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The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 16,000 people, with a death toll of over 7,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Saturday, December 12

In the town of Almoloya, near Mexico City, six members of a family were killed by gunmen who attacked their home in the morning. Gunmen entered their home, locked several children in a bedroom, then lined up and shot the six adults, three men and three women ranging in ages from 25 to 52. Two bodies were also found in the nearby town of Villa Victoria, although it is unclear if these two incidents are related.

In Guadalajara, a prep school teacher was shot and killed by two gunmen as he drove to work. In Culiacan, Sinaloa, two women with their hands and feet bound were found executed. 16 people were killed in Ciudad Juárez, including a police official. In Michoacan, police found the bodies of three suspected cartel members, who were found dead in a car that contained weapons of various calibers. Six people were also killed in Tijuana, and five in Durango.

Monday, December 14

The spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico called on the Mexican army to withdraw from the streets of Mexican cities. The spokesman, Hugo Valdemar, called on more effective police forces to be created. He also said that local authorities "cannot count on the army," and said that "unfortunately, the army is committing human rights violations" in its fight against organized crime. The same day as his statements, two law enforcement facilities in Durango were attacked by grenades.

Tuesday, December 15

Seven people were killed in Tijuana, bringing the total number of murders in the city to 23 in four days. Among the dead was a man found by commuters hanging by his hands from a bridge over the Tijuana-Playas de Rosarito highway. In Ciudad Juárez, ten men and one woman were killed in several incidents across the city. In the state of Aguacalientes, a woman was found murdered, along with a note accusing her of being an informant. Near Nogales, six bodies were found dumped in a construction site. In the same time period, three people were killed in Sinaloa, three in Guerrero, and one (a 17-year old boy) outside Mexico City.

Wednesday, December 16

In a major coup for the government, Beltran Leyva cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed along with two other cartel members when members of the Mexican Navy attacked their apartment in a luxury quarter of Cuernavaca. One Mexican sailor also died in the 90 minute-long gun battle.

Ricardo Chavez Aldana, a reporter for the Ciudad Juárez radio station Radio Cañón fled to El Paso with his family and requested political asylum. Two nephews of his were recently killed in Ciudad Juárez and his family had received death threats. He is the fourth Ciudad Juárez journalist to seek asylum in the US. In the last nine years, 56 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Most of the killings remained unsolved.

In Tijuana, gunmen armed with assault rifles killed four men in a taco store. Several people were wounded in the attack. The day before, the bodies of four decapitated men were found in the city, and four other people were killed by gunfire, including one woman. These killings brought to 35 the number of people murdered in Tijuana since Friday. The reasons for the sudden spike in violence are unclear, although much of the violence in Tijuana is due to the intense rivalry between the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) and a breakaway faction that has allied itself with the Sinaloa Cartel.

In Ciudad Juárez, 18 people were killed in a 24-hour period. In one incident, five men were killed when a home was attacked by a group of gunmen. The five men attempted to flee, but were gunned down in the courtyard. In another incident, two men were killed by gunmen wielding AK-47's.

In Guerrero, body parts belonging to two individuals were found inside plastic bags. A note was found near the bag which threatened kidnappers and was said to be from "the boss of bosses". This nickname is thought to belong to Arturo Beltran-Leyva, one of the heads of the Beltran-Leyva organization. The note also implored the local population not to be alarmed by the killings.

Body Count for the Week: 221

Body Count for the Year: 7,277

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

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The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

Law Enforcement: Georgia Narcs Gun Down Young Pastor

America's war on drugs claimed another victim last week: Jonathan Ayers, 29, a Georgia pastor shot and killed by undercover narcotics agents in his car at a gas station in Toccoa, Georgia, on the afternoon of September 1. After being shot, Ayers drove off, but crashed less than a block away. He died while being treated at a local hospital. No drugs were found.

According to police, undercover officers from a three-county northeast Georgia drug and prostitution task force saw Ayers with a woman wanted for cocaine sales and followed him to the gas station after he dropped her off. While Pastor Ayers went inside to use the ATM, the officers waited by the pumps in an unmarked black Cadillac Escalade. Once Ayers got back into his car, the officers emerged and identified themselves as police. They ordered Ayers to open his car door, but he instead backed up, striking one officer, and then tried to drive away. Police fired twice, fatally wounding Ayers.

"The target was seen meeting with the deceased and at one point getting out of the car of the deceased. They went down from a local establishment down to the Shell Station," Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley told WNEG TV the next day. The undercover officers "identified themselves as police and Mr. Ayers backed up into one of the agents, and then pulled his vehicle forward in a fast motion toward the other agent... at which time the agent fired two shots into the automobile," he said.

Shirley conceded that Ayers had not intentionally struck the officer, who had ran behind the vehicle just as it reversed, but was driving toward the other officers "in a threatening manner." But video of the incident shows Ayers driving away from the officers as they opened fire.

Shirley also conceded that Ayers was not a target of the investigation, contradicting what police had told WNEG a day earlier. It wasn't the only clarification police had to make. Ayers' relatives told AccessNorthGa.com that police first told them he had died in a traffic accident, then that he had been shot, and then that he had been shot by a police officer.

The woman suspect police were following was later arrested and charged with cocaine sales. Her name has not been released.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting. The officers involved remain on administrative duty.

Ayers' family, friends, and parishioners said the pastor, whose wife is four months pregnant with their first child, was more likely behaving as a Good Samaritan for a sinner in need than involved in anything nefarious. They suggested he may have had his car windows up and not heard the undercover officers identify themselves and was attempting to flee from armed men confronting him.

Ayers was buried last Friday after a funeral service at his church drew more than 400 people. Parishioner Roger Shirley (no relation to the sheriff) said he was certain Ayers had already forgiven his killers. "I know I will eventually. But I can't right now," he said.

Law Enforcement: Minneapolis Pays For Drug Raid Cop's Attack on Bystander

The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously two weeks ago today to pay $495,000 to a man who was punched in the head by a Minneapolis police officer during a drug raid last year. The payment settled a pending federal lawsuit filed by the victim, 53-year-old Eldridge Chatman.

Chatman stepped out of his public housing apartment just before noon on April 11, 2008, only to encounter a Minneapolis police SWAT team preparing to execute a drug raid in the apartment hallway. The lead officer, Craig Taylor, carrying a submachine gun, attempted to signal Chatman to move out from in front of an apartment door the team sought to enter, then punched him in the head when he failed to move.

Chatman required two brain surgeries to stanch bleeding in his head caused by a subdural hematoma resulting from the punch. He also lost a tooth.

Chatman was represented by attorney Bob Bennett, who has made a pastime of suing the Minneapolis police for brutality and civil rights violations. Bennett said last Friday there was no reason to use force on Chatman because he did nothing wrong and posed no threat to officers.

Bennett also drew a parallel between Chatman's case and the recent scandal over the release of a Minneapolis police squad car video showing six officers kicking and punching another black man, Derryl Jenkins, after a traffic stop in February. Both cases involved "African-American males who showed the slightest inclination to not obey" a command. "There's a subset of people the police think they can use force on and get away with," Bennett said.

The six-figure pay out has parallels, too. Last December, the city awarded $612,000 to a family after police mistakenly raided their house in 2007. One family member, fearing intruders, fired a shotgun blast, and police shot back. No one was injured. In December 2007, the city paid out $4.5 million to police officer Duy Ngo after he was shot six times by a fellow officer during an undercover operation in 2003.

Until the city fathers can get their police under control, the good burghers of Minneapolis can expect to pay out more of their hard-won tax dollars to the victims of those who are supposed to serve and protect. Also in the meanwhile, the perpetrator (Officer Taylor) remains on the force.

Feature: Hit List -- US Targets 50 Taliban-Linked Drug Traffickers to Capture or Kill

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hidden drug cache, Afghanistan 2008 (from nato.int)
A congressional study released Tuesday reveals that US military forces occupying Afghanistan have placed 50 drug traffickers on a "capture or kill" list. The list of those targeted for arrest or assassination had previously been reserved for leaders of the insurgency aimed at driving Western forces from Afghanistan and restoring Taliban rule. The addition of drug traffickers to the hit list means the US military will now be capturing or killing criminal -- not political or military -- foes without benefit of warrant or trial.

The policy was announced earlier this year, when the US persuaded reluctant NATO allies to come on board as it began shifting its Afghan drug policy from eradication of peasant poppy fields to trying to interdict opium and heroin in transit out from the country. But it is receiving renewed attention as the fight heats up this summer, and the release of the report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has brought the policy under the spotlight.

The report, Afghanistan's Narco War: Breaking the Link between Drug Traffickers and Insurgents, includes the following highlights:

  • Senior military and civilian officials now believe the Taliban cannot be defeated and good government in Afghanistan cannot be established without cutting off the money generated by Afghanistan's opium industry, which supplies more than 90 percent of the world's heroin and generates an estimated $3 billion a year in profits.
  • As part of the US military expansion in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has assigned US troops a lead role in trying to stop the flow of illicit drug profits that are bankrolling the Taliban and fueling the corruption that undermines the Afghan government. Simultaneously, the United States has set up an intelligence center to analyze the flow of drug money to the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials, and a task force combining military, intelligence and law enforcement resources from several countries to pursue drug networks linked to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan awaits formal approval.
  • On the civilian side, the administration is dramatically shifting gears on counternarcotics by phasing out eradication efforts in favor of promoting alternative crops and agriculture development. For the first time, the United States will have an agriculture strategy for Afghanistan. While this new strategy is still being finalized, it will focus on efforts to increase agricultural productivity, regenerate the agribusiness sector, rehabilitate watersheds and irrigation systems, and build capacity in the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock.

While it didn't make the highlights, the following passage bluntly spells out the lengths to which the military is prepared to go to complete its new anti-drug mission: "In a dramatic illustration of the new policy, major drug traffickers who help finance the insurgency are likely to find themselves in the crosshairs of the military. Some 50 of them are now officially on the target list to be killed or captured."

Or, as one US military officer told the committee staff: "We have a list of 367 'kill or capture' targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and insurgency."

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burning of captured Afghanistan hashish cache, world record size, 2008 (from nato.int)
US military commanders argue that the killing of civilian drug trafficking suspects is legal under their rules of engagement and the international law. While the exact rules of engagement are classified, the generals said "the ROE and the internationally recognized Law of War have been interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritized target list."

Not everyone agrees that killing civilian drug traffickers in a foreign country is legal. The UN General Assembly has called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In a 2007 report, the International Harm Reduction Association identified the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses as a violation of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

"What was striking about the news coverage of this this week was that the culture of US impunity is so entrenched that nobody questioned or even mentioned the fact that extrajudicial murder is illegal under international law, and presumably under US law as well," said Steve Rolles of the British drug reform group Transform. "The UK government could never get away with an assassination list like this, and even when countries like Israel do it, there is widespread condemnation. Imagine the uproar if the Afghans had produced a list of US assassination targets on the basis that US forces in Afghanistan were responsible for thousands of civilian casualties."

Rolles noted that while international law condemns the death penalty for drug offenses, the US policy of "capture or kill" doesn't even necessarily contemplate trying offenders before executing them. "This hit list is something different," he argued. "They are specifically calling for executions without any recourse to trial, prosecution, or legal norms. Whilst a 'war' can arguably create exceptions in terms of targeting 'enemy combatants,' the war on terror and war on drugs are amorphous concepts apparently being used to create a blanket exemption under which almost any actions are justified, whether conventionally viewed as legal or not -- as recent controversies over torture have all too clearly demonstrated."

But observers on this side of the water were more sanguine. "This is arguably no different from US forces trying to capture or kill Taliban leaders," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs, security, and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution. "As long as you are in a war context and part of your policy is to immobilize the insurgency, this is no different," she said.

"This supposedly focuses on major traffickers closely aligned to the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy analyst for the Cato Institute. "That at least is preferable to going around destroying the opium crops of Afghan farmers, but it is still a questionable strategy," he said.

But even if they can live with hit-listing drug traffickers, both analysts said the success of the policy would depend on how it is implemented. "The major weakness of this new initiative is that it is subject to manipulation -- it creates a huge incentive for rival traffickers or people who simply have a quarrel with someone to finger that person and get US and NATO forces to take him out," said Carpenter, noting that Western forces had been similarly played in the recent past in Afghanistan. "You'll no doubt be amazed by the number of traffickers who are going to be identified as Taliban-linked. Other traffickers will have a vested interest in eliminating the competition."

"This is better than eradication," agreed Felbab-Brown, "but how effective it will be depends to a large extent on how it's implemented. There are potential pitfalls. One is that you send a signal that the best way to be a drug trafficker is to be part of the government. There needs to be a parallel effort to go after traffickers aligned with the government," she said.

"A second pitfall is with deciding the purpose of interdiction," Felbab-Brown continued. "This is being billed as a way to bankrupt the Taliban, but I am skeptical about that, and there is the danger that expectations will not be met. Perhaps this should be focused on limiting the traffickers' power to corrupt and coerce the state."

Another danger, said Felbab-Brown, is if the policy is implemented too broadly. "If the policy targets low-level traders even if they are aligned with the Taliban or targets extensive networks of trafficking organizations and ends up arresting thousands of people, its disruptive effects may be indistinguishable from eradication at the local level. That would be economically hurting populations the international community is trying to court."

Felbab-Brown pointed to the Colombian and Mexican examples to highlight another potential pitfall for the policy of targeting Taliban-linked traffickers. "Such operations could end up allowing the Taliban to take more control over trafficking, as in Colombia after the Medellin and Cali cartels were destroyed, where the FARC and the paramilitaries ended up becoming major players," she warned. "Or like Mexico, where the traffickers have responded by fighting back against the state. This could add another dimension to the conflict and increase the levels of violence."

The level of violence is already at its highest level since the US invasion and occupation nearly eight years ago. Last month was the bloodiest month of the war for Western troops, with 76 US and NATO soldiers killed. As of Wednesday, another 28 have been killed this month.

Sentencing: House Subcommittee Approves Reducing Federal Crack Cocaine Penalties

An end to the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine may be in sight. After more than a decade of congressional dawdling since the US Sentencing Commission called for the disparity to be ended because of its racially disproportionate impact, a bill that would do so is finally moving in the Congress.

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DEA crack cocaine photo
Under current federal law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized for years, especially because about nine out of 10 federal crack prosecutions are aimed at African-Americans. (Most crack users are white, despite popular belief.)

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security passed H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. They did so unanimously, making the vote a striking moment of bipartisanship on a once controversial issue. The bill removes all references to "cocaine base" -- federalese for crack -- from the US criminal code, effectively treating all forms of cocaine the same for sentencing purposes.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and has 20 cosponsors, including every Democrat on the subcommittee. It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), also an ardent supporter of ending the sentencing disparity.

Sentencing reform advocates cheered the bill's progress. "I knew it was coming," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. " There has been so much attention paid to sentencing policies in the past six months that it was only a matter of time before one of the half-dozen sentencing bills in Congress would start moving. Today it did."

Repealing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is a much needed step in restoring trust and enacting smarter policies , said Stewart. "If Congress eliminates the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, it would not only restore some faith in the justice system among the communities most affected by the law, it would reduce prison overcrowding and free up funding for more effective rehabilitation efforts. A minimum of $26 million would be saved in the first year of the reforms and nearly $530 million over the next 15 years," she said. "FAMM strongly urges Congress to make the changes retroactive so that people currently serving unjust sentences for crack cocaine can benefit and taxpayers will see even greater savings."

Feature: US Gives Up on Eradicating Afghan Opium Poppies, Will Target Traffickers Instead

Thousands of US Marines poured into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province this week to take the battle against the Taliban to the foe's stronghold. But in a startling departure from decades of US anti-drug policy, eradicating Helmand's massive opium poppy crop will not be part of their larger mission.

US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations Saturday that attempting to quash the opium and heroin trade through eradication was counterproductive and bad policy. Instead, the US would concentrate on alternative development, security, and targeting drug labs and traffickers.

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Afghan anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul
"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke told the Associated Press during a break in the G-8 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban, so we're going to phase out eradication," he said.

"The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living. It's the drug system," Holbrooke continued. "So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, which generates multiple streams of income for them. Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers in areas under their control, provide security for drug convoys, and sell opium and heroin through smuggling networks that reach around the globe.

As late as last year, US policymakers supported intensifying eradication efforts, with some even arguing for the aerial spraying of herbicides, as has been done with limited success, but severe political and environmental consequences in Colombia. That notion was opposed by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, as well as by the US's NATO partners, particularly Britain, which supports expanded manual eradication of the poppy fields.

On Sunday, Afghan counternarcotics minister General Khodaidad disputed Holbrooke's claims that eradication was a failure, telling the Canadian Press that Afghanistan had achieved "lots of success" with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields. Still, he said he was open to the new American strategy. "Whatever program or strategy would be to the benefit of Afghanistan, we welcome it," Khodaidad said. "We are happy with our policy... so I'm not seeing any pause or what do you call it, deficiency, in our strategy. Our strategy's perfect. Our strategy's good."

Britain and US are at odds over opium field eradication plans. According to the London newspaper The Independent, British officials said Sunday they would continue to fund manual eradication in areas under their control. Those officials downplayed any dispute, however, saying details remained to be worked out.

But eradication has met with extremely limited success. According to the UN Office on Crime and Drugs, eradication peaked in 2003, while the Taliban were in retreat, with more than 51,000 acres destroyed. By 2007, that figure had declined to 47,000 acres, and last year, it was a measly 13,500 acres. Similarly, a survey of villages that had participated in eradication last year found that nearly half of them were growing poppy again this year.

The shift in US policy drew praise from observers across the ideological spectrum. It also aroused speculation that it could be emulated elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.

"The new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan which scales down eradication and emphasizes rural development and interdiction is exactly right," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs, development, and security expert with the Brookings Institution. "Under the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, eradication has been not only ineffective; it has been counterproductive because it strengthens the bond between the rural population dependent on the illicit economy and the Taliban. Backing away from counterproductive eradication is not only a right analysis, it is also a courageous break on the part of the Obama administration with decades of failed counternarcotics strategy worldwide that centers on premature and unsustainable eradication," she added.

"This is clearly a positive, pragmatic step," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It seems that the Obama administration is so deeply invested in succeeding in Afghanistan that they're actually willing to pursue a pragmatic drug policy. This is an intelligent move," he added. "It is an implicit recognition that you are not going to eradicate opium production in this world so long as there is a market for it. Given that Afghanistan is the dominant opium producer right now, the pragmatic strategy is to figure out how to manage that production rather than to pursue a politically destructive and ineffective crop eradication strategy."

"This administration is finally showing some pragmatism," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We are beginning to understand that our policies are affecting the policy outcomes we want. We didn't see this under the previous administration, so this is definitely very promising," she added.

But it doesn't necessarily mean there is light at the end of the tunnel, she was quick to add. "Sadly, this doesn't make me more optimistic about our prospects," she said. "This will win us more hearts and minds on the ground, but it also has to be linked to fewer targeted killings, fewer airstrikes that generate civilian casualties, or any good will is likely to be canceled out," she said.

Similarly, Felbab-Brown cautioned that the Obama administration must be prepared to defend the shift at home. "It is imperative that the administration lay down the political groundwork and inform Congress, the public, and the international community that it is unlikely that the new policy will result in a substantial reduction of cultivation or of the dependence on the illegal economy any time soon since rural development is a long-term process dependent on security," she said. "Setting the right expectations now is necessary so that accomplishments of the new strategy in two or three years are not interpreted as failures since the numbers of hectares cultivated with poppy has not dramatically decreased."

Nadelmann suggested that the new strategy is not likely to significantly impact the drug trade. "With the alternative measures they're proposing, such as the focus on traffickers, there's not much reason to think it will have any significant impact on Afghan opium and heroin exports, but it will enable the US, NATO, and the Afghan government to pursue a more discriminating and productive strategy, at least at the political level," he said.

"The really potentially interesting implication of this is for Latin America," said Nadelmann. "It makes one wonder if the Obama administration might come to realize that the same strategy they are pursuing for opium in Afghanistan makes sense in Latin America for coca cultivation in the Andes."

That may be premature. With analysts predicting no decrease in the poppy crop and little impact on the drug trade, in the medium term, the only political selling point for the move away from eradication will be success in defeating or significantly weakening the Taliban insurgency. That will be a difficult task, one whose success is by no means guaranteed.

Drug Raids: Maryland Sheriff Clears Department in SWAT Assault on Mayor's Home -- Mayor Sues Sheriff, Seeks Restrictions on SWAT

The Prince Georges County, Maryland, Sheriff's Department has finished its investigation into a drug raid last summer in which deputies charged into the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights and killed two family dogs. Not surprisingly, the department cleared itself of any wrongdoing.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the raid on the Calvo home
Equally unsurprisingly, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, one of the victims of the raid, disagrees. He said in a Monday press conference he was would file a lawsuit in Prince Georges County Circuit Court against officials in the sheriff's office and police department. Calvo said he will seek to force the county to change its policies for deploying SWAT teams, adding that he believes there are problems with how the force serves search warrants, treats animals, and detains people.

PG Sheriff Michael Jackson doesn't see it that way. The departmental review of the raid was "consistent with what I've felt all along: My deputies did their job to the fullest extent of their abilities," he said at a news conference last Friday as he announced the whitewash.

The raid drew national attention when SWAT team members tracking a package of marijuana delivered to the Calvo home without the residents' knowledge burst into the house, shot and killed the family's two Labrador retrievers, and detained Calvo and his mother-in-law for several hours. One dog was shot four times by the front door. The other was shot twice as it ran from officers. The sheriff's office later admitted that the Calvos had nothing to do with the drug delivery, which was a ruse by traffickers to avoid shipping to their own locations (and avoiding SWAT raids like the one the Calvos endured).

"I'm sorry for the loss of their family pets," Jackson said. "But this is the unfortunate result of the scourge of drugs in our community. Lost in this whole incident was the criminal element... In the sense that we kept these drugs from reaching our streets, this operation was a success."

Again, Calvo disagreed. "It's outrageous," he said. "Not only is he not admitting any wrongdoing, but he's saying this went down the way it was supposed to and he's actually commending his police officers for what they did."

The botched raid has already led to a new Maryland law imposing strict reporting requirements on SWAT teams. Now, given the instransigence of the sheriff's office, it may result in even more changes in gung-ho policing, at least in Prince Georges County.

[Ed: Sheriff Jackson was not entirely straightforward with the public during his press conference last week. First, when he said they were successful in the sense that they "kept these drugs from reaching our streets," that was flat out not true. The package was intercepted by police in Arizona. It was disguised members of Sheriff Jackson's force who delivered the package to the home, before they staked it out waiting for someone to come back and bring it inside. Maybe they just couldn't think of any of the obvious alternatives to doing a SWAT raid in this situation, but Sheriff Jackson at a minimum should be able to distinguish between his police officers and the drug agents in Arizona -- not the same people.

Secondly, Jackson claimed that they were justified in storming the home, rather than doing a standard knock and announce, because Mayor Calvo's mother-in-law had seen them and screamed -- the officers were "compromised," he said, because their presence was already known to the people inside the house. But that makes no sense at all, because knock and announce raids inform the people inside that the police are calling, by definition. By Jackson's line of reasoning, any knock and announce raid automatically compromises the police officers carrying it out -- but knock and announce is the standard way of serving a warrant.

No doubt Jackson's lies and distortions will come back to haunt him in court as the mayor's lawsuit moves forward. -DB]

Honoring Good Cops Doesn’t Mean Ignoring Bad Ones

I recently mentioned the controversy surrounding some drug cops in Philadelphia who've been stealing cash and merchandise from convenience stores under the guise of enforcing paraphernalia laws.

Via Radley Balko, it looks like the story is getting more interesting. The Philadelphia Daily News obtained surveillance video from one of the stores, which shows officers sabotaging security cameras. While the video doesn’t catch officers actually stealing anything, it certainly doesn't look good that they're cutting wires on security cameras right before the alleged theft took place. The video also shows that the paraphernalia purchase cited on the search warrant never actually took place. Uh-oh.

The bottom line is that these cops are more than just a little bit dirty. They are insanely corrupt. And yet, the last time I wrote about this, someone actually complained about it in the comment section:

The majority of the criminals out there are bad mouthing the police organization because they are upset they got busted. Documented are thousands of cases where police acted as heroes and law enforcers; no one seems to want to report or testify on their behalf, so I am. I respect the law enforcement organizations for what their true goals are and strongly suggest that people such as your selves find a new line of work.

Yeah, I'll stop complaining about police misconduct when police stop committing outrageous crimes. I appreciate good police work as much as anyone, but I won't ignore or forgive horrible misconduct just because other cops are doing their job. Most bus drivers aren't alcoholics, but that doesn't mean every incident of drunk bus driving should become a celebration of all the heroic bus drivers who don't go to work wasted.

One crooked cop is one too many. And if the good cops can’t get rid of the bad ones, then they're not exactly perfect either.

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