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UN Drug Chief Warns of Afghanistan "Narco-State"

Afghanistan could collapse into a "full-fledged narco-state" as the looming withdrawal of US and NATO combat forces creates a gaping hole in the center of the country's economy, Yuri Fedotov, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned Wednesday.

In an interview with Reuters, Fedotov noted that the Western forces generate about a third of all jobs and investment in Afghanistan. They are due to leave the country by the end of next year, and even the presence of a residual force of up to 10,000 fighters is increasingly in doubt as the US and Afghan haggle over a status of forces agreement that would allow them to stay.

The other major economic activity in the country is opium production, processing, and distribution, including the manufacture of heroin from raw opium, which accounts for roughly another third of the national economy. Since the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, it has consistently been the world's leading source of illicit opium production, accounting for nearly 90% of all poppies produced worldwide.

Multi-hundred million dollar annual cash flows associated with the opium economy have benefited the Taliban insurgency, which taxes farmers in areas it controls as well as engaging in or protecting drug trafficking. They have also benefited corrupt Afghan government officials and associated warlords.

Fedotov, whose native Russia has been flooded with Afghan heroin, said Wednesday that an upcoming UNODC survey due later this month will show increases in both opium cultivation and production.

"The situation is worsening, that is clear and very disappointing," he said. "It is a very serious setback, but we need to take that as a warning shot," he added, calling for increased international assistance.

"That is also fertile ground for corruption and other forms of transnational organized crime. It is a multi-faceted challenge and we need to take that as a serious problem," Fedotov warned. "Otherwise we have a serious risk that without international support, without more meaningful assistance, this country may continue to evolve into a full-fledged narco-state," he said. "We have not been able to develop an alternative economy in Afghanistan," Fedotov said. "With all our efforts, it was very hard to move from illicit to licit."

Oh, and those Afghan farmers? When they're not producing opium, they're producing cannabis. Afghanistan is also one of the world's preeminent producers of it, according to UNODC, and production was up again last year, the group reported last month.

Afghanistan

Peru Retakes Spot as World's #1 Coca Producer

And the wheel turns. Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century.

coca leaf statues in Peruvian village (Phillip Smith)
But now, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has regained its status as the number one producer. In a report issued last week, UNODC estimated that Peru had 151,000 acres of land devoted to coca production, compared to 125,000 acres in second place Colombia and about 63,000 acres in third place Bolivia.

Just as aggressive eradication and interdiction campaigns in Peru -- including a US-aided policy of shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes -- reduced the coca supply there in the 1990s, the massive US aid program known as Plan Colombia, with its aerial fumigation and aggressive eradication programs, has managed to shrink production in Colombia.

At its peak in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90% of the world's cocaine, with about 400,000 acres planted with coca. Since then, that figure has shrunk by about one third.

But in a clear example of "the balloon effect," Peru has taken up the slack, and has been well-situated to take advantage of growing Brazilian and European demand for cocaine. Peru's reemergence as the global coca leader comes despite renewed efforts by President Ollanta Humala to crack down on coca cultivation, as well as the trafficking and armed rebel groups -- remnants of the feared Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s -- who protect and profit from it.

Peru actually managed to decrease cultivation this year by about 4,000 acres, or 3.4%, according to UNODC. But given continuing declines in Colombia and stable, lower-level production in Bolivia, the country retakes first place even with the decline.

Unlike Colombia, both Peru and Bolivia have long histories of indigenous coca use, and both countries have large legal coca markets. But according to the UNODC, of Peru's estimated 129,000 tons of dried coca leaves, only 9,000 tons were destined for the legal market. That leaves 120,000 tons of leaves ready to be turned into cocaine hydrochloride and snorted up noses in Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Riyadh.

Peru

India Police to Spray Maoist Rebels' Marijuana Crops

Police in the eastern Indian state of Orissa said Friday they planned to use aerial spraying to eradicate marijuana crops cultivated by Maoists rebels, the Times of India reported. There was no mention of what agent might be used to kill the crops.

Maoist Naxalite rebels (platypus1917.org)
For decades, the Maoist rebels, also known as Naxalites, have waged a low-level guerrilla campaign against the Indian state beginning in West Bengal in the 1970s. Their presence has spread through eastern and southern India, and by 2006, they boasted 20,000 cadre in arms and another 50,000 in close support.

The Indian government went on the offensive against the Naxalites in 2009 and has managed to reduce the groups' presence and the number of casualties since then. But Naxalites remain an active force; in May, they attacked an Indian National Congress rally in Chhattisgarh, killing 29 people, including high ranking party members.

Police said Friday that farmers are growing marijuana at the behest of the Naxalites in remote districts where it is difficult for them to go, and that spraying would be the best option.

"Cannabis cultivation and its trade is a major source of income for Maoists. To clip their wings, we have to clampdown on cannabis cultivation," said a senior police official. "We are exploring the possibility of using aerial spray to destroy cannabis in remote areas of the state," he said.

Police, joined by excise, revenue, and forest service officers have already been eradicating pot fields, but managed to destroy only 1300 acres last year and 1500 the year before that. They said marijuana production was prevalent in Rayagada, Malkangiri, Gajapati, Kandhamal, Angul, Sambalpur and Boudh districts.

India

Peru Rebels Call on Farmers to Defend Coca Crops

Remnants of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas are calling on coca farmers in the country's south-central coca-producing region to take up arms to defend their crops against government eradicators. The call came in a recording made by the rebels and broadcast on local radio, according to a report in the Lima daily El Comercio.

drying coca leaves in Peru's Ayacucho province (Phillip Smith)
The radio broadcast in Ayacucho province came last week, just one day after Sendero Luminoso guerrillas handed out pamphlets in nearby Huancavelica calling on coca farmers to confront eradicators "with arms in hand."

The guerrilla remnants, a mere shadow of the fearsome insurgency that cost the country some 75,000 lives in the 1980s, operate in Peru's most productive coca-producing region, a series of ultra-montane river valleys known by its Spanish acronym as the VRAEM (Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys). The current Senderistas have shed the hyper-Maoist ideology of their long-imprisoned leader Comrade Gonazalo (Abimael Guzman) and now operate as well-armed and often uniformed protectors of producers and traffickers in the coca and cocaine trade.

Peru and Colombia are currently the world's largest coca and cocaine producers, with Bolivia in third place.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has pledged to wipe out the Senderistas in the VRAEM and has vowed that eradication will take place there this year. His government has already begun building military bases in the remote region.

Peruvian soldiers and police are already being targeted by Senderistas in the VRAEM. Dozens have been killed in guerrilla attacks in the past two years alone.

Peru

Afghan Opium Cultivation Rising, Officials Say

Illicit opium poppy production cultivation in Afghanistan is on the increase this year, the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics said Monday. The increase comes despite efforts to target traffickers and to provide alternate development opportunities for farmers.

Afghan opium poppy fields bloom (UNODC)
Opium is the raw material from which heroin and other narcotics are derived.

Opium production has been a mainstay of the economy in the war-ravaged country ever since the US and NATO forces invaded in October 2001. Prior to the invasion, the Taliban had allowed poppy growing up until 2000, when a ban dramatically lowered production. But production took off again after the invasion, and for the past decade, Afghanistan has accounted for the vast bulk of global opium production, producing as much as 90% of the total supply.

Efforts to suppress opium production have been half-hearted and ineffective, in part because doing so threatens to drive poppy-producing peasants into the hands of the Taliban and in part because Afghan officials are themselves implicated in the trade.

Qayum Samir, a ministry spokesman, told Radio Free Europe Monday that 157,000 hectares are being planted with poppies this spring. That's up by an estimated 3,000 hectares over last year. Samir said the rise in production could be blamed on lack of security (read: lack of effective government control) and widespread poverty.

He said the Karzai government and the ministry have set up special task forces to eradicate opium plantings in four southern and southeastern provinces -- Farah, Helmand, Kandahar, and Nimruz. Those provinces are also areas where the Taliban is strong. Samir said task forces in other parts of the country would come later.

Kabul
Afghanistan

Colombia's FARC Wants Legal Coca Cultivation

In peace talks in Havana Tuesday, Colombia's FARC guerrillas called on the Colombian government to consider legalizing coca cultivation. The proposal was part of the FARC's broader proposal on agrarian development and land reform.

FARC negotiator Rube Zamora (pazfarc-ep.blogspot.com)
The proposal came one day after the FARC ended its self-imposed cease-fire (the Colombian government never agreed to a cease-fire during the peace talks) and launched a series of attacks on security forces, leaving at least one soldier dead.

The FARC is a socialist político-military formation that has been in rebellion against the central government in Bogota since 1964. Its military strength seems to have peaked about a decade ago, but it remains a potent forcé in some sectors of rural Colombia.

After first opposing the cultivation of coca among the peasantry, it gradually shifted to supporting and taxing it, and the group has had some involvement in the cocaine trade as well. Colombia is either the world's largest or second largest coca and cocaine producer, depending on which figures you believe. That's despite more than $7 billion in US anti-drug and counterinsurgency assistance since 1999 and massive, years-long aerial fumigation campaigns.

In its agrarian reform proposal, FARC negotiator Rube Zamora called on the government to "contemplate actions regarding the cultivation of illicit crops to transition toward substitute or alternative production or for their legalization for medicinal or therapeutic ends or cultural reasons."

More broadly, the FARC called for the creation of a "land bank" of unused or underused areas that could be distributed to landless peasants and for a more democratic method of rural planning. The land would include "latifundia," or large rural estates, confiscated from drug traffickers. The proposal marks a retreat from the previous FARC position that called for the seizure and redistribution of all latifundia.

There is no word on the Colombian government's response to the proposals. Both parties in the talks have agreed not to talk publicly about their progress. They restarted Tuesday after going on hiatus for the Christmas holidays.

Havana
Cuba

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Peru Coca Crop Keeps Getting Bigger

coca leaf statures, Rio Apurimac Valley (stopthedrugwar.org)
Coca cultivation in Peru increased again last year, up 5.2% over 2010, according to the 2011 coca monitoring survey conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Peruvian government. That was the sixth straight year of increases in coca cultivation and leaves Peru just behind Colombia when it comes to acres planted.

The survey estimated Peruvian coca planting at 157,000 acres, with government-led eradication efforts destroying only about 25,000 acres, down 14% from the previous year. The UNODC estimated total coca leaf output of 131,3000 tons, up 4.3% over 2010.

Half of the Peruvian crop is planted in the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro valley region in the southeast, but the biggest increase in cultivation came in the northern states of Bajo Amazonas, Maranon, and Putumayo, with a regional increase of 40.4%.  Production in those states is on the increase to meet the demand for cocaine and crack cocaine in Europe and Brazil, which is the second leading consumer country after the United States.

"Drug traffickers are becoming more efficient," said Flavio Mirella, the head of the agency's Peruvian office, at a Lima press conference. "Traffickers need less coca leaf to produce more cocaine. Routes of supply are diversifying and producing areas are getting closer to certain routes of exit" toward Brazil and through Bolivia to Brazil and beyond.

Guerrillas of the leftist Shining Path have also been involved in the coca and cocaine trade, and have stepped up attacks on Peruvian police and military this year. President Ollanta Humala has vowed to increase both eradication and the presence of the state in remote, guerrilla-infested coca production areas.

Peru

Colombia, FARC Rebels Set Peace Talks

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Colombian government will sit down for peace talks with the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC, which has been fighting to create a socialist Colombia since 1964. President Juan Manuel Santos broke the news in a nationwide address last Tuesday night, and the FARC have confirmed that the talks are on.

President Santos addresses the nation on peace talks. (presidencia.gov.co)
He would seek "a definitive peace" with the rebels, he said. "Any responsible leader knows he can't let pass up a possibility like this to end the conflict. No doubt there are risks," said Santos. "But I believe history would be much more severe with us all if we did not seize the opportunity."

The announcement of peace talks does not mean an immediate end to the fighting, however, and that could prove problematic.

"Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity," Santos said, adding that the talks would not be open-ended. "They will be measured in months, not in years," he said. "If there are not advances, we simply won't continue."

"It's going to be so much harder to negotiate while people are being extorted and oil pipelines are being attacked, child soldiers are being recruited and land mines are being laid," Adam Isaacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America told the Associated Press.

The agreement was brokered with the assistance of Cuba and Norway, which will "facilitate" the coming peace talks. Chile and Venezuela will act as observers.

The last round of peace talks between the government and the FARC went on fruitlessly for more than three years beginning in 1999 and ended when a frustrated President Pastrana sent the Colombian military into the FARC safe haven Pastrana had ceded at the beginning of the talks.

FARC art (farc-ep.co)
Since then, the FARC has suffered militarily as Colombia has put US assistance to the tune of $700 million a year to work. Its original leadership has been killed or died of old age, and the number of guerrillas has dropped from about 20,000 to about 8,000.

But the FARC has also been killing Colombian soldiers at a higher rate than ever. It remains ensconced in its rural redoubts supported by a loyal peasantry, and continues to profit from the coca and cocaine trade.

The FARC's role in the drug trade will be a complicating factor in the talks. The US is seeking five of the group's six secretariat members on drug trafficking charges.

The FARC also seeks fundamental reforms in the Colombian state and economy, which is also likely to prove problematic. Although President Santos has signaled he is willing to discuss agrarian reform and rural development, he is likely to run into fervent opposition from wealthy rural interests who allied themselves with former President Alvaro Uribe and rightist paramilitaries during his term in office.

The paramilitaries killed thousands and generated tens of thousands of internal refugees, trafficking themselves in cocaine the whole time, until they reached an agreement to demobilize under Uribe.

Will the world's oldest insurgency be coming to an end soon? Stay tuned.

Colombia

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: The Lebanese Connection

The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Traffic, by Jonathan Marshall (2012, Stanford University Press, 261 pp., $24.95 HB)

It's harvest time in Lebanon right now, and Shiite farmers in the Bekaa Valley are out working their fields, preparing to turn thousands of acres of cannabis plants into hashish, the Red Lebanese and Blond Lebanese for which the tiny Middle Eastern country is famous. And with the harvest comes conflict, as the country's anti-drug agency and the Lebanese Army head out into the fields to try to eradicate them.

The Chronicle reported at the beginning of August about hash farmers firing machine guns and RPGs at eradicators, vandalizing tractors and bulldozers used to plow under the fields, and organizing street blockades in cities in the valley. Protests broke out in Yammouneh, Baalbek, and Boudai, and authorities backed off, announcing a week later that they would form a committee to study development issues in the Bekaa. And the harvest goes on.

Of course, it wasn't just farmers' resistance that hampered the eradication effort this year. The Bekaa Valley, with its Shiite tribes, sits right next door to Syria, currently embroiled in a brutal civil war now based largely on sectarian and confessional divisions, many of which echo profoundly in Lebanon. In fact, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria until the French carved it out under a League of Nations mandate in 1943. Now, it has seen outbreaks of street fighting between rival pro- and anti-Assad militias in Tripoli, the largest city of the Lebanese north, as well as kidnapping by Shiite tribal militias after some of their number were kidnapped by Sunni militias on the other side of the border.

"Our policy is very clear. We want to demolish all of the hashish cultivation in the Bekaa," Col. Adel Mashmoushi, head of the office of drug control, tells the Lebanon Daily Star a couple of weeks ago, before quickly adding that eradication had been enfeebled this year because "the situation in the Bekaa is very delicate right now" due to "the political and security situation caused by Syria."

Mashmoushi said his men had managed to destroy only about 1,500 acres of cannabis fields out of what he estimated to be somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 acres planted in the northern valley.

But, as global drug trade scholar Jonathan Marshall makes clear in his masterful and highly informative The Lebanese Connection, despite the terrifying sectarian war next door, the violent echoing clashes in Tripoli, and the Bekaa farmers' and traders' violent defense of their industry, this is a relatively quiet time in Lebanon's history in the international drug trade. According to his elaborately sourced estimates, Lebanese hash production was at level five to seven times higher during the period on which he focuses, the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990.

In fact, relying heavily on archival State Department, Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and DEA documents, among other sources, Marshall shows that the tiny sliver of the Levant that is Lebanon was a giant in the drug trade going as far back as the 1950s and a significant hash producer as early as the end of World War I.

Its largest market back then was Egypt, which had been supplied by Greek growers. But when the Greeks banned cannabis planting in 1918, poor Shiite farmers in the Bekaa took up the slack, and they haven't stopped growing ever since. Production boomed during the civil war and was banned in 1992 after the return of a central government, but it has never stopped. Eradication programs have been half-hearted, ill-conceived, and met with hostility, and promised alternative development schemes somehow never seem to materialize.

But it wasn't just hash, either. With Beirut a rising financial center for the Middle East and the center of global networks of Lebanese traders, Marshall shows definitively how it also became a center of the global drug trade. Opium skimmed from legal production in Turkey was smuggled into Syria by Kurds, transmuted to morphine base by Syrian chemists in Aleppo, smuggled into Lebanon by various means and various actors, transported through seaports controlled by Christian politicians to be delivered to French (later, Italian) organized crime groups, whose chemists refined it into heroin, and whose international networks, including American mobsters, sent it on the veins of consumers in the West.

In a history replete with ton-plus hash busts and multi-kilo heroin seizures, Marshall works his way through the underworld of Lebanon-based drug trafficking, its connections abroad, its crime bosses and political allies, both foreign and domestic. Along the way, he exposes the hypocrisy and cynicism of numerous nations, who with one hand raged against drugs, while with the other were complicit in--or at least looked away from--the billion-dollar a year business.

Marshall excels at seeing through the smoke of the murky milieu where all this took place. And what a milieu! Beirut in the mid-20th Century was a decadent, cosmopolitan oasis in the desert of Middle East culture, home to Westernized Arab princes, anything-goes nightclubs, lavish casinos, and European prostitutes. It was also awash in spies, arms dealers, and adventurers -- the Cold War Russian and American intelligence services, the French, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Turks, and, after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a flashpoint of the brewing proxy war between the Shia Islam of Iran and the Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

And Lebanon was a weak, communally divided state operating under a political agreement that divvied up key political positions by sect -- the Christian Maronites got the presidency and the leadership of the armed forces, the Sunnis got the prime minister's office -- but froze those divisions even as the demographic makeup of the country shifted toward its Muslim communities, not to mention an influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Israel, and later, Jordan after the Hashemite kingdom drove out the PLO in 1970.

A weak central state, rising sectarian tensions, highly profitable drug smuggling operations, external manipulation by any number of foreign interests, and a tradition of corruption in government came together in a perfect storm as Lebanon imploded into civil war in 1975, not to emerge from it for 15 years. When it came to the role of drugs in the conflict or to arming the various factions, Marshall shows definitively that nobody had clean hands.

As the Lebanese economy crumbled amidst the violence, the importance of the illicit drug economy became all the more critical for the militias: they relied on drug profits to pay their soldiers and buy their weapons. The global drug trade may not have been the cause of the conflict (although it was a cause -- Marshall cites incidents of precursor violence between Christian and Palestinian militias over drug deals that helped ratchet up the tension), but he shows that it was profits from the trade in prohibited drugs that allowed the contending factions to make the war deadlier and longer than it otherwise would have been.

He also shows that some of the most deadly fighting was not for sectarian reasons, but over control over lucrative drug smuggling routes and, especially, ports. And, paradoxically, he shows how complicity in the drug trade overcame sectarian and even regional divisions: Syrian soldiers patrolling the Bekaa turned a blind eye to Shiite hash farmers, who trafficked their product with the connivance of Christian Maronite warlords. Meanwhile, Israeli military intelligence turned a blind eye to hash smuggled into and through Israel by its allies in the South Lebanon Army or by other traffickers from whom it thought it could glean intelligence.

The Lebanese Connection is too dense with chewy information to do more than touch on its contents in a review, but it is a sterling contribution to the academic literature on the global drug trade, having made a truly original contribution.  It also opens a revealing view not only on the contemporary Middle East, but contemporary terrorism, covert operations by state and non-state actors, and the making of narco-states and failed states.

It's also a very timely book, appearing as Syria bursts into flames. Syria is Lebanon writ large: many of the same ethnic and sectarian divisions are at play, as is the international meddling at several levels of proxy war, with familiar faces like the US, Britain, France, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all seeking to influence the outcome and doing goodness knows what behind the scenes. Syria, however, is not a major global drug trade hub, but careful followers of the  situation there will have noted the occasional accusations -- from both sides -- of  "criminals" being involved. Maybe in 20 years, we will have a better idea of what went on behind the scenes and the role of drug trafficking and smuggling networks there. In the meantime, The Lebanese Connection provides some insight into the forces at play.

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