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In Bid to Blunt Black Market, California Eyes Marijuana Tax Cuts [FEATURE]

Steve D’Angelo was prescient. As the era of legal recreational marijuana in California began just over a year ago, the East Bay medical marijuana maven expressed concerned that taxes on the newly legal industry were too high.

“It’s going to mean that a significant number of people, less affluent consumers are going to turn to the lower prices of the underground market,” he told KPIX 5 on January 1, 2018, the day it became legal in the state.

A year later D’Angelo’s concerns have been borne out. The state had estimated that retail marijuana sales would exceed the $3 billion in 2017 sales, which came solely from medical marijuana outlets, but instead legal sales actually declined to $2.5 billion.

As a result, tax revenues for the state are significantly lower than projected. The FY 2018 state budget estimated $185 million in marijuana sales taxes, but actually gathered only about $84 million. And based on January sales, the FY 2019 budget, which estimated tax revenues at $630 million, now looks to be overly optimistic. The latest projections have tax revenues for the fiscal year at $471 million.

In California, legal pot sales are saddled with a $9.25 per ounce cultivation tax paid by growers, as well as a 15 percent retail excise tax and a 7.25 percent retail sales tax paid by consumers. When you add in local taxes, pot buyers in some counties could be paying as much as 45 percent in aggregate tax on legal weed.

To be clear, high taxes aren’t the only things strangling the state’s legal marijuana market. Industry figures and analysts point to two other factors as well: The state’s onerous and costly regulatory requirements are keeping many growers and retailers from leaving the black market, and the refusal by many localities to allow legal marijuana sales in their jurisdictions has left broad swaths of the state with no alternative but the black market. (In a bid to boost the legal market, the state last month okayed plans for statewide deliveries no matter what localities say.)

Still, cutting the tax rate is something that could begin to make a dent in the black market. Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced a pot tax cut bill last year that was defeated, but now, with a year’s worth of disappointing marijuana market news to provide momentum, he’s back again with another pot tax cut bill this year.

Late last month, with three cosponsors Bonta refiled Assembly Bill 286, which proposes eliminating the $148 per pound cultivation tax and reducing the 15 percent retail excise tax to 11 percent for three years. The bill also has the support of newly elected state Treasurer Fiona Ma.

 “The black market continues to undercut businesses that are complying with state regulations and doing things the right way,” Bonta said as he rolled out the bill. “AB 286 will temporarily reduce the tax burden on these licensed operators to keep customers at licensed businesses and help ensure the regulated market survives and thrives. This very strategy has been shown to actually increase overall tax revenue in other states.”

One of the cosponsors is Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale), who authored an identical bill last year. That bill made it through two committees, only to die in Assembly Appropriations.

“Right now, the illicit market is dominating California’s cannabis industry,” said Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale). “These are bad people who are making our communities unsafe.  We need to give the good guys a chance to succeed otherwise our one chance at creating a regulated industry will be compromised.”

Bonta and his colleagues pointed to the experience of legal marijuana states Oregon and Washington, which have successfully taken steps to reduce tax rates and encourage the growth of the legal market. Washington saw exponential growth in marijuana tax revenue after it simplified its tax structure and reduced its rates. Tax revenues there jumped from $13.4 million in the final month of the initial tax rate in June 2015 to more than $33 million in April 2017.

“By lowering the excise tax and postponing the cultivation tax it will lower the overall price for consumers at the register, which will also reduce the differential between illicit and legal prices. Reducing this gap is critical to making the legal market more competitive against the illicit market and more attractive for consumers,” said Beau Whitney, Senior Economist at New Frontier Data.

Fixing California’s pot taxes clearly won’t resolve all the issues the state faces as it makes the transition to the world’s largest legal marijuana market, but it’s a start. 

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In Historic First, Denver Will Vote on Decriminalizing Magic Mushrooms [FEATURE]

Its official: Voters in Denver will go to the polls in May to decide whether to allow residents to use and possess magic mushrooms and psilocybin, the hallucinogenic substance that makes those mushrooms so magic, without fear of criminal penalty. The city's Election Division confirmed last Friday that an initiative petition to decriminalize the mushrooms had received enough signatures to qualify for the May 7 municipal ballot.

magic mushrooms (Creative Commons)
That will mark the first time any jurisdiction in the United States has taken up the issue. A California statewide initiative campaign last year failed to achieve any traction and never made it to the ballot. An Oregon statewide initiative is aiming at the 2020 ballot, but if it makes it, that vote will take place a year and a half after the Denver vote.

Denver is building a reputation as a leader in progressive drug policy. Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize marijuana in 2012, and in 2016 Denver became the first city in the country to allow for the consumption of marijuana at retail establishments, including bars.

The group behind the initiative, Decriminalize Denver, wants to make the use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms by people 21 and over the city's "lowest law enforcement priority." The initiative would also prevent the city from using its resources to punish adults who are caught using or possessing the mushrooms.

What the proposed ordinance would not do is legalize the sale of the drug in retail shops. One step at a time is the apparent plan.

"We're a pretty progressive city when it comes to drug policy," Decriminalize Denver director Kevin Matthews told NBC News. Still, he said he didn't foresee magic mushroom retail stores similar to pot shops "in the near future."

The initiative has won the approval of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is pushing more broadly for drug decriminalization.

"Under current Colorado law, with the exception of marijuana, simple drug possession can carry felony charges leading to devastating consequences including incarceration and a lifelong criminal record. People across the state want to do things differently," said Art Way, the group's Colorado state director. "While psilocybin is behind a relatively small portion of these arrests, it's terrific that Denver voters will have the opportunity to chip away at the drug war through this initiative."

Even if the initiative were to pass, magic mushrooms would remain illegal under both state and federal law, which considers them a Schedule I controlled substance -- the most dangerous, with no approved medical use and high potential for abuse--a designation shared with heroin, ecstasy, and, bizarrely enough, marijuana.

But are magic mushrooms really so dangerous? The Global Drug Survey, with more than 120,000 participants in more than 50 countries, doesn't think so. Of the more than 12,000 people who reported taking the drug in the 2016 survey, only 0.2 percent required emergency medical treatment, a rate dramatically lower than for ecstasy, LSD, or cocaine.

"Magic mushrooms are one of the safest drugs in the world," addiction psychiatrist and Global Drug Survey founder Adam Winstock told The Guardian, adding that the biggest risk was that people could pick and eat the wrong mushrooms. "Death from toxicity is almost unheard of with poisoning with more dangerous fungi being a much greater risk in terms of serious harms."

Still, magic mushrooms aren't completely harmless, Winstock said. "Combined use with alcohol and use within risky or unfamiliar settings increase the risks of harm most commonly accidental injury, panic and short-lived confusion, disorientation and fears of losing one's mind." In some cases, people can experience panic attacks, he added, advising people who are thinking about using them to "plan your trip carefully with trusted company in a safe place and always know what mushrooms you're using."

Come May, we will see whether voters in Denver are ready to take the next step in progressive drug reform.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of Drug War Chronicle.

The 6 Worst Governors When it Comes to Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

It's a fundamental of our political system that governors play a critical role in shaping policy at the state level—and even beyond. Governors can use their position as a bully pulpit to advance their agenda, they can use their budget proposals or empower commissions to shape legislation, and they have the power to kill legislation they don't like with their veto pens.

And because Congress has so far refused to act to end federal marijuana prohibition, the role of state governors in marijuana policy is even more important. While they can't simply wave a magic wand to enact their desires, gubernatorial support or opposition can make or break a marijuana reform bill.

With public opinion having shifted dramatically in favor of marijuana legalization—an October Gallup poll had support nationwide at 66 percent, including even a majority of Republicans—and several years worth of legalization to look at in pioneering states such as Colorado and Washington, more and more governors are getting on the legalization bandwagon.

Last week, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) released its 2019 US Governors Scorecard. It gave each governor a letter grade from A to F based on a combination of legislative history, policy positions taken, and public comments on the issue. NORML was pretty happy with what it found.

“There exists unprecedented political support among U.S. governors for marijuana policy reform,” the group noted, pointing to A grades going to nine governors, all of them Democrats. That's up dramatically from the two A grades handed out just last year. Similarly, seven governors, six of them Democrats, saw their grades improve over last year.

Several newly elected Democratic governors, such as Ned Lamont of Connecticut, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, and Tim Walz of Minnesota actively campaigned on a pledge to legalize marijuana, while re-elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also broken dramatically toward legalization. It's a winning issue for Democrats.

But support for legalization is “more partisan than ever before,” NORML points out. “While almost half of all Democratic governors are now on record in support of adult use regulation, no Republican governors publicly advocate for this policy.”

NORML graded 46 governors, saying it had insufficient data to grade the other four. Of the 23 Republican governors only five (22 percent) received a passing grade of C or higher, while among the 23 Democratic governors all but one (96 percent) got at least a C. Of the nine governors getting an A, all were Democrats. Of the four governors getting an F, all were Republicans.

Here are the governors graded the worst by NORML. The list contains the four governors graded F as well as the two governors graded D-. They are all Republicans.

1. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey: D-. Ducey opposed a 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, saying “I don't know how we make ourselves a stronger state or a better place through this initiative. Almost everything outside of our economy and education that I have to deal with in this state has a common culprit of drug abuse and addiction.” After the measure was narrowly defeated, he said. “Fortunately, Arizona is a place where common sense can still work. We fought very hard and we won this round.”

2. Idaho Gov. Brad Little: F. Little just took office this month, but is on record opposing marijuana legalization and supports only the most limited of pilot programs permitting the use of CBD, but not its broader legalization. He has also expressed concern that allowing hemp cultivation—which is now legal under federal law—would serve as “camouflage for the marijuana trade.”

3. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant: D-. While he allowed an extremely limited CBD bill to become law, that law provides no in-state supply for those products, and he remains vocally opposed to marijuana legalization: "We're not going to consider it in Mississippi as long as I'm governor," he said. At least he's term-limited out in 2020.

4. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts: F. A firm foe of marijuana legalization, Ricketts has complained bitterly about neighboring Colorado's legal marijuana regime, saying it imposed a burden on western Nebraska law enforcement (which is presumably forced to sit on the side of highways coming out of Colorado and pull over people looking for pot). Ricketts also opposes medical marijuana absent any firm study by the Food and Drug Administration. He and his fellow Cornhuskers have apparently forgotten that the state was once a leader in progressive pot policy, having decriminalized it during that first wave in the 1970s.

5. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine: F. DeWine just took office this month, but as state attorney general he declined to comment on whether the Justice Department should go after medical marijuana users and providers in the state. When running for governor, he opposed a statewide initiative that would have diverted many low-level drug users from prison and came out firmly “against the legalization of recreational marijuana,” even falsely claiming that its legalization in other states had led to increased use among youth.

6. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem: F. Noem hasn't been in office long enough to do any damage, but she thinks marijuana is “a gateway drug” and vowed that “As governor, I will oppose all attempts to legalize marijuana.” She has the distinction of governing over the only state in the country that makes it a crime to have used marijuana.  

5 Things We Now Know After 5 Years of Legal Marijuana in Colorado [FEATURE]

It's been five years since the era of legal marijuana sales began in Colorado, and that's been enough time to begin to be able to see what sorts of impact the freeing of the weed has had on the Rocky Mountain State. From the economy and the fiscal health of the state government to law enforcement and public safety, legalizing marijuana has consequences.

Denver's skyline (Creative Commons)
Thanks to marijuana sales reports and tax revenue reports from the state Department of Revenue, as well as a legislatively mandated biennial report from the Division of Criminal Justice, we can see what some of those consequences are.

1. They sure buy a lot of weed in Colorado, and the state's coffers are filling up with marijuana tax revenues. Total marijuana sales in the state were more than $683 million in 2014—the year legal sales began—and have since more than doubled to more than $1.4 billion last year. Since legalization, the amount of legal weed sold in the state has now topped $6 billion. That's created nearly 20,000 jobs, and it has also generated more than $900 million for the state government in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees. Tax revenues have increased every year since legalization and those dollars help fund public school projects, as well as human services, public affairs, agriculture, labor and employment, judicial affairs, health care policy, transportation and regulatory affairs. Pot revenues still only account for one percent of state revenues, but every $900 million helps.

2. Marijuana arrests are way down, but black people are still getting busted disproportionately. Even though pot is legalized, there are still ways to get arrested on a marijuana charge, such as possessing more than an ounce or selling or growing unlicensed weed. Still, arrests have declined dramatically, dropping by 56 percent during the legalization era. Both possession and sales offenses declined, but arrests for unlawful production were up markedly, reflecting the state's continuing fight to eliminate the black market. The age group most likely to get busted was 18-20-year-olds, who can only legally use or possess marijuana if they have a medical card. They are getting busted at a rate 30 times that of adults. Arrests are way down among all ethnic/racial groups, but black people are still getting arrested for pot at a rate nearly twice that of whites.

3. Legalization has not led to more traffic fatalities. While the number of car drivers in fatal wrecks had marijuana in their systems has increased dramatically, the report notes that “detection of cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system.” Marijuana DUIs were up three percent, but fatal traffic accidents involving marijuana-impaired drivers actually decreased by five percent.

4. Use rates are up slightly among adults, but not among teens. The number of adults who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days has increased by 2 percent, with nearly one-fifth of men reporting past month use. That's almost double the number of women reporting past month use. These are high rates of use compared to the nation as a whole, but the state has always had relatively high use rates, even dating back before legalization. (There is a chicken and egg question here: Do Coloradans like to smoke pot because weed is legal or is weed legal because Coloradans like to smoke pot?) But what about the kids? Well, the kids are alright. Marijuana use rates among middle and high school students have been unchanged since legalization, and so have graduation rates.

5. Emergency room visits linked to marijuana increased. Some 575 people presented to hospitals with marijuana-related problems back in 2000, but that number jumped to more than 3,500 by 2016. Emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers were both up. It's important to note, however, that the vast majority of marijuana-related ER visits are related to panic or anxiety reactions and end with the patient eventually calming down and going home. Marijuana ER visits are not life-The rise is also likely a function of new, naive users, especially of edibles, biting off more than they can chew.

Does Kratom Kill? [FEATURE]

Kratom, an herbal drug derived from a Southeast Asian tree that acts somewhat like an opioid, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of people use it for energy and pain relief in small doses and as a substitute for or to get off of opioids such as heroin or prescription pain pills in larger doses.

kratom capsules (Creative Commons)
It is legal under federal law, although even though the DEA announced in 2016 it planned to criminalize it by placing it on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act -- a move it was forced to walk back following a loud public outcry. It is currently available online, as well as retail outlets across the country -- except in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, all of which have criminalized it at the state or municipal level.

With the DEA out of the way, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took up the regulatory mantle, issuing various recalls for contaminated kratom products and attempting to rein in the booming kratom market. In November 2017, the FDA issued a hair-on-fire press release about the "deadly risks" of kratom use, warning that some 36 deaths nationwide were "associated" with the Southeast Asian herb. In March 2018, the FDA revised the number of deaths "associated" with kratom to 44.

Those numbers were savaged by the American Kratom Association, representing both users and sellers, in a policy report released in response to the FDA claims. That report examined the 33 cases for which information was available and found that the vast majority of them involved the use of multiple drugs, and in none of the cases was kratom shown to actually be responsible for the death.

For example, one case cited by the FDA involved an individual who drank alcohol, smoked heroin and took Xanax and Narco as well as kratom on the evening of his death. In another case cited by the FDA, the cause of death was not even an overdose but the suicide by hanging by a person with alcohol and benzodiazepines in his system, as well as a history of mental health issues.

In yet another case the FDA called kratom-related, the victim was a 300-pound man who died of pulmonary thromboemboli caused by deep vein thrombosis, who, in addition to having kratom in his system, had also consumed opioids, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, oxycodone, fluoxetine, norfluxoetine, trazodone, alprazolam, nordiazepan, and gabapentin.

"None of the case reports released to date support the evidentiary standard required by the CSA to prove there is a risk to the public health that relies primarily on the FDA claim of ‘numerous deaths associated with kratom,'" concluded report author Jane Babin.

Now, new research reported in a January 2 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine casts further doubt on the FDA's contentions about dangerousness. In that study, researchers at the University of Colorado examined 15 kratom-related deaths in the state and found that in all but one other opioids were present.

"When cases are considered kratom-only deaths, there really should be additional testing done, because in all of the cases we examined, we found other drugs involved when we did more comprehensive testing," said lead researcher Dr. Andrew Monte, an associate professor of emergency medicine.

Although the evidence that kratom is a killer is weak, Monte told it likely increases the risk of overdose when mixed with other drugs, but not when used alone. That led him to support a ban on the drug, although he acknowledged it could help people trying to get off opioids.

"It's probably worth examining what therapeutic role this may have," he said. "This may be a very good, reasonable option for opioid withdrawal for some patients."

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Americans are deciding for themselves that it works for them.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Year in Drugs II: Good, Bad, and Ugly Global Drug Policy in 2018 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Domestic Drug Stories of 2018 piece here.)

It's been a year we couldn't wait to put behind us, but as 2018 comes to an end, we can look back on some advances on the international drug policy front, as well as continued brutal and regressive responses from some quarters. Here are 10 of the global drug policy stories that shaped the year, for better or worse:

Iranian drug executions have come to a screeching halt in one of the good news stories of 2018. (handsoffcain.info)
1. Drug Death Penalty Reforms Cause Massive Drop in Executions

Early this year, it became official: Iran had reformed its death penalty statutes to radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses, and it had done so retroactively, saving the lives of thousands already on death row. By mid-year, it was clear that the move was having an impact, as human rights observers reported a 99% reduction in drug executions, with only one person being executed for drugs as of June, compared to more than a hundred during the same period in 2017.

2. Canada Becomes the First G8 Country to Legalize Marijuana

Justin Trudeau pledged that he was elected prime minister, his government would legalize marijuana. It didn't happen as fast as he would have liked, but the Liberals' legalization bill passed parliament in June and went into effect on October 17. So far, the sky has not fallen.

3. Medical Marijuana Earns Growing Acceptance

The year began with Thailand announcing a plan to allow medical marijuana and ended with Thailand approving it and becoming the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But in the meantime, Israeli pharmacies began selling medical marijuana in April, Zimbabwe legalized it in May, and Portugal and Luxembourg followed suit in June. In November, Great Britain joined the club, and Greece issued its first medical marijuana production licenses. Late in the year, in South Korea, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's drug laws that will pave the way for the use of medical marijuana by prescription, and New Zealand also approved it in December Not a bad year for medical marijuana.

Canadian Senate
4. The Philippines Drug War Continues, But Pressures Mount…

The bloody drug war of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continued apace in 2018, with a death toll now put at 12, 000 (20,000 by some estimates), but Duterte has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. In February, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aimed broadsides at the Philippines even as the International Criminal Court began "preliminary examinations" of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case before the court. In March, activists called out drug war human rights abuses at the embassy in Washington, DC. By July, an unbowed Duterte was vowing to continue a "relentless and chilling" drug war even as national human rights groups said he was using it as a cover for assassinating political opponents. In September, he unleashed an attack on a second drug war critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, after last year imprisoning critic Senator Leila de Lima on trumped up drug charges. She is still imprisoned.

5.. ...and the Rot Spreads in the Region

Following the lead of the Philippines, other countries in the region have also embraced drug war thuggery and human rights abuses. In May, the Bangladeshi opposition warned of a wave of police killings of drug suspects, and within weeks, more than a hundred were killed and 20,000 arrested, even as evidence emerged that the crackdown was being used to hide political assassinations. The situation was fraught enough that the UN human rights head and even the US State Department expressed concern. Drug war killings were also reported in Indonesia, although there were mixed signals about moves toward reforms there, and Sri Lanka vowed to begin hanging drug dealers. Paradoxically though, a Malaysian court's imposition of a death sentence on a man for providing cannabis oil to patients now appears to have resulted in a moratorium on the death sentence and could end the death penalty in its entirety in the county.

6. The US President Aligns Himself With Global Drug War Authoritarians

President Donald Trump was a baleful presence on the global drug policy stage this past year, sympathizing with drug war authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, as well as drug death penalty countries such as China and Singapore. He said early in the year he wants to execute all drug dealers and admires the Singapore approach (mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking), a statement that moved more than 150 organizations to condemn his call. At year's end, he was singing a similar tune with a ghoulish call for more Chinese drug executions. In between, he went to the United Nations to try to gin up a reinvigorated global drug war.

coca leaves drying by highway
7. South Africa Legalizes Marijuana

In a case brought by three marijuana users, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the private possession, cultivation, and consumption of marijuana is legal. "It will not be a criminal offense for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wrote in his ruling. It will, however, remain illegal to use cannabis in public and to sell and supply it. The ruling did not set allowable quantities, with the court saying parliament had two years to come up with a new law that reflected the ruling.

8. Glimmers of Hope in Mexico

then-President Felipe Calderon unleashed the latest chapter of the country's drug wars, bringing violence to levels not seen before in the country, Mexico is showing signs it is ready for change. The death toll from prohibition-related violence is higher than ever, and that is impelling a psh for change, most notably with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is very open to finding exits from the drug war, whether it's legalized opium production in Guerrero, granting amnesty for non-violent drug trafficking offenders, or legalizing marijuana. And speaking of legalizing marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court in November struck down the ban on marijuana possession, cultivation, and use. Now, Lopez Obrador's governing MORENA Party has filed a bill to legalize marijuana sales. Tackling the violence, may be a bit more difficult.

9. Colombia Sees a Record Coca Crop as US Cocaine Deaths Rise

Efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels have not gone well, and that's causing rising worry in Washington. In June, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2017 production was at an all-time high, prompting expressions of concern from the drug czar's office and support from President Trump for new rightist Colombian President Ivan Duque's "head-on fight against drug trafficking." That could include a renewed resort to aerial fumigation, even drones, as well as forced eradication of coca crops, leading to renewed conflict in cultivation zones. Meanwhile, cocaine is now the third leading cause of drug overdose deaths, trailing only fentanyl and heroin.

Vienna International Centre, home to the UN drug agencies
10. Historic UN Cannabis Review Hits Last-Minute Procedural Delay

In June and again in November, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) met to consider the evidence on cannabis (marijuana) and its placement in the UN drug scheduling system, which determines whether or what level of control the UN drug conventions mandate that countries maintain for the substance. The conventions specify that substances should receive such an evaluation before being scheduled, but that never happened for marijuana. Observers believe the process should lead to marijuana being moved to a less restrictive schedule than it is in currently -- if the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) votes to adopt such a recommendation from ECDD.

That didn't happen when, earlier this month, WHO voted to delay release of ECDD's recommendations until January, for unexplained reasons. That may mean they get taken up at the main annual CND meeting in Vienna in March, rather than December's intersessional. The delay seems unusual, and probably political, but its intent is unclear.

The next few months may tell. In the meanwhile, ECDD says that CBD shouldn't be scheduled at all. But that didn't stop the US FDA from saying that treaties require it be scheduled, even though they also think it shouldn't be.

In Rare Show of Bipartisanship, Senate Passes Prison and Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate on Tuesday approved a major prison and sentencing reform bill, the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to pass it easily, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

Give Chuck Grassley some kudos for shepherding the passage of the bill. (senate.gov)
Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill added significant sentencing reform provisions to a prison reform bill passed earlier by the House.

"The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who've put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society," Grassley said on the Senate floor after the vote. "It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses."

"I think we showed something which most American people wouldn't have believed -- that a bipartisan group of Senators from across the political spectrum could tackle one of the toughest political issues of our day, assemble an array of support -- left, right, and center -- from members of the Senate as well as organizations devoted to law enforcement as well as civil rights, and at the end of it have something we all felt was a fair product to send over to the House, which I hope will act on this very quickly," Durbin said. "It is, however, the first step. We've got to start thinking about the second step. And we need the help of all of our colleagues when shaping that."

In addition to the prison reform language, the bill's key sentencing provisions include:

  • Retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people;
  • Expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years;
  • Eliminate "stacking" for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense.

"Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making," Grassley continued. "It couldn't have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We've had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other's point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come."

The First Step Act was backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation's largest police group, as well as 172 former federal prosecutors and sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governors Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

For progressives and drug reformers, though, the bill is indeed only a first step. It does nothing, for example, to address the plight of people sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses, and that leaves reformers offering only qualified praise.

"The Senate's version of the legislation, while far from perfect, includes crucial sentencing reforms that safely reduce the footprint of the federal criminal justice system from the front end," said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. "Additionally, the Senate added important checks on the US Department of Justice as it creates a risk and needs assessment and a system of programs and education in the Bureau of Prisons."

"This is a bittersweet moment," said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time the bill leaves far too many people behind. It's a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes."

The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

What's Killing Us: The Ten Drugs Most Implicated in Overdose Deaths [FEATURE]

While there are signs that the country's drug overdose crisis may have plateaued, the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to be unconscionably high. Shockingly, the number of overdose deaths has increased tenfold since 1980 when there were only 6,000 nationwide and nearly doubled just in the past decade to more than 72,000 last year.

The number of drug overdose deaths remains unconscionably high.
Now, in a new report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sheds some new light on precisely which drugs are most implicated in these deaths. While the report examines overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016, we're going to zero in on the 2016 data to get as close as possible to the present.

Three drug classes are involved: prescription and non-prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Often, fatal overdoses involve more than one drug, whether it is drugs in the same class (heroin and fentanyl) or combinations of drug classes (heroin and benzos or fentanyl and cocaine.

Before we get into the number-crunching, it's worth taking a moment to consider that each single overdose death is a tragedy. A human life has been lost prematurely, the potential snuffed out, and friends and family members suffer greatly. It doesn't have to be that way. While we're going to look at deadly drugs, it behooves us to remember that many of these deaths are a function not just of the drugs themselves, but of drug prohibition.

People overdose on fentanyl, for example, because in a black market there is no packaging, no quality control, no dosage information to inform them of just how powerful is that powder they're snorting or injecting. Added to heroin or crafted into counterfeit prescription opioids by unscrupulous black market operators, fentanyl kills people who didn't even know they were taking it. Even more insidiously, fentanyl is turning up in black market cocaine and methamphetamine, whose users aren't even looking for an opioid high and haven't developed any tolerance to them (although some may be speedballing, that is, taking both an upper and a downer at the same time.

That said, here are the drugs making the greatest contributions to the 63,352 overdose deaths in 2016. (The numbers add up to more than that figure because in some overdoses, more than one drug is mentioned.)

1. Fentanyl -- 18,335

In 2016, fentanyl vaulted into first place in the deadly drug sweepstakes. As recently as 2011, the synthetic opioid was in 10th place, with some 1,660 overdose deaths attributed to it, but the death toll has increased more than tenfold in just five years. More than two-thirds of fentanyl overdose deaths also involved other drugs, and fentanyl is involved in more than a quarter (28.5 percent) of all overdose deaths, including 40 percent of cocaine overdose deaths and nearly a third (32 percent) of heroin deaths.

2. Heroin -- 15,961

At the tail end of the prescription opioid phase of the current overdose crisis in 2011, more people died from oxycodone than heroin, but between 2012 and 2015, heroin resumed its role as the leading opioid linked to fatal overdoses, only to be overtaken by fentanyl in 2016. The vast majority -- 70 percent -- of people who died from heroin were also using other drugs. More than a third were also using fentanyl, while nearly a quarter (23.8 percent) were also using cocaine. As prescription opioids became more difficult to obtain, the number of people dying from heroin skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the five years ending in 2016.

3. Cocaine -- 11,316

Cocaine deaths rose dramatically beginning in 2015 and by 2016 the annual death toll was double what it had been five years earlier. With bumper crops in Colombia in recent years, cocaine is cheap and plentiful. It is also increasingly being cut with fentanyl, which is implicated in 40 percent of cocaine deaths, and mixed with heroin, which is implicated in a third of them. Cocaine is named in 17.8 percent of all overdose deaths.

4. Methamphetamine -- 6,762

Meth-related overdose deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016, a dramatic increase in what has become America's forgotten drug problem. In 2016, slightly more than one out of ten drug overdose deaths involved meth. Of the top ten overdose drugs, meth is by far the one most likely to have been the sole drug implicated in the death, but even so, fentanyl was implicated in one out five meth deaths and heroin in one out of ten.

5. Alprazolam -- 6,209You know it as Xanax. This short-acting benzodiazepine is a favorite of stimulant users seeking to take the edge off, but also often forms part of a sedative cocktail with opioids or other benzos. About three-quarters of Xanax overdose deaths involve other drugs, with fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone each involved in about one-quarter of Xanax deaths. Xanax deaths increased by about 50 percent over the five year period.

6. Oxycodone -- 6,199

It's most infamous formulation is OxyContin, but it is also sold as Roxicodone, Xtampza ER, and Oxaydo. It may have been the primary killer opioid a decade ago, but has chugged along at around 5,000 deaths a year before going over 6,000 in 2016. Four out of five people who overdose on oxycodone were also using another drug, most often Xanax (25.3 percent), followed by fentanyl (18.6 percent).

7. Morphine -- 5,014

The granddaddy of opioids. Morphine deaths increased slowly beginning in 2011, but have still increased by about 40 percent since then. More than eight out of 10 morphine deaths involve other drugs as well, particularly fentanyl, which is involved in one out three morphine deaths. Cocaine (16.9 percent) and heroin (13.7 percent) are also frequent contributors to morphine ODs.

8. Methadone -- 3,493

Prescribed as an opioid maintenance drug, methadone is one of the few drugs on this list to have seen the number of deaths decline between 2011 and 2016. They've dropped from more than 4,500 a year down to less than 3,500, a drop of roughly a quarter. Nearly three-fourths of all methadone deaths implicate other drugs, with Xanax being most common (21.5 percent), followed by fentanyl (15.1) and heroin (13.8).

9. Hydrocodone -- 3,199

This semi-synthetic opioid is sold under a variety of brand names, including Vicodin and Norco, and has proven remarkably stable in its overdose numbers. Between 2011 and 2016, it never killed fewer than 3,000 or more than 4,000, almost always (85 percent of the time) in concert with other drugs. Xanax was implicated in one-quarter of all hydrocodone overdoses, followed by oxycodone (17.2 percent) and fentanyl (14.9 percent).

10. Diazepam -- 2,022

The most well-known diazepam is Valium. Like Xanax, this anti-anxiety drug can be used to take the edge off a stimulant binge, but it's not coke heads and speed freaks who are dying from it. In more than nine out of 10 fatal Valium overdoses, other drugs are involved, most commonly the opioids oxycodone and fentanyl, each implicated in about a quarter of the deaths, and heroin, implicated in a fifth.

Using these drugs is dangerous. Using them under a prohibition regime is even more so. Users don't always know what they're getting, and that lack of knowledge can be fatal. If you're going to be messing with these substances, be extremely cautious. Try a test dose first. And don't do it alone. Stay safe out there.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Here Comes Hemp: Congress Votes to Unchain a Billion-Dollar Industry [FEATURE]

The Senate on Tuesday and the House on Wednesday gave final approval to the massive 2018 Farm Bill, including a provision that will end an eight-decade ban on industrial hemp, that non-psychoactive but extremely useful member of the cannabis family. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

The sun rises on a new chapter for hemp in America (votehemp.org)
Even though you could smoke a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole and get nothing more than a cough and a headache, for decades the DEA has refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and marijuana that gets you high. That meant that American farmers could not legally produce hemp for a hemp products industry worth $820 million last year and expected to break the billion-dollar mark this year.

That's right: Thanks to a federal court case brought against the DEA more than a decade ago, farmers in countries where hemp is legal can export it to the US, and companies in the U.S. can turn that hemp into a variety of products ranging from foods to clothing to auto body parts to building materials and beyond, but US farmers can't grow it. That's about to change.

"For too long, the outrageous and outdated ban on growing hemp has hamstrung farmers in Oregon and across the country," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). "Hemp products are made in America, sold in America, and consumed in America. Now, hemp will be able to be legally grown in America, to the economic benefit of consumers and farmers in Oregon and nationwide."

Wyden and fellow Oregonian Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) teamed up with Kentucky Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell to sponsor the bill and guide it through Congress. McConnell's role as Senate Majority Leader certainly didn't hurt the bill's prospects.

As well as guiding the bill forward, McConnell took to the Senate floor on various occasions to support it. In his statement on the passage of the farm bill, he touted "the new opportunities available with the full legalization of industrial hemp."

"Finally we are recognizing industrial hemp for the agricultural product it is," Merkley said. "This is a cash crop that hasn't been allowed to meet its full economic potential because of outdated restrictions. When I visited a hemp farm mid-harvest, I saw firsthand the enormous potential of this diverse crop under the limited 2014 farm bill. This full legalization provides economic opportunity for farmers across rural Oregon and rural America -- good for jobs, good for our communities, and just good common sense."

The bill defines hemp as cannabis with 0.3 percent THC or less by dry weight and removes it from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Regulatory authority over hemp moves from the DEA to the Agriculture Department. The definition of hemp in the bill includes all parts of the plant and specifically lists cannabinoids, including CBD, that are removed from control of the CSA. The bill also includes funding and authorization for research and authorizes crop insurance for hemp farmers.

The inclusion of CBD has the potential of greatly expanding the size of the legal hemp industry. Hemp-based CBD wellness products -- a category that didn't exist five years ago -- already account for nearly a quarter of the domestic hemp market, and the Hemp Business Journal predicts they will account for nearly $650 million worth of sales by 2022, becoming the single largest sector of the hemp market.

It's been more than 40 years since Jack Herer ignited the marijuana movement's interest in hemp with The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy. Herer is long gone -- he died at age 70 in 2010 -- but the movement he launched has now reached the promised land. The single most ridiculously unjustifiable aspect of federal marijuana prohibition has been killed; now it's time to finish the job by ending federal marijuana prohibition.

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