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This Year's Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories

This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.

The Mexican Tragedy

San Malverde, Mexico's patron saint of narco-traffickers
Mexico's ongoing tragedy is exhibit number one in the failure of global drug prohibition. This month, the official death toll since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006 passed 30,000, with 10,000 killed this year alone. The multi-sided conflict pits the cartels against each other, cartel factions against each other, cartels against law enforcement and the military, and, at times, elements of the military and different levels of law enforcement against each other. The US has spent $1.2 billion of Plan Merida funds, mainly beefing up the police and the military, and appropriated another $600 million this summer, much of it to send more lawmen, prosecutors, and National Guard units to the border. None of it seems to make much difference in the supply of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine coming over (under, around, and through) the border, but the horrorific violence of Mexico's drug war is eroding public confidence in the state and its ability to exercise one of its essential functions: maintaining order. The slow-motion disaster has spurred talk of legalization in Mexico -- and beyond -- but there is little chance of any real movement toward that solution anytime in the near future. In the mean time, Mexico bleeds for our sins.

The Rising Clamor for a New Paradigm and an End to Drug Prohibition

The critique of the international drug policy status quo that has been growing louder and louder for the past decade or so turned into a roar in 2010. Impelled in part by the ongoing crisis in Mexico and in part by a more generalized disdain for failed drug war policies, calls for radical reform came fast and furious, and from some unexpected corners this year.

In January, the former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru called for Tahiti to legalize marijuana and sell it to European tourists to provide jobs for unemployed youth. Three months later, members of the ruling party of another island nation spoke out for reform. In traditionally tough on drugs Bermuda, leading Progressive Labor Party members called for decriminalization.

In February, an international conference of political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists in Mexico City called prohibition in Mexico a disaster and urged drug policies based on prevention, scientific evidence, and respect for human life. By August, as the wave of violence sweeping Mexico grew ever more threatening, President Felipe Calderon opened the door to a discussion of drug legalization, and although he quickly tried to slam it shut, former President Vicente Fox quickly jumped in to call for the legalization of the production, distribution, and sale of drugs. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked," he said. That inspired Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to say that he supported the call for a debate on legalization. The situation in Mexico also inspired two leading Spanish political figures, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and former drug czar Araceli Manjon-Cabeza to call for an end to drug prohibition in the fall.

Midsummer saw the emergence of the Vienna Declaration, an official conference declaration of the World AIDS Conference, which called for evidence-based policy making and the decriminalization of drug use. The declaration has garnered thousands of signatures and endorsements, including the endorsements of three former Latin American presidents, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. It has also picked up the support of public health organizations and municipalities worldwide, including the city of Vancouver.

Great Britain has also been a locus of drug war criticism this year, beginning with continuing resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Several members of the official body had quit late last year in the wake of the firing of Professor David Nutt as ACMD after he criticized government decisions to reschedule cannabis and not to down-schedule ecstasy. In April, two more ACMD members resigned, this time in response to the government's ignoring their recommendations and banning mephedrone (see below).

The revolt continued in August, when the former head of Britain's Royal College of Physicians joined the growing chorus calling for radical reforms of the country's drug laws. Sir Ian Gilmore said the government should consider decriminalizing drug possession because prohibition neither reduced crime nor improved health. That came just three weeks after Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council (the British equivalent of the ABA), called for decriminalization. The following month, Britain's leading cannabis scientist, Roger Pertwee called for cannabis to be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officer's drug committee said marijuana should be decriminalized. Chief Constable Tim Hollis said decrim would allow police to concentrate on more serious crime. The following day, the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives, were lambasted by one of their own. Ewan Hoyle called for a rational debate on drug policy and scolded the party for remaining silent on the issue. And just this past week, former Blair administration Home Office drug minister and defense minister Bob Ainsworth called for the legalization of all illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

From Mexico to Great Britain, Vancouver to Vienna, not to mention from Tahiti to Bermuda, the clamor for drug legalization has clearly grown in volume in 2010.

Opium and the Afghan War

More than nine years after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on. This year has been the deadliest so far for Western occupiers, with 697 US and NATO troops killed as of December 20. And while the US war machine is fueled by a seemingly endless supply of borrowed cash -- another $160 billion was just authorized for the coming year -- the Taliban runs to a large degree on profits from the opium and heroin trade. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. The Afghan poppy crop was down this year, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. But even that is not good news: The poppy shortage means prices will rebound and more farmers will plant next year. The West could buy up the entire poppy crop for less than what the US spends in a week to prosecute this war, but it has so far rejected that option.

The Netherlands Reins in Its Cannabis Coffee Shops

Holland's three-decade long experiment with tolerated marijuana sales at the country's famous coffee shops is probable not going to end under the current conservative government, but it is under pressure. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, local governments are putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.), and the national government is about to unveil a plan to effectively bar foreigners from the shops. The way for that was cleared this month when the European Court of Justice ruled that such a ban did not violate European Union guarantees of freedom of travel and equality under the law within the EU because what the coffee shops sell is an illegal product that promotes drug use and public disorder. Whether the "weed pass" system contemplated by opponents of "drug tourism" will come to pass nationwide remains to be seen, but it appears the famous Dutch tolerance is eroding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Do the Dutch really think most people go there just to visit the windmills and the Rijksmuseum?

Russian Takeover at the UNODC

In September, there was a changing of the guard at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one of the key bureaucratic power centers for the global drug prohibition regime. Outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, a former Italian prosecutor, was replaced by veteran Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov. Given Russia's dismal record on drug policy, especially around human rights issues, the treatment of hard drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the Russian government's insistence that the West resort to opium eradication in Afghanistan (Russia is in the throes of a heroin epidemic based on cheap Afghan smack), the international drug reform community looked askance at Fedotov's appointment. But the diplomat's first missive as ONDCP head talked of drug dependence as a disease, not something to be punished, and emphasized a concern with public health and human rights. Fedotov has shown he can talk the talk, but whether he will walk the walk remains to be seen.

US War on Coca on Autopilot

Coca production is ongoing, if down slightly, in the Andes, after more than a quarter century of US efforts to wipe it out. Plan Colombia continues to be funded, although at declining levels, and aerial and manual eradication continues there. That, and a boom in coca growing in Peru, have led to Peru's arguably retaking first place in coca production from Colombia, but have also led to increased conflict between Peruvian coca growers and a hostile national government. And remnants of the Shining Path have appointed themselves protectors of the trade in several Peruvian coca producing regions. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, military, and coca eradicators. Meanwhile, Bolivia, the world's number three coca producer continues to be governed by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, who has allowed a limited increase in coca leaf production. That's enough to upset the US, but not enough to satisfy Bolivian coca growers, who this fall forced Evo's government to repeal a law limiting coca leaf sales.

Canada Marches Boldly Backward

Canada under the Conservatives continues to disappoint. When the Liberals held power in the early part of this decade, Canada was something of a drug reform beacon, even if the Liberals could never quite get around to passing their own marijuana decriminalization bill while in power. They supported Vancouver's safe injection site and embraced harm reduction policies. But under the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada this year fought and lost (again) to shut down the safe injection site. Harper's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, in May signed extradition papers allowing "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to fall into the clutches of the Americans, in whose gulag he now resides for the next four years for selling pot seeds. And while Harper's dismissal of parliament in January killed the government's bill to introduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as five pot plants, his government reintroduced the bill this fall. It just passed the Senate, but needs to win approval in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won't be able to pass it by themselves there, so the question now becomes whether the Liberals will have the gumption to stand against it. This as polls consistently show a majority of Canadians favoring marijuana legalization.

A New Drug Generates a Tired, Old Response

When in doubt, prohibit. That would seem to be the mantra in Europe, where, confronted by the emergence of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in the khat plant, first Britain and then the entire European Union responded by banning it. Described as having effects similar to cocaine or ecstasy, mephedrone emerged in the English club scene in the past 18 months, generating hysterical tabloid press accounts of its alleged dangers. When two young people supposedly died of mephedrone early this year, the British government ignored the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which called for it to be a Schedule B drug, and banned it. Poland followed suit in September, shutting down shops that sold the drug and claiming the power to pull from the shelves any product that could be harmful to life or health. And just this month, after misrepresenting a study by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU instituted a continent-wide ban on mephedrone. Meet the newest entrant into the black market.

Heroin Maintenance Expands Slowly in Europe

Heroin maintenance continues its slow spread in Europe. In March, Denmark became the latest country to embrace heroin maintenance. The Danes thus join Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, to a lesser degree, Britain, in the heroin maintenance club. In June, British scientists rolled out a study showing heroin maintenance worked and urging the expansion of limited existing programs there. The following month, a blue-ribbon Norwegian committee called for heroin prescription trials and other harm reduction measures there. Research reports on heron maintenance programs have shown they reduce criminality among participants, decrease the chaos in their lives, and make them more amenable to integration into society.

Opium is Back in the Golden Triangle

Okay, it never really went away in Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and it is still below its levels of the mid-1990s, but opium planting has been on the increase for the last four years in the Golden Triangle. Production has nearly doubled in Burma since 2006 to more than 38,000 hectares, while in Laos, production has more than doubled since 2007. The UNODC values the crop this year at more than $200 million, more than double the estimate of last year's crop. Part of the increase is attributable to increased planting, but part is accounted for by rising prices. While Southeast Asian opium production still trails far behind that in Afghanistan, opium is back with a vengeance in the Golden Triangle.

Former British Drug Czar Says Legalize It All

Former Home Office drug minister and former Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth has called for all illegal drugs, including cocaine and heroin, to be legalized. He told the House of Commons Friday that addicts should be prescribed heroin rather than allowing global criminal organizations to handle and get rich from the illicit drug trade.

Bob Ainsworth breaks ranks with drug prohibition. (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Ainsworth called in the House of Commons for a fundamental rethink of British drug policy. Ainsworth's call was met with support from some MPs from all parties, but was roundly criticized by his own Labor Party.

Ainsworth served as head of drug policy under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and as Blair's defense minister, he oversaw the British effort to eliminate opium planting in Afghanistan.

"Prohibition has failed to protect us. Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harm to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit," Ainsworth said in remarks reported by The Independent. "We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organized criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists."

Ainsworth said his experiences in Afghanistan had been an education. "Bombs and bullets and the wherewithal to produce IEDs are bought by funds supplied by international drugs," he said. A massive NATO occupation had failed to stamp out the heroin traffic, he said, so it was now time to consider "taking the market away" by legalizing drugs.

Former deputy Conservative leader Peter Lilley said he favored legalizing marijuana, while continuing to keep hard drugs illegal. Still, he supported Ainsworth's call for a reexamination of British drug policy. "I support Bob Ainsworth's sensible call for a proper, evidence-based review, comparing the pros and cons of the current prohibitionist approach, with all the alternatives, including wider decriminalization, and legal regulation."

"This could be a turning point in the failing UK 'war on drugs,'" said Labor MP Paul Flynn, a legalization supporter.

But Labor's leadership was quick to distance itself from Ainsworth's remarks. "Bob's views do not reflect Ed's views, the party's view or indeed the view of the vast majority of the public," a spokeswoman for Labor Leader Ed Miliband said.

Ainsworth's remarks were "extremely irresponsible," said an unnamed party source. "I don’t know what he was thinking."

London
United Kingdom

Afghan Opium Supply Halved, But Not for Long, UN Warns

opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
Although the extent of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan remained unchanged from last year, opium production declined by nearly half, thanks largely to a plant disease that affected poppy fields, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Thursday. But that means rising prices could provoke an increase in cultivation, UNODC warned in the executive summary of its 2010 Afghanistan Opium Survey. The full report will be released later this year.

"This is good news but there is no room for false optimism; the market may again become lucrative for poppy-crop growers so we have to monitor the situation closely," said Yuri Fedotov, new executive director of UNODC.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin. Production of the illicit crop is centered in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, home base of the Taliban insurgents. Profits from the opium trade fund the Taliban to the tune of an estimated hundred millions of dollars each year.

UNODC said slightly more than 300,000 acres were planted with poppy this year, about the same as last year after declines the two previous years. But because of the plant disease, opium production was estimated at 3,600 metric tons, down 48% from 2009.

The disease is likely spurring opium price increases, UNODC said. Prices declined from 2005 to 2009 as production boomed and stockpiles soared, but now the price is shooting up. Last year, farmers could expect to get $64 per kilogram of opium; this year, the price has nearly tripled, to $169 per kilo.

The stability in poppy cultivation comes despite years of efforts and billions of dollars invested in suppressing the trade. The US spent $250 million on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan this year alone, according to the State Department's Office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (or "drugs and thugs," as Foggy Bottom wits like to call it).

Fedetov, a veteran Russian diplomat who took over the reins of UNODC earlier this year and whose home country is confronting high levels of heroin addiction, said a broader strategy was needed to end Afghan poppy planting. "As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch," he said.

Afghanistan

Plan Colombia: Ten Years Later

The United States has been trying to suppress Colombian coca production and cocaine trafficking since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, but the contemporary phase of US intervention in Colombia in the name of the war on drugs celebrated its 10th anniversary this week. As Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) security analyst Adam Isaacson pointed out Wednesday in a cogent essay, "Colombia: Don't Call It A Model," it was on July 13, 2000, that President Bill Clinton signed into law a $1.3 billion package of mainly military assistance known as Plan Colombia.

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Plan Colombia coca eradication scene
Plan Colombia was supposed to cut Colombian cocaine production in half by mid-decade, and while total US expenditures on it have now risen to $7.3 billion, that goal was clearly not met. But, a decade down the road, there has been some "progress." The leftist peasant guerrillas of the FARC have been seriously weakened and are operating at half the strength they were 10 years ago. Violence has steadily decreased, as has criminality. The Colombian state has been strengthened -- especially its military, which has nearly doubled in size.

Still, as Isaacson notes, those gains have come at a tremendous cost. Thousands have been killed at the hands of rightist paramilitary groups aligned with powerful landowners and political elites, and while those paramilitaries officially disbanded several years ago, they appear to be reconstituting themselves. The seemingly endless "parapolitics" scandals linking the paramilitaries to high government actors demonstrate that the price of "progress" in Colombia has been corruption, impunity and human rights abuses.

And the war continues, albeit at a lower level. Some 21,000 fighters from all sides and an estimated 14,000 civilians died in the fighting this decade, and all the while, peasants were planting and harvesting coca crops, and traffickers were turning it into cocaine and exporting it to the insatiable North American and, increasingly, European markets.

While Colombian and US policy-makers have hailed Plan Colombia as a "success," neither Isaacson nor other analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week were willing to make such unvarnished claims. "'Success' has come at a high cost," wrote Isaacson. "Colombia's security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by 'collateral damage,'" including mass killings, other human rights abuses, and the weakening of democratic institutions."

"Success has eluded efforts to achieve Plan Colombia's main goal: reducing Colombian cocaine supplies," wrote Isaacson. Despite years of aerial eradication, coca remains stubbornly entrenched in the Colombian countryside, showing a significant decline only last year, after Colombia switched its eradication emphasis from spraying to manual eradication. "This strategic shift appears to be reducing coca cultivation, for now at least. In 2009 -- a year in which both aerial and manual eradication dropped sharply -- the UNODC found a significant drop in Colombian coca-growing, to 68,000 hectares."

But, as Isaacson and others note, that decline has been offset by increases in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia. In fact, total coca cultivation in the region has remained remarkably consistent since 2003, at about 150,000 hectares per year.

"If you look at it from point of aiding the Colombian government to fight against the FARC and other insurgents, it has worked," said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin American analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "A decade ago, Colombia was close to being a failed state, with the FARC controlling large swathes of territory and threatening major cities. Today they are terribly weak and on the run, and much of their leadership has been killed," he noted.

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coca seedlings
"Due to the widespread use of helicopters and the fact that guerrillas don't have that kind of mobility, the Colombians and Americans have been successful in shrinking the area of operation available to the guerrillas, and that has hurt the guerrillas' ability to recruit," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "A few years ago, there were maybe 16,000 FARC operating in six or seven major theaters, and now it's about half that. But that doesn't necessarily mean the FARC is finished; we haven't seen any sign of that. Their options are fewer, but they are far from disappeared. Plan Colombia has been successful in empowering the Colombian military, but not so much in solving the problem of the FARC insurrection."

"On the military side, the counterinsurgency, there has been definite progress," agreed Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs and counterinsurgency expert at the Brookings Institution. "The situation in the late 1990s was very bad. The FARC was in the hills above Bogotá, and the paramilitaries were highly organized. Today, the FARC is much weaker, land travel is more possible, and other security indicators also show progress. That said, the FARC is still around in substantial numbers and can jeopardize security and economic development in particular areas. And the paramilitaries are back, even if the Colombian government insists they are not the paramilitaries. They are, for all intents and purposes, just like the paramilitaries of the 1980s and 1990s."

"The idea was that if they suppressed the coca, the capabilities of the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries would be substantially weakened," said Felbab-Brown. "They said that if you eliminated coca in Colombia, the conflict would end, but I don't think you can bankrupt the belligerents through eradication. That didn't pan out. In some places, the government was able to diminish at least temporarily economic flows to particular elements of the FARC, but that was the result of military operations, not eradication," she argued.

"A lot of people say the FARC have lost their political agenda, that they are just traffickers, but I don't subscribe to that view," said Felbab-Brown. "If someone wants to conduct a rebellion, they have to have a way to finance it. I don't think the FARC is any different. One of the big accomplishments of the US and the Colombian military was taking out a lot of top FARC leaders," she continued. "Their current leaders have been out in the jungle so long, they suffer from a lack of intellectual imagination. But the FARC are peasant guerrillas, with a few intellectuals and students, and they were never strong ideologically. There is no equivalent of Comrade Gonzalo [of Peru's Shining Path] or Mullah Omar or Bin Laden for the FARC. And I think they've run out of ideas. Times have changed, and the ideological story they want to tell the world and their members is crumbling, but it's not the case they are just interested in money. They still want power, they still believe in narratives of war and conquest, but they don't have anything to frame it with anymore."

"They are about more than just criminality," agreed Isaacson. "They're raising drug money to buy guns and those guns are for something. While their ideology may be pretty stunted at this point, they are driven by a desire to take power -- unlike, say, the Sinaloa cartel, which is driven by a desire to sell drugs. They hate Colombia's political class, and they represent that small percentage of peasants on the fringe. Those boomtowns on the frontier, that's where the FARC's base is. Wherever there is no government and people are on their own, the FARC claims to protect them. They are not bandits -- they are more dangerous than bandits."

The paramilitaries continue to wreak havoc, too, said Felbab-Brown. "They assassinate community leaders and human rights organizers," she said. "In some areas, they collude with the FARC; in others, they fight the FARC over cocaine routes and access to coca production. They are still a real menace, and it is very discouraging that they have come back so quickly. That shows the failure of the Colombian government to address the real underlying causes of the problems."

That has been a serious flaw from the beginning, the Brookings Institution analyst said. "At first Plan Colombia was aimed at root causes of conflict and coca production, but that was dropped, and in the Bush administration it morphed into a counternarcotics and counterinsurgency project. Economic development was a minor component of the plan, and the US never tried to pressure Uribe to take on economic redistribution and the distribution of political power, nor has the US been very vocal about human rights and civil liberties issues."

"When Plan Colombia was first conceived, it was primarily a domestic program aimed at drawing in the Colombian population, which at that time had become totally disaffected from the state," recalled Birns. "It was to emphasize economic development, nutrition, and education. It was the Clinton administration that militarized Plan Colombia and made it into a security doctrine rather than an economic development formula."

That only deepened in the wake of 9/11, said Birns. "Increasingly, Plan Colombia morphed first into a counternarcotics program than again into an anti-terrorist vehicle. The US began to define the FARC, which never had any international aspect, as terrorists. It was a convenience for the US policy of intervention to emphasize the terrorism aspect."

But at root, Plan Colombia was first and foremost about reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production. "It wasn't sold here in the US as a counterinsurgency effort, but as an effort to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market," Cato's Hidalgo pointed out. "If you look at the acreage of coca planted in Colombia, it has decreased, but the production of coca remains the same, and coca production is increasingly dramatically in Peru and Bolivia. Once again, we see the balloon effect at work."

"As the reduction took place in Colombia, it simply moved back to Peru, whence it originally came," concurred COHA's Birns. "Peruvian cocaine production is now half the regional total, so total cocaine production remains essentially the same, even though there has been a reduction in the role Colombia plays."

"One of the best measures to see if the supply of cocaine has decreased is to look at price, but what that tells us is that cocaine was 23% cheaper in 2007 than it was in 1998 when Plan Colombia was launched," said Hidalgo. "It is clear that Plan Colombia has failed in its main goal, which was to reduce the supply of cocaine to the US market."

"We've tried everything," said Hidalgo. "Aggressive aerial spraying of fields, manual eradication, as well as softer measures to entice producers to adopt other crops, and it's all failed. As long as the price of cocaine remains inflated by prohibition, there is big profit and a big incentive for producers and traffickers to grow the plant and export the product to the US and elsewhere. The only way to curtail this is by legalizing cocaine. Other than that, I don't see this as a battle that can be won."

Felbab-Brown called the coca and cocaine production estimates "extraordinarily squishy," but added it was clear that Plan Colombia had failed to achieve its goals there. "The plan was supposed to halve production in six years, and that clearly was not accomplished," she said. "It would be false to deny there has been some progress, but it has not been sufficient. I think it was bound not to work because it was so heavily focused on eradication in the context of violence and underemphasized the need for economic programs to address why people cultivate coca. And the larger reality is even if you succeeded in Colombia, production would have moved elsewhere."

Counternarcotics cannot solve Colombia's problems, said Felbab-Brown, because coca is not at the root of those problems. "There is only so much that counternarcotics programs can do given the basic economic and political situation in Colombia," said Felbab-Brown. "You have a set-up where labor is heavily taxed and capital and land are lightly taxed, so even when you get economic growth, it doesn't generate jobs, it only concentrates money in the hands of the rich. The Colombian government has been unwilling to address these issues, and inequality continues to grow. You can only do so much if you can't generate legal jobs. You have to take on entrenched elites, the bases of political power in Colombia, and Uribe's people are not interested in doing that."

But Uribe will be gone next month, replaced by his elected successor, Juan Manuel Santos. That could mean change, said Isaacson. "He's not as ideologically to the right as Uribe, some of his appointments indicate people who actually have an interest in governance, and he is the principle author of the program they're carrying out in the countryside to get the state and not just the military out there," he said. "He could also be more open to the idea of peace negotiations than Uribe was."

That may or may not be the case, but Plan Colombia under whatever president is not going to solve Colombia's drug problem -- nor America's, said Isaacson. "At home, we need to reduce demand through treatment and other options," he said. "In Colombia, as long as you have parts of the country ungoverned and as long as members of the government have nothing to fear if they abuse the population, there will always be drugs. Colombia needs to build the state and do it without impunity. We built up the Colombian military, but there was no money for teachers, doctors, or any public good besides security."

Afghanistan: Fungus Afflicts Poppy Crop, Farmers Blame US, NATO

Opium production in Afghanistan could be reduced by as much as a quarter this year because a fungal disease is afflicting the crop, UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa told the BBC Wednesday. Farmers are quick to point the finger at the US and NATO, although evidence that the disease is anything but a natural phenomenon is lacking.

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anti-opium posters, Nejat Center, Kabul
Costa said the fungus may have infected half the country's poppy crop. He added that opium prices had increased by about 50% in the areas affected.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's illicit opium. Increasing prices could mean increased revenues for Taliban insurgents, Costa suggested. The Taliban is sitting on large stockpiles of opium left from record levels of production in the last few years.

The fungus is appearing primarily in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the heartland of both the Taliban and current Afghan opium production. US and NATO forces are about to launch major offensives in the area to try to clear and secure it. In a bid to win popular support in the region, the US has backed away from previously supported eradication campaigns, choosing instead to target drug traffickers linked to the insurgents. In the Bush administration, some officials had argued for the use of aerial spraying of herbicides, but that was rejected.

Still, some farmers think the US and NATO are poisoning their crops. Farmer Haji Mohammad in Nawzad told the BBC that he had seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of opium he was able to harvest. He described the fungus as an "aerial spray." He said his poppy harvest had shrunk 990 pounds last year to nine pounds this year.

"[It]... has affected my wheat cultivation and my chickens and other animals as well," he said. "The powder sprayed has a white color and I think it is chemical and if you squeeze it in your hand, water comes out of it."

Other farmers in the region also said they had seen a white substance on their crops. They, too, reported extensive crop damage and that livestock had been affected.

But Costa denied that the West was using biological warfare in Afghanistan. "I don't see any reasons to believe something of that sort," he said. "Opium plants have been affected in Afghanistan on a periodic basis."

India: Maoist Rebels Find Funding Source in Poppies, Pot Plants

India's Maoist insurgents, also known as Naxalites, are partially funding their long-running rebellion with profits from illicit opium poppy and cannabis crops, according to a new report from the Institute for Conflict Management. The groups also fund themselves through taxation of major corporations, farmers, and small businesses in areas they control.

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areas where Naxalite movement is active (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Known officially as the Communist Party of India-Maoist, the Naxalites emerged in 1967 after splitting from the Communist Party of India-Marxist, and have been engaged in an on-again, off-again rebellion against the Indian state ever since. Originally centered in West Bengal, the Naxalites now operate in 20 of India's 28 states in districts comprising about 40% of the national territory. They are especially strong in rural eastern India, where they control 92,000 square kilometers in the so-called "Red Corridor" running through Chhattisgarh and Andra Pradesh states.

The Naxalites are estimated to have between 10,000 and 20,000 men under arms, tens of thousands more organized into local militias, and sympathizers numbering in the millions. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called them the single greatest internal threat to Indian security.

On Tuesday, in their toughest blow against Indian security forces since the rebellion began, Naxalites ambushed and killed 75 paramilitary police in Chhattisgarh state. Of a paramilitary expedition of 82 persons, only seven survived, and they were all wounded.

While India is one of a handful of countries licensed to produce opium for the legal medical market, it is also the home of substantial illicit poppy cultivation and, according to the report, the Naxalites are profiting from unlicensed opium fields in Jharkhand and Bihar states. Indian authorities report they destroyed opium crops worth $270 million on the black market in 2007. What is unknown is how much was harvested, with the profits ending up in Naxalite war chests.

The Maoists are also making money off cannabis. According to the 2008 Mohanty Commission of Inquiry, the CPI-Maoist and its front groups were behind extensive cannabis cultivation in Orissa state. One group, People's War, which later merged with the CPI-Maoist, was allegedly in charge of between 7,500 and 10,000 acres sown with cannabis.

Indian government officials have been urged to undertake opium eradication campaigns to undercut the Naxalites. They believe the Naxalites are not only benefitting from the illicit trade, but that cultivation of thousands of acres is taking place under their supervision.

In addition to buying guns, including heavy weapons, with the profits, the Naxalites are also spending on vehicles, including motorbikes with special tires to navigate the forests, supplies, communications equipment, and salaries for unemployed rural youth who join the armed struggle, the report said.

Southwest Asia: Afghanistan #1 in Marijuana Production Now, Not Just Opium

In a report released this week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that Afghanistan is now the world's largest cannabis producer, surpassing Morocco. Afghanistan is already well entrenched as the world's largest opium poppy producer as well, supplying more than 90% of the illicit global market for opium and heroin.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In the report, the Afghanistan Cannabis Survey 2009, the UNODC estimated the extent of Afghan cannabis production at between 25,000 and 60,000 acres. While the number of acres under production is lower than in Morocco, the robust yields from Afghan cannabis -- about 90 kilograms of cannabis resin (hashish) per acre versus about 25 kilograms per acre in Morocco -- make Afghanistan the world leader in cannabis production, the UNODC said. Afghanistan is producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 tons of hash a year, the report estimated.

"This report shows that Afghanistan's drug problem is even more complex than just the opium trade," said Antonio Maria Costa, head of UNODC in the report. "Reducing Afghanistan's cannabis supply should be dealt with more seriously, as part of the national drug control strategy."

Cannabis production is occurring in exactly half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the report found. It noted that production was shifting from the north -- the traditional locus of cannabis planting in the country -- to the south and east, the areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and the government presence weakest.

As with opium, some of the profits from the hash trade are ending up in the pockets of the Taliban. The insurgents typically siphon off millions of dollars by imposing taxes on farmers and smugglers to ensure safe passage of their goods.

"Like opium, cannabis cultivation, production and trafficking are taxed by those who control the territory, providing an additional source of revenue for insurgents," the report said.

The report estimates annual farm gate income from cannabis at between $39 million and $94 million a year, a fraction of the size of the opium trade, but still not an insignificant sum. Some 40,000 farm families generate income from cannabis growing, including families that are also growing opium. The UNODC said that farmers can earn a net income of $3,300 per year growing cannabis, compared to $2,000 growing opium.

For the UNODC, rising cannabis production should be responded to in the same way the West has responded to Afghan opium production. "As with opium, the bottom line is to improve security and development in drug-producing regions in order to wean farmers off illicit crops and into sustainable, licit livelihoods, and to deny insurgents another source of illicit income," Costa said.

But Afghanistan is arguably the home of cannabis, with strains like "Afghani" still highly valued by connoisseurs. It is difficult to imagine that there will ever be a time when there is no Afghani being grown in Afghanistan.

Feature: Chronicle of an Offensive Foretold -- The Occupation of Marja, Afghanistan

America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.

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opium field in Marja (from unodc.org)
The thousands of new troops are to provide the muscle to wrest and hold territory from the Taliban. The new drug strategy is designed to win over Afghan farmers long enough for economic development projects to take hold once the troops and their NATO and Afghan Army counterparts secure key areas.

One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.

The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)

Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.

The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.

Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.

While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.

And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.

Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.

"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."

Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.

She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."

Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."

It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."

Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.

"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."

The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."

The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."

The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."

"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."

The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.

"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."

"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."

It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.

"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."

Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."

Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."

The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).

Afghanistan: Opium Cultivation "Stable" This Year, UN Says

After declining for the last two years, opium cultivation in Afghanistan will remain close to 2009 levels, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report Wednesday. The report, the agency's annual winter opium survey is based on reports from farming villages about whether they planted opium last fall.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/unodc-afghanistan-map-2010.jpg
UNODC opium growing season map
Afghanistan supplies about 90% of the world's illicit opium, the raw ingredient in heroin. The opium trade accounts for somewhere between one-third and one-half of the Afghan economy. Profits from the trade fund not only Taliban insurgents, but also regional warlords and corrupt politicians.

Afghan opium production peaked at 8,200 tons in 2007 and was estimated at 6,900 tons last year. This year's production should be similar, although the UNODC held out the hope that drought could reduce production even if the same amount of land is planted. Global demand for illicit opium is estimated at about 5,000 tons a year.

"Overall, the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan is likely to remain stable in 2010 but the number of poppy-free provinces may decrease," from 20 to 17, the report said. "However, if timely poppy eradication measures are implemented and/or drought conditions prevail, a total of 25 provinces -- an increase of five compared to 2009 -- could be poppy-free in 2010."

The report surveyed 536 Afghan villages and found that 35% said they had planted opium for the 2010 harvest. Farmers cited better prices for opium than for other crops. While the price of dry opium has declined by 6% from last year, and the price of raw opium by 13%, prices for competing crops have declined every more severely. The farm gate price for corn is down 38% and wheat is down 43%.

"None of Afghanistan's licit agricultural products can currently match the gross income per hectare from opium, although the difference is not as high as it used to be some years ago," the report said.

Villages that reported opium cultivation tended to be villages that were outside effective government control. Nearly 80% of villages with poor security conditions grew poppy, while only 7% of villages with "very good security" did.

"This is further proof of the overlap between high insecurity and high cultivation," UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement. "The message is clear: in order to further reduce the biggest source of the world's deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan."

Southern Helmand province produces more than half of all Afghan opium. US and NATO forces backed by the Afghan military are preparing a major offensive aimed at breaking the back of the opium trade there. It could be underway by the time you read these words.

[Ed: It would have been more accurate for Costa to say there is overlap between high insecurity and where cultivation ends up being located. Someone is going to grow to supply the demand, if not in the current locations, then in other parts of Afghanistan or in other countries. If NATO's hope is to deny its profits to the Taliban by shifting it elsewhere -- to parts of Afghanistan not controlled by the Taliban, or even to other countries -- perhaps they can accomplish that; that's a military question. If they are claiming they will reduce surplus growing, perhaps they can even accomplish that. But supply will not drop below the level needed to supply the global demand, at least not for longer than the stockpiles that presumably exist from prior years' surpluses can hold out.]

Afghanistan: US Anti-Drug Strategy Lacking, State Department Report Finds

The US counternarcotics mission in Afghanistan, a key element in Western efforts to defeat the Taliban, is short on long-term strategy, clear objectives, and a plan to hand over responsibility to Afghan authorities, the State Department said in a report released last Wednesday. The report was written by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General.

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opium poppies
The department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (known colloquially as "drugs and thugs") is responsible for shaping and administering counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, but it is not doing its job very well, the report said. "The department has not clarified an end state for counternarcotics efforts, engaged in long-term planning or established performance measures," it noted.

With the Taliban making hundreds of millions of dollars a year off the Afghan opium and heroin trade, a smart, effective counternarcotics strategy is critical to US plans to defeat the Taliban by sending in an additional 30,000 troops. There are already 68,000 US and NATO troops in the country, where they have suffered their worst losses so far this year. The number of US military dead in Afghanistan this year sits at 310, exactly double the number killed last year. Overall US and NATO fatalities topped 500 this year, up from 300 last year.

While an effective anti-drug policy may be critical to US plans, it may also be impossible to achieve. As analysts consulted by the Chronicle five years ago -- when opium production was just beginning to reemerge as a problem area -- noted, opium is deeply implicated in the Afghan economy, with more than a million families dependent on it for a living.

"In this case, even if you support drug prohibition in general, the war on drugs is not something we can pursue if we want a rational, effective policy in Afghanistan," said Ted Galen Carpenter, an international affairs analyst for the Cato Institute. "It will undermine everything else we're trying to achieve. The international supply side drug war is complete folly no matter where it is applied, but even if you don't accept that analysis, one ought to be aware that our top priority needs to be going after radical Islamic terrorists, not Afghan farmers," he said.

But heeding the views of the bureau's hard-line drug warriors, the report said that poppy eradication was "essential" to the success of the strategy. But Richard Holbrook, Obama's emissary to the region, abruptly ended the US role in eradication earlier this year, arguing that it served only to alienate poor poppy farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. Instead, Western forces have concentrated on capturing or killing traffickers linked to the Taliban.

Even so, the report found, the bureau had "no clear strategy for transitioning and exiting from counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan." It added that while Afghan contractors working on poppy eradication were meeting agreed-upon goals, vague performance measures in their contracts made it difficult to tell how effective they were.

The report did cut the bureau some slack, noting that it faced tough challenges in Afghanistan, including "a weak justice system, corruption and the lack of political will" in the Afghan government. It also acknowledged the powerful economic incentives for poor Afghan farmers to grow opium poppies.

It recommended setting "a defined end state" for US anti-drug programs, in-country monitoring of contractors, and establishing benchmarks for measuring the Afghan takeover of anti-drug programs.

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