainly wasn't ready to talk about drug legalization in any serious fashion. But despite the rigidity within the global anti-drug bureaucracy, driven in part by the hardline positions of many Asian and Middle Eastern member states, the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling. Many European and Latin America states are ready for a new direction, and some aren't waiting for the UN's imprimatur. Bolivia has rejected the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs' provision criminalizing the coca plant, and Canada and Uruguay have both legalized marijuana with scant regard for UN treaty prohibitions. And of course there is Portugal's broad decriminalization system, encompassing all drugs.

There's a real lesson in all of this: The UN drug treaties, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, have proven to be toothless. There is no effective mechanism for punishing most countries for violating those treaties, at least not relative to the punishing effects they suffer from prohibition. Other countries will take heed.

2. Afghanistan Remains the World's Opium Breadbasket

When the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, it entered into a seemingly endless war to defeat the Taliban and, along with it, the opium trade. Sixteen years and more than a trillion dollars later, it has defeated neither. Afghanistan was already the world's leading producer of opium then, and it still is.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2000, the country produced more than 3,000 tons of opium. The following year, with the Taliban imposing a ban on poppy planting in return for US aid and international approval, production dropped to near zero. But in 2002, production was back to more than 3,000 tons, and Afghan poppy farmers haven't looked back since.

In the intervening years, Afghanistan has accounted for the vast majority of global opium production, reaching 90% in 2007 before plateauing to around 70% now (as production increases in Latin America). It has consistently produced at least 3,000 tons a year, with that amount doubling in selected years.

For years, US policymakers were caught in a dilemma, and drug war imperatives were subordinated to anti-Taliban imperatives. The problem was that any attempt to go after opium threatened to push peasants into the hands of the Taliban. Now, the Trump administration is bombing Taliban heroin facilities. But it hasn't bombed any heroin facilities linked to corrupt Afghan government officials.

Holland's famous cannabis cafes were the first break with global marijuana prohibition. (Creative Commons)
3. Movement Toward Acceptance of Recreational Marijuana

Twenty years ago, only the Netherlands had come to terms -- sort of -- with marijuana, formally keeping it illegal, but, in a prime example of the Dutch's policy of gedogen (pragmatic tolerance), with possession and sale of small amounts allowed. (The Dutch are only now finally dealing with the "backdoor problem," the question of where cannabis cafes are supposed to get their supplies if it can't be grown legally).

The first entities to legalize marijuana were the US states of Colorado and Washington in 2012, and Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana in 2014. Canada will become the second country to do so next year. In the meantime, six more US states and the District of Columbia have also jumped on the bandwagon.

While full legalization may yet be a bridge too far for most European and Latin American countries, marijuana decriminalization has really taken hold there, with numerous countries in both regions having embraced the policy. Marijuana has now been decriminalized in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia (you can possess up to 22 grams legally), Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Equador, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine, among others. Oh, and Iran, too.

4. Andean Whack-A-Mole: The Fruitless Quest to Quash Cocaine

The United States, and to a much lesser degree, the European Union, have spent billions of dollars trying to suppress coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It hasn't worked.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca leaf cultivation was just under 500,000 acres in 1998; this week, UNODC reported that coca leaf cultivation was at 470,000 acres last year -- and that's not counting the 75,000 acres under legal cultivation in Bolivia.

When it comes to actual cocaine production, it's pretty much the same story: Again according to the UNODC, cocaine production was at 825 tons in 1998, peaked at just over a million tons a year in 2004-2007, and is now at just under 800 tons. There have been peaks and troughs, but here we are, pretty much in the same place we started.

Military intervention didn't stop it. Military and anti-drug assistance hasn't stopped it. Alternative development programs haven't stopped it. The global cocaine market is insatiable, and nothing has been able to tear Andean peasant farmers from what is by far their best cash crop. Bolivia, at least, has largely made peace with coca -- although not cocaine -- providing a legal, regulated market for coca farmers, but in Peru and Colombia eradication and redevelopment efforts continue to spark conflict and social unrest.

5. Mexico's Brutal Drug Wars

During the 1980s and 1990s, accusations ran rampant that in a sort of pax mafiosi, the Mexican government cut deals with leading drug trafficking groups to not so much fight the drug trade as manage it. Those were the days of single party rule by the PRI, which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. With the end of single party rule, the era of relative peace in the drug business began to unravel.

As old arrangements between drug traffickers and political and law enforcement figures fell apart, so did the informal codes that governed trafficker behavior. When once a cartel capo would accept his exemplary arrest, during the Fox administration, the gangsters began shooting back at the cops -- and fighting among themselves over who would control which profitable franchise.

Things took a turn for the worse with the election of Felipe Calderon in 2006 and his effort to burnish his political credentials by sending in the army to fight the increasingly wealthy, violent, and brazen cartels. And they haven't gotten any better since. While American attention to Mexico's drug wars peaked in 2012 -- a presidential election year in both countries -- and while the US has thrown more than a billion dollars in anti-drug aid Mexico's way in the past few years, the violence, lawlessness, and corruption continues. The death toll is now estimated to be around 200,000, and there's no sign anything is going to change anytime soon.

Well, unless we take leading 2018 presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) at his word. This week, AMLO suggested a potential amnesty for cartel leaders, indicating, for some, at least, a pax mafiosi is better than a huge, endless pile of corpses.

6. Latin America Breaks Away from US Drug War Hegemony

The US imports its drugs and exports its prohibition-related violence, and the region grows tired of paying the price for America's war on its favorite vices. When once Latin American leaders quietly kowtowed to drug war demands from Washington, at least some of them have been singing a different tune in recent years.

Bolivia under Evo Morales has resolutely followed its own path on legalizing coca cultivation, despite bellows from Washington, successive Mexican presidents weary of the bloodshed turn an increasingly critical eye toward US drug war imperatives, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sees what Washington-imposed prohibitionist policies have done to his county and cries out for something different, and so did Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina before he was forced out of office on corruption charges.

Latin American countries are also increasingly pursuing their own drug policies, whether it's constitutionally protected legalization of personal use amounts of drugs in Colombia, decriminalization of marijuana across the continent, or downright legalization in Uruguay, Latin American leaders are no longer taking direction from Washington -- although they generally remain happy to take US anti-drug dollars.

A North American first: Vancouver's safe injection site opened in 2003. (Creative Commons)
7.Safe Injection Sites Start Spreading

The notion of providing a place where intravenous drug users could shoot up under medical supervision and get access to referrals to public health and welfare services was derided by foes as setting up "shooting galleries" and enabling drug use, but safe injection sites have proven to be an effective intervention, linked to reduced overdoses, reduced crime, and moving drug users toward treatment.

These examples of harm reduction in practice first appeared in Switzerland in the late 1980s; with facilities popping up in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1990s; Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain in the 2000s; and, most recently, Denmark and France.

By now, there are nearly a hundred safe injection sites operating in at least 61 cities worldwide, including 30 in Holland, 16 in Germany, and eight in Switzerland. We are likely to see safe injection sites in Ireland and Scotland very soon.

It looks like they will soon be appearing in the United States, too. Officials in at least two cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are well on the way to approving them, although the posture of the federal government could prove an obstacle.

8. And Heroin Maintenance, Too

Even more forward looking as a harm reduction measure than safe injection sites, heroin maintenance (or opiate-assisted treatment) has expanded slowly, but steadily over the past two decades. The Swiss did the first trials in 1994, and now such programs are available there (after decisively winning a 2008 referendum on the issue), as well as Germany and the Netherlands.

Such programs have been found to reduce harm by helping users control their drug use, reducing overdoses, reducing drug-related disease, and promoting overall health and well-being, while also reducing social harms by reducing crime related to scoring drugs, reducing public use and drug markets, and promoting less chaotic lifestyles among participants, leading to increased social integration and better family life and employment prospects.

A Canadian pilot program, the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) produced similar results. Maybe the United States will be ready to get it a try one of these years.

9. New Drugs, New Markets

So far, this has been the century of new drugs. Known variously as "research chemicals," "designer drugs," or fake this and that, let's call them new psychoactive substances (NSPs). Whether it's synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, synthetic benzodiazepines, synthetic opioids, or something entirely novel, someone somewhere is producing it and selling it.

In its 2017 annual review, the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addictions (EMCDDA) reported in was monitoring 620 NSPs, up from 350 in 2013, and was adding new ones at the rate of over one a week.

These drugs, often of unknown quality or potency, in some cases have wreaked havoc among drug users around the world and are a prime example of the bad things that can happen when you try to suppress some drugs: You end up with worse ones.

The communications technology revolution that began with the world wide web impacts drug policy just as it impact everything else. Beginning with the infamous Silk Road drug sales website, the dark web and the Tor browser have enabled drug sellers and consumers to hook up anonymously online, with the drugs delivered to one's doorstep by Fedex, UPS, and the like.

Silk Road has been taken down and its proprietor, Ross Ulbricht, jailed for decades in the US, but as soon as Silk Road was down, new sites popped up. They got taken down, and again, new sites popped up. Rinse and repeat.

European authorities estimate the size of the dark web drug marketplace at about $200 million a year -- a fraction of the size of the overall trade -- but warn that it is growing rapidly. And why not? It's like an Amazon for drugs.

10.Massacring Drug Suspects in Southeast Asia

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn international condemnation for the bloody war he unleashed on drug suspects upon taking office last year. Coming from a man who made his reputation for leading death squads while Mayor of Davao City, the wave of killings is shocking, but not surprising. The latest estimates are that some 12,000 people have been killed.

What's worse is that Duterte's bad example seems to be gaining some traction in the neighborhood. Human rights groups have pointed to a smaller wave of killings in Indonesia, along with various statements from Indonesian officials expressing support for Duterte-style drug executions. And most recently, a Malaysian member of parliament urged his own country to emulate Duterte's brutal crackdown.

This isn't the first time Southeast Asia has been the scene of murderous drug war brutality. Back in 2003, then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drugs that saw 2,800 killed in three months.

Looking Back: The Biggest Domestic Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

As Drug War Chronicle marks the publication of its 1,000th issue (with yours truly having authored 863 of them going back to 2000), we reflect on what has changed and what hasn't in the past couple of decades. This piece recounts our domestic drug policy evolution in the US; a companion piece looks at the international picture.

A lot has happened. We've broken the back of marijuana prohibition, even if we haven't killed it dead yet; we've seen medical marijuana gain near universal public acceptance, we've seen harm reduction begin to take hold, we've fought long and hard battles for sentencing reform -- and even won some of them.

But it hasn't all been good. Since the Chronicle began life as The Week Online With DRCNet back in 1997, more than 30 million people have been arrested for drugs, with all the deleterious consequences a drug bust can bring, and despite all the advances, the drug war keeps on rolling. There's been serious progress made, but there's plenty of work left to do. 

Here are the biggest big picture drug stories and trends of the past 20 years:

1. Medical Marijuana

It was November, 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, five years after San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a medical marijuana measure, thanks in large part to the efforts of activists who mobilized to make its use possible for AIDS patients. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington came on board, and three years after that, Hawaii became the first state to allow it though the legislative process. Now, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for the use of medical marijuana, and public support for medical marijuana reaches stratospheric levels in polls.

But the battle isn't over. The federal government still refuses to officially recognize medical marijuana, potentially endangering the progress made so far, especially under the current administration, efforts to reschedule marijuana to reflect its medical uses remain thwarted, some of the more recent states to legalize medical marijuana have become perversely more restrictive, and in some of the more conservative states, lawmakers attempt to appease demands for medical marijuana legalization by passing extremely limited CBD-only laws.

2. Marijuana Legalization: In the War on Weed, Weed is Winning

Twenty years ago, pot wasn't legal anywhere, and Gallup had public support for legalization at a measly 25%. A lot has changed since then. It took repeated tries, but beginning in 2012, states started voting to free the weed, with Colorado and Washington leading the way, Alaska and DC coming on board in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining the ranks last year. Now, about a fifth of the country has legalized weed, with more states lining up to do so next year, including most likely contenders Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Now, Gallup has support for legalization at 64% nationwide, with even a slight majority (51%) of Republicans on board. The only demographic group still opposed to pot legalization is seniors, and they will be leaving the scene soon enough. Again, the battle is by no means over. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and congressional efforts to change that have gone nowhere so far. But it seems like marijuana has won the cultural war, and the rest is just cleaning up what's left of the pot prohibition mess.

3. Marijuana, Inc.: The Rise of an Industry

State-legal marijuana is already a $10 billion dollar a year industry, and that's before California goes on line next month. It's gone from outlaws and hippie farmers in the redwoods to sharp-eyed business hustlers, circling venture capitalists, would-be monopolists, and assorted hangers on, from accountants, lawyers, and publicists to security and systems mavens, market analysts, and the ever-expanding industry press.

These people all have direct pecuniary interests in legal marijuana, and, thanks to profits from the golden weed, the means to protect them. Marijuana money is starting to flow into political campaigns and marijuana business interests organize to make sure they will continue to be able to profit from pot.

Having a legal industry with the wherewithal to throw its weight around a bit is generally -- but not entirely -- a good thing. To the degree that the marijuana industry is able to act like a normal industry, it will act like a normal industry, and that means sometimes the interests of industry sectors may diverge from the interests of marijuana consumers. The industry or some parts of it may complain, for instance, of the regulatory burden of contaminant testing, while consumers have an interest in knowing the pot they smoke isn't poisoned.

And getting rich off weed is a long way from the justice-based demand that people not be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for using it. Cannabis as capitalist commodity loses some of that outlaw cachet, some ineffable sense of hipster cool. But, hey, you're not going to jail for it anymore (at least in those legal states).

4. The Power of the People: The Key Role of the Initiative Process

The initiative and referendum process, which lets activists bypass state legislatures and put issues to a direct popular vote, has been criticized as anti-democratic because it allows special interests to use an apathetic public to advance their interests, as both car insurers and tobacco companies have attempted in California. It also gets criticized for writing laws without legislative input.

But like any political tool, it can be used for good or ill, and when it comes to drug reform, it has been absolutely critical. When legislatures refuse to lead -- or even follow -- as has been the case with many aspects of drug policy, the initiative process becomes the only effective recourse for making the political change we want. It was through the initiative process that California and other early states approved medical marijuana; it was five years later that Hawaii became the first state where the legislature acted. Similarly with recreational marijuana legalization, every state that has legalized it so far has done it through the initiative process; in no state has it yet made its way through the legislature, although we're hoping that will change next year.

And it's not just marijuana. The initiative process has also been used successfully to pass sentencing reforms in California, and now activists are opening the next frontier, with initiatives being bruited in California and Oregon that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

The bad news: Only 24 states have the initiative process. The good news: The ones that do lead the way, setting an example for the others.

Drug prohibition can't be separated from the larger struggle for racial and social justice. (Creative Commons)
5. The Glaring Centrality of Race

It took Michelle Alexander's 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to put a fine point on it, but the centrality of race in the prosecution of the war on drugs has been painfully evident since at least the crack hysteria of the 1980s, if not going back even further to the Nixonian law-and-order demagoguery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We've heard the numbers often enough: Blacks make up about 13% of the population and about 13% of drug users, but 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of those doing state prison time for drugs. And this racial disparity in drug law enforcement doesn't seem to be going away.

Neither is the horrendous impact racially-biased drug law enforcement has on communities of color. Each father or mother behind bars leaves a family exploded and usually impoverished, and each heavy-handed police action leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The drug war conveyor belt, feeding an endless number of black men and women into the half-life of prison, is clearly a key part of a system of racially oppressive policing that has led to eruptions from Ferguson to Baltimore. If we are going to begin to try to fix race relations in this country, the war on drugs is one of the key battlefronts. Thanks in part to Alexander's bestseller, civil rights organizations from the traditional to newer movements like Black Lives Matter have devoted increasing focus to criminal justice, including drug policy reform.

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

We don't think teenagers should be having sex, but we know they're going to, anyway, so we make condoms available to them so they won't get pregnant or STDs. That's harm reduction. So is providing clean needles to injection drug users to avoid the spread of disease, making opioid overdose drugs like naloxone widely available so a dosing error doesn't turn fatal, passing 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage and OD victims' friends to call for help instead of run away, and providing a clean, well-lit place where drug users can shoot or smoke or snort their drugs under medical supervision and with access to social service referrals.

Two decades ago, the only harm reduction work going on was a handful of pioneering needle exchanges, thanks to folks like Dave Purchase at the North American Syringe Exchange Network (founded in 1988), and early activists faced harassment and persecution from local authorities. But it was the creation of the Harm Reduction Coalition in 1993 that really began to put the movement on the map.

In this century, harm reduction practices have gained ground steadily. Now, 33 states and DC allow needle exchange programs to operate, 40 states and DC have some form of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and every state in the county has now modified its laws to allow greater access to naloxone.

The next frontier for American drug war harm reduction is safe injection sites, and on the far horizon, opiate-assisted maintenance. There is not yet a single officially sanctioned operating safe injection in the country, but we are coming close in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. And let's not forget drug decriminalization as a form of harm reduction. It should be the first step, but that's not the world we live in -- yet.

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

Beginning in the Reagan years and continuing for decades, the number of prisoners in America rose sharply and steadily, driven in large part by the war on drugs. The phenomenon gained America infamy as the world's biggest jailer, whether in raw numbers or per capita.

But by early in the century, the fever had broken. After gradually slowing rates of increases for several years, the number of state and federal prisoners peaked around 2007 and 2008 at just over 1.6 million. At the end of 2015, the last year for which data is available, the number of prisoners was 1.527 million, down 2% from the previous year. And even the federal prison system, which had continued to increase in size, saw a 14% decline in population that year.

But most drug war prisoners are state prisoners, and that's where sentencing reform have really begun to make a difference. States from California to Minnesota to Texas, among others, enacted a variety of measures to cut the prison population, in some cases because of more enlightened attitudes, but in other cases because it just cost too damned much money for fiscal conservatives.

Current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like very much to reverse this trend and is in a position to do some damage, for instance, by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue tough sentences and mandatory minimums in drug cases. But he is hampered by federal sentencing reforms passed in the Obama era. Sessions may be able to bump up the number of people behind bars only slightly; the greater danger is that his policies serve as an inspiration for similarly inclined conservatives in the states to try to roll back reforms there.

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin to the market. The powerful new pain reliever was pitched to doctors as not highly addictive by a high pressure company sales force and became a tremendous market success, generating billions for the Sackler family, the owners of the company. Opioid prescriptions became more common.

For many patients, that was a good thing. Purdue Pharma's marketing push coincided with a push by chronic pain advocates -- patients, doctors and others -- to ease prescribing restrictions that had kept many patients in feasibly treatable pain. And which in many cases still do: A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply . . . [tlwenty-nine percent of primary care physicians and 16 percent of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions." As the report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them."

While it's popular to blame doctors and Big Pharma for getting a bunch of pain patients addicted to opioids, that explanation is a bit too facile. Many of the people strung out today were never patients, but instead obtained their pain pills on the black market. Through a perverse system of incentives, people on Medicaid could obtain the pills by prescription for next to nothing, then resell them for $40 or $60 apiece to people who wanted them. Some pain management practices were on the cutting edge of relieving pain for patients who needed the help. But others were little more than shady pill mills, popping up in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida -- places that would become the epicenter of an opioid epidemic within a few years.

When the inevitable crackdowns on pain pill prescribing came, legitimate prescribers of course got caught in the crossfire sometimes, especially those who served the poor or the patients who in the worst chronic pain. Their being targeted, or others reining in their prescribing practices, left many patients in the lurch again. And the closure of pill mills left addicted people in the lurch. But there was plenty of heroin to make up for the missing pills the addicted used to take. Mexican farmers have been happy to grow opium poppies for the American market for decades, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations know how to get it to market.

The whole thing has been worsened by the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than pure heroin, which seems to be coming mostly from rogue Chinese pharmaceutical labs (although the Mexicans appear to be getting in on the act now, too).

And now we have a drug overdose crisis like the country has never seen before, with around 60,000 people estimated to die from overdoses this year, most of them from opioids (by themselves or in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs). The crisis is inspiring both admirable harm reduction efforts and an execrable turn to harsher punishments, while making things harder again for many pain patients. While many argue that the gentle side of the response to this epidemic is because the victims are mainly white, I would suggest that argument pays short shrift to all the years of hard work advocates and activists of all ethnicities have put in to creating more enlightened drug policies.

9. Policing for Profit: The Never Ending Fight to Rein in Asset Forfeiture

Twenty years ago, pressure was mounting in Washington over abuses of the federal civil asset forfeiture program, just as it is now. Back then, passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000 marked an important early victory in the fight to rein in what has tartly described as "policing for profit." It was shepherded though the house by then Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican.

How times have changed. Now, with federal agents seizing billions of dollars each year though civil forfeiture proceedings and scandalous abuse after scandalous abuse pumping up the pressure for federal reform, the Republican attorney general is calling for more asset forfeiture. And Jeff Sessions isn't just calling for it; he has undone late Obama administration reforms aimed at reining in one of the sleaziest aspects of federal forfeiture, the Equitable Sharing program, although he is having problems getting Congress to go along.

In the years since CAFRA, a number of states have passed similar laws restricting civil asset forfeiture and directing that seized funds go into the general fund or other designated funds, such as education, but state and local police have been able to evade those laws via Equitable Sharing. Under that program, instead of seizing money under state law, they instead turn it over to the federal government, which then returns 80% of it to the law enforcement agency -- not the general fund and not the schools.

This current setup, with its perverse incentives for police to evade state laws and pursue cash over crime, makes asset forfeiture reform a continuing battlefield at both the state and the federal levels. A number of reform bills are alive in the Congress, and year by year, more and more states pass laws limiting civil asset forfeiture or, even better, eliminating it and requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed. Fourteen states have now done that, with the most recent being Connecticut, New Mexico and Nebraska. That leaves 36 to go.

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

We have seen tremendous progress in drug policy in the past 20 years, from the advent of the age of legal marijuana to the breaking of sentencing fever to the spread of harm reduction and the kinder, gentler treatment of the current wave of opioid users, but still, the drug war grinds on.

Pot may be legal in eight states, but that means it isn't in 42 others, and more than 600,000 people got arrested for it last year -- down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015.

It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

There are more options for treatment or diversion out of jail or prison, but people are still getting arrested. Sentencing reforms mean some people won't do as much time as they did in the past, but people are still getting arrested. And the drug war industrial complex, with all its institutional inertia and self-interest, rolls on. If we want to actually end the drug war, we're going to have to stop arresting people for drugs. That would be a real paradigm shift.

Medical Marijuana Update

The US surgeon general has something to say about medical marijuana, Maryland sees its first medical marijuana sales, and more.

National

Last Friday, the surgeon general said marijuana should be treated like other drugs. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that marijuana should be treated and studied like other pain relief drugs, but that he was opposed to recreational legalization. "Under medical marijuana, I believe it should be like any other drug," he said. "We need to let the FDA vet it, study it, vet it. The FDA has actually approved cannabidiol oil and some derivatives of marijuana, Marijuana is not one substance. It's actually over 100 different substances, some of which benefit, some of which are harmful."

Arkansas

Last Friday, state regulators set the timeline for licenses. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission announced that medical marijuana cultivation licenses would be issued in about three months, and dispensary licenses would be issued three months after that. The date for announcing cultivation licenses is February 27; a firm date for dispensary licenses isn't set yet. The commission anticipates medical marijuana on dispensary shelves by the middle of next year.

Maryland

Last Friday, medical marijuana sales began. The first legal medical marijuana sale in the state took place last Friday, after years of delays. A handful of dispensaries have received shipments of medical marijuana, while others said they expected to come online soon. The state's first legal pot crop was grown this fall.

Michigan

On Tuesday, regulators released medical marijuana business regulations. The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has released emergency rules governing medical marijuana facilities with just two weeks to go before the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation begins taking applications. "The emergency administrative rules are designed to preserve patient protections and provide them with access to safe medical marihuana," said Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation Director Andrew Brisbo. "These rules also allow growers, processors, secure transporters, provisioning centers, and safety compliance facilities to operate under clear requirements."

Montana

Last Thursday, patients and providers criticized proposed new rules. In a hearing at the Department of Public Health and Human Services, patients and providers complained that proposed regulations would place significant cost and time burdens on them. Among provisions criticized were high licensing fees and requirements for extensive product-safety testing.

Ohio

Last Wednesday, the state licensed another dozen large medical marijuana grow ops. State regulators licensed a final 12 medical marijuana cultivators. They licensed another dozen cultivators earlier this year. Each of the large growers can grow up to 25,000 square feet. They now have nine months to get up and running, with sales set to begin in September.

Last Thursday, a licensing loser sued the state. One day after the state announced its choices for a second batch of commercial cultivation licenses for medical marijuana, one of the losers in the process has filed a lawsuit challenging the scoring process for applications. The state law allowing medical marijuana sets a September 8, 2018 deadline for sales to begin, the timetable is already tight, and any further delays could put that date in doubt.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: North American Pot Sales to Top $10 Billion This Year, Report Says, More... (12/6/17)

There's more money in legal weed than even the analysts thought, BC will let 19-year-olds buy pot, Peruvian coca planting was up last year, and more.

A $10 billion year for legal marijuana, and this is just the beginning. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Retail Pot Sales Will Hit $10 Billion This Year, Report Says. A new report from the Arcview Market Research group says North American marijuana sales are growing faster than expected and should hit the $10 billion mark this year. And next year could see even faster growth with both California and Canada set to become legal marketplaces next year. Arcview said it now expects the legal marijuana market to hit $24.5 billion by 2021.

International

British Columbia Lays Out Pot Rules, Will Allow Sales to 19-Year-Olds. BC became the latest Canadian province to roll out proposed rules for looming legal marijuana, announcing that it will allow sales through a mix of government and private stores and that it will allow people 19 and over to possess and purchase marijuana. The province has not yet finalized other issues, such as whether online sales will be allowed and whether existing shops would be able to apply for licenses. Those decisions are expected next month.

Paraguay Congress Approves Medical Marijuana Planting. The congress passed a bill Tuesday that creates a state-sponsored system to import marijuana seeds and grow crops for medicinal uses. The move comes half a year after the congress approved the importation of cannabis oil, but patients and advocates had complained about problems with access. The bill still needs to be signed into law, but that is expected given that the government supports the bill.

Peruvian Coca Planting Jumped Last Year. The area planted with coca grew by 9% in 2016, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said Tuesday. Coca cultivation covered about 110,000 acres. Coca cultivation in Colombia, Peru's chief competitor, was at more than 360,000 acres, although that could be a blip related to producer incentives linked to the peace agreement between the FARC and the government.

Philippines President Orders National Police Back to Drug War Operations. President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the National Police to rejoin anti-drug operations. He had pulled them off the brutal crackdown on drug users and sellers in October, weeks before he hosted a summit of world leaders, including US President Donald Trump. This is the second time Duterte has pulled the National Police from the job and then reinstated them; the first time was in January, amidst public outrage over the killing of a South Korean businessman. 

Chronicle AM: OR Magic Mushroom Init Coming in 2020, MI MedMJ Rules Set, More... (12/5/17)

A proposed Oregon initiative would legalize psilocbyin for medicinal use, Michigan regulators release emergency medical marijuana rules in the nick of time, Wisconsin takes another step toward drug testing welfare and job training participants, and more.

A proposed Oregon initiative would legalize psilocybin for medical use. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Michigan Releases Medical Marijuana Business Rules. The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has released emergency rules governing medical marijuana facilities with just two weeks to go before the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation begins taking applications. "The emergency administrative rules are designed to preserve patient protections and provide them with access to safe medical marihuana," said Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation Director Andrew Brisbo. "These rules also allow growers, processors, secure transporters, provisioning centers, and safety compliance facilities to operate under clear requirements."

Psychedelics

Oregon 2020 Initiative Would Legalize Psilocybin Mushrooms. A husband and wife team calling themselves the Oregon Psilocybin Society are working on putting a psilocybin legalization initiative on the state's 2020 ballot. The measure doesn't call for legal recreational use, but would create a highly regulated system to allow use for medical purposes. Next door in California, a similar initiative aimed at 2018 would legalize magic mushrooms.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Approves Plan to Drug Test Welfare, Job Training Participants. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has approved a plan to implement drug screening for able-bodied adults participating in the FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program, sending the rule change measure to the State Legislature for review. The rule is part of the policy amendments included in 2015 Wisconsin Act 55. The legislature now has 120 days to review the measure. Once approved by the legislature, it will become effective the first day of the following month.

International

Leading Mexican Presidential Candidate Suggests Amnesty for Drug Cartel Kingpins. Leading presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has caused controversy by suggesting that he is open to amnesty for drug cartel leaders as part of a dialog aimed at ending that violence that has seen an estimated 200,000 people killed in the last decade. "If it is necessary… we will talk about granting amnesty so long as the victims and their families are willing," he said. "We'll propose it. I'm analyzing it. What I can say is that we will leave no issue without discussion if it has to do with peace and tranquility." Lopez Obrador currently has a more than 10-point lead in presidential polls, and his foes in the political and business classes are trying to use the remarks against him.

Chronicle AM: MD Sees First MedMJ Sale, PA Pays for False Drugged Driving Arrest, More... (12/4/17)

Lots of medical marijuana news today, plus Pennsylvania has to pay out for a bogus drugged driving arrest that saw a man jailed for five months, and more.

Medical marijuana sales started last Friday in Maryland. (Creative Commons)
US Surgeon General Says Medical Marijuana Should Be Treated Like Other Drugs. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said last Friday that marijuana should be treated and studied like other pain relief drugs, but that he was opposed to recreational legalization. "Under medical marijuana, I believe it should be like any other drug," he said. "We need to let the FDA vet it, study it, vet it. The FDA has actually approved cannabidiol oil and some derivatives of marijuana, Marijuana is not one substance. It's actually over 100 different substances, some of which benefit, some of which are harmful."

Arkansas Regulators Set Timeline. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission announced last Friday that medical marijuana cultivation licenses would be issued in about three months, and dispensary licenses would be issued three months after that. The date for announcing cultivation licenses is February 27; a firm date for dispensary licenses isn't set yet. The commission anticipates medical marijuana on dispensary shelves by the middle of next year.

Maryland Medical Marijuana Sales Begin. The first legal medical marijuana sale in the state took place last Friday, after years of delays. A handful of dispensaries have received shipments of medical marijuana, while others said they expected to come online soon. The state's first legal pot crop was grown this fall.

Montana Medical Marijuana Providers, Patients Oppose New Regulations. At a hearing last Thursday at the Department of Public Health and Human Services, patients and providers complained that proposed regulations would place significant cost and time burdens on them. Among provisions criticized were high licensing fees and requirements for extensive product-safety testing.

Ohio Gets Sued Over Commercial Grower Application Process. One day after the state announced its choices for a second batch of commercial cultivation licenses for medical marijuana, one of the losers in the process has filed a lawsuit challenging the scoring process for applications. The state law allowing medical marijuana sets a September 8, 2018 deadline for sales to begin, the timetable is already tight, and any further delays could put that date in doubt.

Hemp

Wisconsin Governor Signs Hemp Bill. Gov. Scott Walker (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill that allows farmers in the state to grow hemp. Under the bill, hemp plants can't contain more than 0.3% THC, and no one with a drug conviction can be a hemp farmer.

Law Enforcement

Pennsylvania Pays $150,000 for Falsely Jailing Man as Suspected Drugged Driver. The State Police will pay $150,000 to a New York Hispanic man who was jailed for five months even though he passed Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests and subsequent blood testing showed no presence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Wilfredo Ramos sued for false imprisonment and false arrest. He lost his car, his job, and his apartment while sitting in the Lehigh County Jail for months even after test results came back.

International

Australia Federal Government Gives Up on Welfare Drug Testing Scheme. Federal Social Services Minister Christian Porter confirmed Monday that he was removing drug testing of welfare recipients from the government's welfare reform bill in the face of stiff opposition from experts and elected officials. Porter said he didn't want to sacrifice the entire welfare piece to controversy over the drug testing provision.

Swedish High Court Rejects Medical Necessity Defense for Growing Marijuana Plant. The Supreme Court has ruled against a man who grew marijuana to treat neuropathic pain from a motorcycle accident, as well as for anxiety and depression. The man had been acquitted of cultivation charges in August by a lower court, but an appellate court reinstated the conviction, and now the Supreme Court has echoed that decision. The court did suggest that the parliament could amend laws to allow for medical marijuana, and it went relatively lightly on the patient, fining him $616 and giving him no jail time.

Chronicle AM: MA Drops 6,000 More Tainted Drug Cases, German MJ Petition Scores, More... (12/1/17)

Washington state ponders allowing home marijuana cultivation, Michigan legalizers are drawing organized opposition, Ohio's medical marijuana program takes another step forward, and more.

The Michigan legalization initiative is getting organized opposition, including from medical marijuana interests.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legalization Initiative Drawing Organized Opposition. At least two groups are gearing up to fight the legalization initiative that now looks very likely to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. One group, Healthy and Productive Michigan, is led by a Republican-connected political consultant and claims to represent business, faith, and law enforcement groups opposed to legalization. The other group, the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods, appears to have a purely pecuniary interest: It is funded by the Michigan Responsibility Council, a group of businessmen who want to get into the medical marijuana business.

New Jersey Lawmaker Files Bill to Require Blood Samples of Suspected DUID Drivers. Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) has filed a bill that would require police officers to take blood samples from anyone arrested for drug-impaired driving. "This bill will be a useful tool for law enforcement in their efforts to prosecute and convict people who refuse to be tested and who are likely driving while impaired," Bucco said in a statement. "Driving under the influence of marijuana should be treated no differently than driving under the influence of alcohol." The move comes as a push for legalization is about to get underway in the legislature.

Washington State Regulators Release Report on Home Grow Issues. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board released a report Wednesday on the potential costs and challenges associated with allowing personal marijuana cultivation. Washington is the only legal marijuana state that does not allow for home cultivation. The report doesn't make any recommendations, but includes a list of concerns lawmakers will need to address if they do try to change the law.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Licenses Another Dozen Large Medical Marijuana Grow Ops. State regulators licensed a final 12 medical marijuana cultivators Wednesday. They licensed a first dozen cultivators earlier this year. Each of the large growers can grow up to 25,000 square feet. They now have nine months to get up and running, with sales set to begin in September.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Seeks Public Input on Opioid Policy. The state Department of Health and Human Resources Office of Drug Control Policy announced Thursday it had developed a plan to combat the opioid epidemic, but it is asking state residents to help develop the plan through public comment and recommendations through December 15. The office is also coordinating with a panel of public health experts from West Virginia University, Marshall University and Johns Hopkins University.

Law Enforcement

Massachusetts Prosecutors Drop Another 6,000 Tainted Drug Cases. Local prosecutors have dropped more than 6,000 drug cases tainted by former state public chemist Sonja Frank. The move comes months after prosecutors dropped another 21,000 cases tainted by another state public chemist, Annie Dookhan.

International

German Activist Petitions Will Force Bundestag Debate on Marijuana Legalization. A petition from the German Hemp Association has reached the required threshold of 50,000 signatures to trigger a debate in the Bundestag. That doesn't mean the Bundestag will legalize marijuana, but it does mean it will have to put the issue on its agenda.

. Scottish Parliamentarians Call for New Approaches to Stop Overdoses. Members of parliament from all five Scottish parties united to call on Scotland's Futures Forum, parliament's independent think tank, to come up with fresh policy solutions to stem a rising overdose toll. "Drugs and drugs policy is one of the biggest issues facing communities across Scotland," said Labor MP Neil Findlay. "None of the signatories to this letter has the answer but we are willing to say that whatever we are doing at the moment just isn't working."

Chronicle AM: Move to Save Farr-Rohracher, Canada Pot Jitters, More... (11/30/17)

Canadians are getting a bit nervous as marijuana legalization looms, members of Congress make a move to ensure that protection for medical marijuana states remains, Honolulu cops decide to review their no guns for patients policy after it gets some attention, and more.

Medical marijuana is at issue in Congress. (Wikimedia)
Medical Marijuana

Congressmembers Seek Extension of Protection for Medical Marijuana States. Led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), 66 members of Congress have sent a letter to the House and Senate leadership urging them to extend the Rohrabacher-Farr provision in place for the last three years that blocks the Justice Department from spending taxpayer funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. The provision is set to expire December 8. It was included in the Senate version of the Justice funding bill, but not the House version, so it will be up to a conference committee to decide whether it remains.

Hawaii Cops Back Off on Telling Patients to Hand in Their Guns. The Honolulu Police policy of sending letters to registered medical marijuana patients telling them they must turn in their firearms is now under review by the department. While police said the letters have been going out all year, the practice only broke into the open last week, raising controversy. The department said it will continue to deny future gun permits to medical marijuana card holders, a practice upheld by the state court of appeals.

Minnesota Adds Autism and Apnea to List of Qualifying Conditions. The state Health Department announced Thursday that autism spectrum disorders and obstructive sleep apnea will be added to the list of qualifying conditions for the use of medical marijuana. The change will take effect in July. Petitioners had sought qualifying condition status for ten disorders, including anxiety, dementia, liver disease, and Parkinson's Disease, but only autism and apnea made the cut.

International

Poll: Canadians Split on Whether Country Will Be Ready for Legal Pot on July 1. A new Angus Reid poll finds Canadians almost evenly split on whether the country should delay the advent of marijuana legalization beyond its scheduled July 1 rollout. Some 53% say the timeline should remain the same, while 47% want it pushed back. The poll also found that more than half of Canadians aren't sure their province will be ready in time. The marijuana legalization bill has passed the House of Commons and is now before the Senate, which could try to delay it.

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