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Chronicle AM: CO Pot Tax Holiday, Toledo Decriminalizes, So Does South Palm Beach (Sort Of), More (9/16/15)

Marijuana, marijuana, marijuana. It's almost all pot news today, from Colorado taxes to decrim in Toledo and South Palm Beach, to a new federal bill aimed at ending DEA funding of marijuana eradication, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Congressmen Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Eliminate DEA Marijuana Eradication Program. US Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) today filed a bill that would end the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That program funds state and local law enforcement efforts to find and destroy marijuana grow sites. The bill would bar the use of such funds for that purpose. It's not yet available on the congressional website.

Colorado Becomes First State to See Marijuana Tax Revenues Exceed Alcohol Tax Revenues. In the past fiscal year, the state took in $70 million in marijuana taxes, far above the $42 million it got from taxes on alcohol.

Colorado Pot Tax Holiday Today. Because of a quirk in state law, the state must suspend collecting marijuana taxes today. The state underestimated total state tax collections in 2014, which results in the automatic suspension of "new" taxes, such as those imposed on marijuana under legalization there. Pot shops expect big crowds. The taxes return tomorrow.

Toledo Decriminalization Measure Passes Overwhelmingly. Voters approved the Sensible Toledo decriminalization ordinance by a margin of more than two to one. The ordinance would eliminate jail time and fines for possession of up to 200 grams of marijuana. Current municipal ordinances make possession of up to 100 grams a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and possession of up to 200 grams a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Under Ohio state law, possession of up to 100 grams is decriminalized.

West Palm Beach Approves Ordinance Giving Police Possession Ticket Option.The city council Tuesday night approved an ordinance giving police the option of issuing $100 fines instead of misdemeanor charges against people caught with 20 grams or less of weed. The move is part of a South Florida trend toward de facto decriminalization.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Activists Use Primary Attention to Pressure Candidates. The advocacy group Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis is taking advantage of the state's early presidential primary and the attention it generates to pressure presidential candidates to stand up for medical marijuana. The group has developed a questionnaire it plans to deliver to all the candidates. "Moms and dads across America want to know what presidential candidates are proposing to help the sick and suffering obtain medical cannabis, a proven plant that is made by God," said Maria La France, a Des Moines mother whose 14-year-old son Quincy has epilepsy.


In India's Punjab, Half of All Prisoners Are Drug Offenders. Of the 26,000 inmates behind bars in Punjab, 47% have either been convicted or are awaiting trial under the country's Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. The crush of drug inmates is overwhelming jails in the state, which have an official capacity of 19,000. Many of the drug inmates are considered "addicts," and many of the state prisons have become "de-addiction centers."

How to Deal With New Psychoactive Substances? [FEATURE]

This story was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In recent years, we've been inundated with wave after wave of media panics over strange new drugs. First came "fake weed" (or as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton called it last week, "weaponized marijuana"); then came "bath salts," with the infamous face-eating episode that wasn't; and most recently, "flakka," labeled as "$5 insanity" by one media outlet.

mephedrone (
These new (to the recreational drug market) substances mimic the effects of currently illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines, or ecstasy. The states and Congress have rushed to address the drugs by prohibiting them, but that has proven to be a game of cat and mouse, with innovative chemists and manufacturers replacing banned drugs with new variants faster than politicians can act.

"In recent years, lawmakers have moved to ban wave after wave of NPSs, only to see more emerge," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "All 50 states have passed laws against synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, and federally, there are 26 unique compounds under Schedule I. And the DEA, which has legal authority to criminalize drugs administratively, has banned more than two dozen. These laws take time, which allows manufacturers to create new compounds."

Not only is the prohibitionist reflex ineffective, it arguably increases the harms associated with the use of these drugs. But to ignore them or ban them aren't the only policy choices, and some advocates are calling for these novel substances to instead be controlled and regulated. One model they point to is New Zealand, which instead of banning "legal highs," moved to regulate them in 2013.

New Psychoactive Substances

Before turning to policy options, though, it's worth a moment to figure out just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about "new synthetic drugs," and why maybe that isn't the best term to use to describe these substances.

In a conference call organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for regulation over prohibition, Earth and Fire Erowid, the administrators of the Erowid drug information web site -- "Documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives" -- tried to bring some rigor to a domain where science too often gets lost in the distortions of moral panic.

"Synthetic drugs is a term used to imply scary new street drugs," said Earth Erowid. "But nearly all pharmaceutical drugs are synthetic, whether they're cannabinoids, opioids, stimulants, or sedatives. You don't want to use the phrase 'synthetic drugs' unless you're talking about every pharmaceutical developed over the past 50 years."

"A more accurate and appropriate term is "new psychoactive substances," he said. "That's the standard term in Europe."

NPSs can be grouped into some general categories, based on the effects they seek to replicate, the Erowids said:

synthetic cannabinoids (
Replacement Cannabinoids. Sometimes sold as powders, sometimes sprinkled on herbal blends. These are not cannabis, but new synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists. The specific compounds include JWH 018 and AB-PINACA, among many others. Several of these have been associated with death and serious medical complications.

Replacement Euphoric Stimulants. These include cathinones like methedrone, MDPV ("bath salts"), and Alpha PDP ("flakka"), as well as compounds related to Ritalin.

Replacement Psychedelics. The best known are the NBOMe series ("N-Bomb"). They are often distributed on blotters, and many people who think they're buying LSD are getting this. The NBOMe class has been linked to about 20 deaths.

Replacement Dissociatives. These are PCP-like chemicals, including various ketamine variants and methoxetamine.

Replacement Opioids. These include chemicals such as AH 7921 and U4770.

The Drug Policy Alliance has a similar, if not quite identical, taxonomy here.

The deaths and other adverse reactions that have been linked to NPSs have occurred under regimes of either prohibition or its opposite -- no regulation. "Legal highs" were just that, NPSs yet to be banned but lacking any sort of reliable labeling or quality control. Many formerly "legal highs" are now illegal, but the harm continues, and new NPSs continue to come on the market, legal until the politicians get to work.

"There's a reason for that, said Earth Erowid. "People are looking for legal replacements for illegal drug effects," he explained. "Most people simply want a stimulant or a psychedelic, and they're willing to try anything if it's legal."

"That may hold true for "fake marijuana" users than other NPS users," said Joseph Palamar, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

"Synthetic marijuana users have different profiles from other NPS users," he said "They are resorting to using it as a legal replacement for marijuana as a means of avoiding arrest, especially minorities. Other NPS users, especially clubbers and ravers, may be taking them unwittingly, Palamar added, pointing a finger especially at "Molly," which is supposed to be pure MDMA in powder form, but often isn't.

"Molly is the biggest system of unintentional NPS use that ever came around," said Palamar. "A lot of the drug users, especially Molly users, are unknowingly taking NPSs.

(The Erowids helpfully pointed out that there are a number of web sites where users can submit their Molly for testing, including one they run at

What's in your ecstasy tablet? (
There are other options for dealing with NPSs beyond the extremes of prohibition on the one hand and laissez-faire on the other. In some cases, it may be politically feasible to simply legalize the currently prohibited drug they are imitating.

Roger Goodman, chairman of the Washington state House Public Safety Committee and senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said that legalizing weed is a start.

"By legalizing marijuana, we have no problem with synthetic marijuana," said Goodman. "No one wants to use that. We have a rational regulatory approach. Prohibition is in the past for us. Marijuana is a good first step for us. We know better than to impose prohibition and outlaw any particular substance."

Legalizing marijuana more widely could put a real dent in the synthetic cannabinoids market, but there is no immediate prospect for legalizing drugs such as meth, cocaine, and the psychedelics and putting a dent in the market for other NPSs that way. That means if we're not going to prohibit them and we're not going to ignore them, we're going to have to regulate them.

That's what New Zealand did with its 2013 law, which transformed unregulated "legal highs" into regulated "legal highs" sold with labels at established stores. Drug makers were required to submit their products for testing and labeling before they could be approved for legal sale.

"I really look to the New Zealand law," said Goodman. "It provided for licensing and testing, and it got rid of the criminal actors. It seemed like a very rational way to go."

"That model would encourage manufacturers to make safer products," DPA's Smith concurred.

But, alas, the New Zealand law is no more. It was overturned and replaced with a more prohibitionist retrenchment a year later amidst complaints that drug users were getting high and hanging around the dope shops like winos in front of liquor stores. That is a lesson for legalizers (or regulators) here. Not only are progressive drug reforms difficult to enact, they also sometimes require a strong defense.

Chronicle AM: Study Supports Prescription Heroin, States Want Feds Out of MJ Policies, More (8/06/15)

The DEA admits the screamingly obvious, the National Council of State Legislatures tells the feds to let states set their own pot policies, another South Florida community decriminalizes, and more.

Prescription heroin. A new study says it is a useful treatment for some addicts. (
Marijuana Policy

Finally, DEA Head Admits Heroin More Dangerous Than Marijuana. Former DEA chief Michele Leonhart just couldn't wrap her head around that notion, and her successor, Chuck Rosenberg, was struggling last week, when he conceded that marijuana is "probably not" as bad as heroin. But Wednesday, Rosenberg came clean, admitting that "heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana."

National Council of State Legislatures Passes Motion Calling for Feds to Butt Out of State Marijuana Laws. The resolution passed today declares that states should have the right to set their own marijuana and hemp policies. "States are increasingly serving as laboratories for democracy by adopting a variety of policies regarding marijuana and hemp," the preamble says, adding that "the federal government cannot force a state to criminalize cultivating, possessing, or distributing marijuana or hemp -- whether for medical, recreational, industrial, or other uses -- because doing so would constitute unconstitutional commandeering." Click on the link to read the resolution.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Has Already Gathered 50,000 Signatures. The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol announced Wednesday that it had already gathered 50,000 signatures to get its legalization initiative on the November 2016 ballot. The group needs 150,000 valid voter signatures by July 2016 to qualify. If gatherers keep up their current pace, they could have 300,000 or so signatures by then. They need a cushion to account for gathered signatures that are invalidated, and that would provide one.

Another South Florida Community Decriminalizes. Hallandale Beach has become the first Broward County city to decriminalize pot possession after commissioners Wednesday night approved the measure. People caught with 20 grams or less will be ticketed and fined $100 instead of being arrested. Miami-Dade County passed a similar measure in July. West Palm Beach and Palm Beach counties are also expected to vote on a similar measure.

Addiction Treatment

Important Study Finds Heroin-Assisted Treatment Benefits Users and Society. A research review published in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found that heroin-assisted treatment (or heroin maintenance) is effective for patients who have not responded to other treatment options, such as residential treatment or methadone. "Heroin-prescribing, as a part of highly regulated regimen, is a feasible and effective treatment for a particularly difficult-to-treat group of heroin-dependent patients," the study concluded.

Chronicle AM: MA Inits Filed, Pill Crackdown Hurts Patients, Yemen War Snarls Drug Trade, More (8/05/15)

Competing legalization initiatives get filed in Massachusetts, pain patients face obstacles amidst the pill mill crackdown, the Yemen war is messing up the peninsular drug trade, and more.

Bags of the popular Middle Eastern amphetamine Captagon seized by Saudi officials. (
Marijuana Policy

Two Competing Groups Filed Massachusetts Legalization Initiatives. Both the Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts and the local group Bay State Repeal today filed initiatives to legalize marijuana in the state. Bay State Repeal actually filed three versions of its initiative. Click on the organization link to get details on the various proposals.

Medical Marijuana

Leaked Document Shows DOJ Misled Congress on Impact of Medical Marijuana Amendment. In the days before Congress voted to approve an amendment limiting the Justice Department's ability to interfere in medical marijuana states, an internal memo obtained by Tom Angell at shows that the department tried to mislead Congress by falsely claiming that the amendment could "in effect, limit or possibly eliminate the Department's ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases as well," according to the document. [Emphasis added.] The memo admits that the DOJ talking points were "intended to discourage passage of the rider," but "do not reflect our current thinking." Click on the link for more.

Under-treatment of Pain

Pill Mill Crackdown Hurting Pain Patients. New Hampshire Public Radio has done a lengthy report on the impact of the pain pill crackdown on pain patients. One patient who moved to Florida reports that his pharmacy runs out of pain medications, and the pharmacy owner reported that pharmaceutical wholesalers will no longer distribute the amount of drugs he needs to serve his clients. There's much more there, too; click the link to read the whole thing.


Yemen War Messing Up Arabian Peninsula Drug Traffic. Saudi Arabia's four-month bombing campaign against Houthi rebels is not only killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yemenis, it's also choking off the supply of Middle Eastern amphetamines and hashish that have been being trafficked across the Yemen-Saudi border. Saudi border guards say the war has shut down trafficking, while Riyadh residents complain that supplies are drying up. The article also provides an overview of drug use in the region; click on the link to get it all.

Chronicle AM: DEA "Fake Heroin" Ban, Canada Salvia Ban, London Laughing Gas Protest, More (8/3/15)

Rand Paul benefits from MPP's largesse, California tax officials eye a pot bank, medical marijuana is okayed for autistic kids in Michigan, Canada moves to ban salvia, Brits hold a laughing protest over a proposed legal highs ban, and more.

Salvia divinorum -- still not a controlled substance in the US, but about to be banned in Canada.
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Policy Project PAC Gives $15,000 to Rand Paul. MPP's PAC has given three $5,000 donations to groups supporting the Kentucky senator and Republican presidential contender's political ambitions, according to midyear Federal Election Commission filings. That makes some sense, given that Paul received the highest grade of any candidate of either party on marijuana policy issues in a recent MPP report. They gave him an A-.

California Tax Officials Want State-Run Marijuana Bank. With an eye toward looming legalization in the Golden State, the state Board of Equalization is signaling its interest in a state-run bank to allow marijuana industry operators to move away from an all-cash business. "We're a big state, and we have very creative minds," said Democratic board member Fiona Ma said at a meeting on the topic she called Friday with fellow board member George Runner. "We lead in many first-in-the-nation initiatives, and I believe we could create some sort of state depository that could handle cash deposits and also be available for the industry to make electronic transfers to make their payments."

Medical Marijuana

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley Stalls Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would reschedule marijuana and let states set their own medical marijuana policies has some congressional support, but with only two Republican cosponsors, Rand Paul (KY) and Dean Heller (NV), Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said the bill was not exactly a priority. "I'm going to wait until I talk to other Republican members," he told Politico.

Florida Poll Has Two-Thirds Supporting Medical Marijuana. A new survey from St. Pete Polls has more than 68% of respondents saying they would vote for a new medical marijuana initiative if it makes the ballot. An effort last year got 58% of the vote, but failed because, as a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% to pass. These poll results strongly suggest it will pass next time around. Click on the link for more poll results.

Veterans With PTSD Line Up for Free Medical Marijuana in Denver Protest. Hundreds of Colorado veterans lined up to receive free medical marijuana products Saturday as part of a protest against the state health board's refusal to include PTSD among conditions treatable by medical marijuana. The protest was organized by Grow4Vets. "We're tired of waiting around for the government to do something to help veterans," cofounder Richard Martin said. "We're losing over 50 American heroes every single day as a result of prescription drug overdose or suicide, and the VA's position up until this point has pretty much been let's just keep them in a drug stupor."

Michigan Panel Okays Medical Marijuana for Autistic Kids. In a 4-2 vote last Friday, the state Medical Marijuana Review Panel okayed medical marijuana for kids with severe forms of autism. Its use must be approved by two doctors, and the kids wouldn't smoke it, but would use it in edible or concentrate form.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

In Emergency Move, DEA Makes "Fake Heroin" a Schedule I Controlled Substance. The DEA has responded to rising concern from both the medical and law enforcement communities over acetyl fentanyl by temporarily reassigning the substance as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The compound is related to the prescription painkiller fentanyl and a small amount can produce a euphoric response in users that resembles a high from heroin or oxycodone, which led to it being dubbed "fake heroin."


Canada Moves to Ban Salvia Divinorum. The Ministry of Health last Saturday announced new regulatory amendments that would effectively ban salvia divinorum. Once the regulations are published on August 12, the sale or distribution -- but not the possession -- of salvia will be illegal. It will also be scheduled as a controlled substance.

London Laughing Gas Protest. Dozens of demonstrators against the British government's proposed ban on legal highs broke out in giggles last Saturday as they simultaneously inhaled nitrous oxide in laughing protest of the move. "The whole drug laws need looking at," said one demonstrator. "If we are going to have legal tobacco and alcohol with all their side effects, why can't we have legal highs?"

(This article was prepared by's lobbying arm, Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: Chris Christie Picks Fight With Weed, New DEA Head Concedes Pot Might Not Be as Bad as Heroin, More (7/29/15)

Chris Christie is beating up on marijuana again, Ohio officials continue to play hardball with ResponsibleOhio, DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg takes a tiny step forward, Colombian peasants are grumbling at a rumored renewal of aerial crop eradication, and more.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stands firm against marijuana legalization. (
Marijuana Policy

Chris Christie Vows to Roll Back Legalization in the States if Elected. New Jersey governor and Republican presidential contender Chris Christie said Tuesday marijuana users in legal states should enjoy their highs while they have the chance because if he's elected, he will enforce federal prohibition. "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," said Christie at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws. If you want to change the marijuana laws, go ahead and change the national marijuana laws," he added. Christie is currently struggling to break out of the bottom of a crowded field of GOP contenders.

Ohio Secretary of State to Investigate Legalization Petitions for Possible Fraud. Secretary of State Jon Husted said today he had named a special investigator to look into "discrepancies" in petitions from the controversial legalization group ResponsibleOhio. He said the review would look into "significant disparities" between the number of petitions the group claimed to have gathered and the number actually turned in. If the discrepancies constitute fraud, they could lead to criminal charges, he said. ResponsibleOhio, on the other hand, has accused state election officials of losing some 40,000 signatures and wrongfully invalidating others and is threatening to go to the state Supreme Court over the issue. The group had handed in nearly 700,000 signatures and needed only 305,000 valid ones to qualify for the 2015 ballot, but state officials last week said they were about 30,000 short. ResponsibleOhio has until midnight tomorrow to try to make up for the signature shortfall.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Attorney General Rejects Medical Marijuana Petition Wording. Attorney General Mike DeWine announced today that he had rejected a petition for the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment, saying he had found several defects in the language. Now, the group will have to address those defects, gather another 1,000 initial signatures, and try again.

Washington's King County Will Force Unlicensed Dispensaries to Close. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said Tuesday that dispensaries operating illegally in unincorporated areas of the county will have to shut down soon. He said that he would be serving up lawsuits against 15 collectives in coming days. "Their days as marijuana sellers where they never had a license, and they never paid taxes, those days are over," he said. He added that the businesses had a couple of months to shut down before he goes after them in court.

Drug Policy

New DEA Head Concedes Marijuana Might Not Be As Dangerous as Heroin. DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg Tuesday conceded during a conference call that heroin is probably more dangerous than marijuana, but that he was no expert. "If you want me to say that marijuana's not dangerous, I'm not going to say that because I think it is," Rosenberg said. "Do I think it's as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. I'm not an expert." Coming from anyone other than a DEA head, the statement would be considered mealy-mouthed, but it actually marks a break with Rosenberg's hardline predecessor, Michele Leonhart, whose refusal to make the distinction helped contribute to her being forced from the position.


Irish Officials Say They Have a "Wide Consensus" for Drug Decriminalization. After a "think tank" on drug problems in Dublin today, Minister of State of the National Drugs Strategy Aodhan O'Riordain said there was a "wide consensus within the room for decriminalization," but there were also "some question marks and some discussion points as to how to get wider society on board with the idea. People in the sector may be convinced, but the terminology and the language is going to be important."

Colombia Coca Farmers Threaten Protests Over Reports Government Might Resume Aerial Spraying. Amid rumors that authorities plan to restart efforts to eradicate coca crops by spraying them with glyphosate, farmers in the north are vowing to fight such plans. "The moment they begin the fumigation, the peasant strike will begin," said a spokesman for the Campesino Association of Catatumbo. With US backing and encouragement, the Colombian government sprayed the herbicide on coca crops for years despite peasant protests that it was causing illness and damaging other crops and livestock. Earlier this year, the government halted the practice after the World Health Organization declared glyphosate a carcinogen. Nearly 2,500 police are being sent to the region in anticipation of protests, even though the interior minister denied any plans to begin spraying anew, saying it was only under discussion.

(This article was prepared by's lobbying arm, Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: CA Blue Ribbon Marijuana Report is Out, DEA Criticized for Blocking Snitch Probe, More (7/22/15)

A long-awaited (and overdue) report on California marijuana policy reforms is out, an Arizona appeals court rules that the odor of marijuana in a medical marijuana state is not sufficient grounds for a search warrant, the DEA gets criticized over its snitch program, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Blue Ribbon Panel on Marijuana Releases Report, Calls for Strict Controls. The panel, led by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), issued its Pathways Report: Policy Options for Regulating Marijuana in California today, and called for a regulatory system that prevents childhood use and warns that "this industry should not be the next California Gold Rush." The 93-report is a comprehensive look at the range of policy options facing the state. Read it.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

New Hampshire "Drug Czar" Releases Recommendations for Fighting Opiate Abuse. John Wozmak, senior director for Substance Misuse and Behavioral Health, Tuesday released a list of 22 recommendations for fighting opiate abuse, including making naloxone more widely available and strengthening the state's prescription drug monitoring program. Click on the link to see the full list.

Law Enforcement

Arizona Appeals Court Rules Smell of Weed Alone is Not Grounds for Search Warrant. The legalization of medical marijuana in the state means that the odor of weed by itself is not probable cause for obtaining a search warrant. "Medical marijuana use pursuant to AMMA is lawful under Arizona law," he wrote. "Therefore its scent alone does not disclose whether a crime has occurred." Instead, police must now rely on an "odor-plus" standard where additional evidence is needed to justify a warrant.

Justice Department Inspector Report Criticizes DEA on Informants. DEA agents wrote their own rules for a secret snitch program and then tried to block the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from conducting its probe into the program, the just released OIG report says. "Our audit work thus far has been seriously delayed by numerous instances of uncooperativeness from the DEA," the inspector general wrote. Although the OIG set out to review the confidential informant program in February 2014, the OIG has had only "limited" success, it said. But the OIG's audit isn't yet completed. Stay tuned.

Interview with "The Cartel" Author Don Winslow [FEATURE]

This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Internationally acclaimed novelist Don Winslow's The Cartel, a hard-hitting and gut-wrenching tale of the Mexican drug wars, hit the stands late last month and is currently #17 on the New York Times best seller list. A sequel to his best-selling novel of the cartels, The Power of the Dog, Winslow's latest effort is a true-to-life, ripped-from-the-headlines story of power, greed, corruption, brutality, revenge, and justice set in the past decade of spiraling prohibition-related violence in Mexico.

Roughly 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since 2006, and another 20,000 or so have simply vanished. That blood-drenched history is the spindle from which Winslow unspools his story, featuring a veteran DEA agent locked in a decades-long feud with the head of the world's most powerful cartel. It's a grim, nail-biting crime thriller.

But Winslow, who also authored 2012's Savages, another fictional treatment of the cartels turned into an Oliver Stone movie, isn't just writing for the sake of selling books. He has used the publication of The Cartel to pen op-eds calling the war on drugs a counterproductive failure and publish a full-page ad in the Washington Post telling Congress and the president "It's Time to Legalize Drugs."

On Friday, Winslow traveled to Houston to sit down for an interview with Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network for the network's Cultural Baggage radio program. Here's the interview:

DEAN BECKER: Hello, dear listeners, this is Dean Becker and I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Well folks, I've been enjoying this new book, it's a powerful indictment of this war on drugs, it's written by the author Don Winslow, the name of the book is The Cartel, and we have him with us today. Mr. Winslow, your book is a powerful indictment of the futility of this drug war, and first off, I just want to thank you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, sir, for that kind comment, and I appreciate it.

DEAN BECKER: Now, with the release of this book you also took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post decrying that futility and calling for the powers that be to take another look at the results of this drug war, and once again, I commend you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you. You know, I felt it was important to do something like that. At the end of the day, I'm a novelist and I write fiction, and I'm an entertainer, at the same time we're dealing with obviously serious issues that have had serious consequences on so many people in the United States, but of course particularly in Mexico. And so I just thought that I should try to do something.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, The Cartel, this new book, it's a follow-up to The Power of the Dog, and I think much of your similar or previous writings, and it continues the story of Agent Keller and a couple of others from that first book, but it's more, it's much more, and would you please just kind of give us a summary of your new book, The Cartel.

DON WINSLOW: Well, yes, thank you. The Cartel as you said is a follow-up to a book I did ten years ago called The Power of the Dog, which follows a DEA agent named Art Keller, who arrives in Mexico in the 70s full of idealism, and is over the years sort of schooled out of that by reality. But, he ends up in a vendetta with a drug lord, if you will, named Adan Barrera. And, so The Cartel continues that story. But, you know, it's not a book I really wanted to write, Dean. I really fought against writing it for a long time, but as things spiraled out of control in Mexico, you know, far beyond our worst nightmares, really, and I thought, well, I'll try a in fictional sense, you know, to crime readers, to try to explain what was going on down there.

DEAN BECKER: Well, a few years back I took a one-day junket into Ciudad Juarez, and the machine gun nests in the city park, cops on every street corner -- I didn't see the violence myself, but it was palpable, it was, it was, just -- scary, for lack of a better word. Your thoughts, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, the estimates vary of course, but during this era something like 100,000 Mexican people were killed, 22,000 missing. Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana, and the Frontera Chica, and the Texas border -- you know, all became battlegrounds in a multi-fronted war, cartel versus cartel. The military versus the cartels, the military versus the police, certain police forces versus other forces, and of course, you know, many, too many, innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, you state in your acknowledgements that The Cartel draws deeply on real events, and I see many of them, I've been following the war in Mexico for several years, and it just seems that, you know, it made it more compelling to be based on a true story, so to speak.

DON WINSLOW:I'm an historian by training and inclination, and so I usually like to keep my stories pretty, pretty close to the bone. But I think that in a way, novelists can do things that journalists aren't allowed to. You know, we're allowed to imagine the inner life of characters, we're allowed to make up dialogue that perhaps brings out some of these events in a maybe more visceral way to readers who might not, you know, pick up a piece of journalism on this subject. And so, I like that combination between fiction and reality, and as long as I sort of keep their thoughts and their emotions fairly realistic, I think the novel can work well for that.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, back in 2012, with my group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, I rode across the country with Javier Sicilia and about a hundred family members of those butchered in Mexico on the Caravan for Peace, and most of them were women who had these horrible stories that made me cry every night, I'll be honest with you. And your book includes the stories of some of these women, and the pain and misery they endure as well.

DON WINSLOW: As you know when you deal with this topic, it's all too easy to lose your faith in humanity. But, in researching the stories and writing the stories about some of these women, it's awe-inspiring. You know? There's no other word for it. The courage and the moral fortitude, and I think in the video I saw of the Caravan, the word grace is used, and I think that that might be absolutely the perfect word to describe these women, who have lost so much and have moved ahead and have moved on and tragically, you know, too often at the cost of their own lives.

DEAN BECKER: It seems that media everywhere is starting to recognize this futility of the drug war, and is starting to expose it for what it is, and that is hopeless.

DON WINSLOW: We've been doing the same thing for coming on now 45 years, and not only is it not working, it's made things worse. Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, cheaper than ever, and again, it's had a hideous effect on American society in terms of the number of people we imprison, in terms of the alienation of our police forces with our inner city communities. I think the militarization of police really began with the war on drugs, and of course, it's had the worst effect on the people of Central America, particularly Mexico. So, if something after 45 years has not improved a situation, but made things worse, then I think it's time that we looked at different solutions.


DON WINSLOW: And I think that that's pretty obvious, really.

The face of the cartels. Has anyone seen El Chapo?
DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. If you will allow me, I want to read just a paragraph here from your book, this is from Alvarado. He states: "You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You're experienced enough to know that we're not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we're given the choice of taking the money or dying. We've been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? The country was falling apart, violence getting worse every day. The only way to end the chaos was to pick the most likely winner and help him win, and you North Americans despise us for it. At the same time you send the billions of dollars and the weapons that fuel the violence. You blame us for selling the product that you buy. It's absurd, John."

DON WINSLOW: I don't know how to respond to my own writing. I think it's the truth. Couple of thoughts: You know, we're very good up here at wagging the finger of corruption at Mexico. Is there corruption in Mexico? Of course, and I write a lot about it. I'm not alone in that. But as that passage indicated, what we don't understand is that police and journalists and average citizens are not offered the choice: take the money or leave it. They're offered the choice: take the money or we kill you. And very often, or we kill your family.And you know, the so-called Mexican drug war is one of the most tragic misnomers of the last half century. It's not the Mexican drug problem; it's the American drug problem. We're, we're the buyers, and it's the simultaneous appetite, American appetite for drugs and prohibition of them that creates the power of the cartels and that shields this violence. And, if I were on the other side of the border looking north, I'd talk about corruption, I would ask what kind of corruption exists in American society that makes you Americans the largest drug market in the world? At a rate of five times your population.

DEAN BECKER: And the world's leading jailer.

DON WINSLOW: The world's leading jailer. Not only the world's leading jailer, Dean. In the history of the world we have the largest prison population.

DEAN BECKER: Kind of tied in with your action to do that full-page ad in the Washington Post, I tried last summer to wake up our nation's leaders with release of my book. We hand-delivered a copy of my book to the president, his cabinet, every senator, representative, all nine Supreme justices, and we mailed a copy to all fifty governors, to pretty much little avail. And I'm hoping that your book lights a bigger bonfire on their conscience.

Waiting to cross from Mexico into the US (
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, I hope so too. You know, I deliberately put that ad in the Washington Post in order to do it in Congress's home town, hoping that that paper would arrive on their desks with their coffee. I think that ad was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, I don't remember, it's been a little bit of a blur, you know, I'm out on a book tour. But, I've not heard from a single politician. Who I have heard from? Cops.

DEAN BECKER: What was their response?

DON WINSLOW: Agreeing with it.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's good to hear. I mean, it puzzles me that the evidence is so glaring, we can cut down on death, disease, crime, and addiction were to legalize and control it for adults, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not at the presidential level.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, I think, Dean, for so many years it's been the fourth rail of American politics. You know, you start talking about a sane drug policy and your opponent then starts talking about you being soft on crime, and, you know, oh he wants our kids to have access to dope. Which of course they do now, because it's not working. What I would like is some politician to stand up and talk back with the facts. The numbers are there, the solid data are there. If you want to talk about being soft on crime, I would say that the fact that 60 percent of rapes and 40 percent of murders now go unsolved, because we're so focused on busting drugs. To me, that's soft on crime. And I think police want to go back to doing real police work.

DEAN BECKER: I'm with you, sir. Now, it seems like every week I see another headline about another bust of a quote top narco-trafficker, but the fact is, it's just a chance for another corn farmer to get down off the tractor and attempt to become a billionaire, isn't it?

DON WINSLOW: Listen, it's never worked. We have tried to attack the drug organization pyramid from the bottom, the street-level kids selling crack on the corner, to the middle, the traffickers coming across the border, to the top, going after these top drug lords. None of these strategies work because the amount of money they can make is so great that there is always someone willing to step into any of those roles. So, you know, there was great celebration when for instance Chapo Guzman was captured. That's fine, I have no tears for Chapo Guzman, I'm glad he's in prison, I have no tears for any of these drug lords who've been killed by the police. However, it makes no difference. Nothing was disrupted, nothing was even slowed down. The drugs just keep coming. The strategy does not work. And as long as we approach this as a law enforcement problem or god help us a military problem, we're, the same thing is going to on and on and on.

DEAN BECKER: You know, a couple of portions of the book touched me deeply. One was about the old farmer, Don Pedro, and his battle for his ranch with the Zetas. That one made me cry, I'm an old man, I'm sorry, and it just made me think of, you know, these bandits, these rapscallions, what they're up to, the Zetas. Would you talk about that situation?

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, that is based on a real incident. It was impossible to resist writing about it, but, you know, I think there are two parts to your question, so let me take the first one first. Back in, you know, 2010, '11, and '12, various cartels were forcing people off their land because either it was strategically located along the border or just because they could. The Zetas that you mentioned were looking for land for training camps and secret bases, and they were all-powerful, or so they thought, and they could just go tell people, get out. In northern Chihuahua, along the Texas border, the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting the Juarez Cartel, and they were literally colonizing the area. They were telling, you know, people in that area, in the Juarez Valley that had been there for generations, to get out, and moving Sinaloans in, almost like colonists, in order to secure that area. Who's on first now? Without a doubt the Sinaloa Cartel. They're the dominant cartel in Mexico now. They basically won the war. There's a sort of an upstart cartel, the new generation Jalisco Cartel, and we're in a bit of a lull, but that's about to collapse. You know, over the past month or so violence has drastically increased again in the Tijuana area. So, stay tuned.

DEAN BECKER: Your book references some of the videos that get circulated by the cartels, showing their commitment to outdoing each other in the way they torture and kill members of the opposite cartel. I saw one of those that, where one cartel had grabbed the wives and girlfriends of another cartel. They pulled out axes and chainsaws, and built piles of arms...

DON WINSLOW: That sounds familiar, that video.

DEAN BECKER: Oh god. And, my Spanish was not good enough to understand all they said, but it was a strong message, for sure.

DON WINSLOW: You know, lately we've been as a nation very absorbed with ISIS, and those videos, and they took that page out of the cartel playbook. What you're looking at is basically terrorism in Mexico. And, you know, the cartels are in the territory business, they need to control territory, and to do that, they need to control the population. And they do it through a variety of methods, but one of them is terror. And, and when they put out videos like that, they are really saying to the people, you don't want this to be you. The Spanish that is being spoken in many of these videos is to get these people to confess their roles in the rival cartel, sometimes to confess their crimes because these videos are also a means of propaganda, and a means of the cartels justifying, or attempting to justify, the horrors that they commit, in a very similar way to the ISIS videos. The really sad aspect, or more tragic aspect of these videos, is that they're used as tools of recruitment. Particularly young people, both men and women, see these videos, and see them as demonstrations of power. And I think that there are few things more seductive to people who see themselves as powerless than to see power, and just as the ISIS sadistic videos have been great recruiting tools for ISIS, the videos that you alluded to have been recruiting tools to the cartels.

DEAN BECKER: The hundred thousand dead, approximately, the 20,000 missing, the tens of thousands of children without parents -- it's just so enormous, and yet somehow it's ignored. That doesn't count in the US's drug war equation.

DON WINSLOW: The modern day Mexican drug war, the contemporary period that we're looking at, coincides almost exactly with the post-911 era. And I think that the United States has been, and it's understandable, Dean, because of 911, because of the lives lost, because we've had people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our soldiers dying and wounded, we have been obsessed with, and most of our attention has gone to the Middle East. That, that's understandable, I think. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's good, but I think that, that people can only absorb so much violence and sorrow and tragedy. I think though that the other part of the equation is that, that we don't want to look at it down there. It's something we don't want to see because I think on some level we are aware of the role that we play in it, and our own responsibility for it, and I think that that can be a hard mirror to look into. And sometimes people, and particularly our politicians, frankly, would rather look away.

DEAN BECKER: It kind of draws a parallel with the cops busting somebody and accusing them of being the cause of the problem here in the US -- if they weren't buying drugs then these other situations would not occur. But the same could be said about the US and as you stated earlier, our addiction to these drugs coming through Mexico.

DON WINSLOW: I think we are addicted to the drugs. Now obviously, we have a population in the United States that is literally addicted to drugs. The percentage of that never changes very much over the years. There are some spikes with certain drugs at certain times, but the level of drug addicts remains about the same, that's sort of one topic. The other topic is recreational drug users, and they need to look at their responsibility. I can't understand for instance why a person who would be so concerned about buying free trade coffee or fair trade coffee would then think nothing of buying marijuana that has blood all over it. You know? I don't understand people who go out and protest against big business but then will come back and buy a product that's been shipped to them by a cartel that tortures and slaughters and rapes. This makes no kind of moral sense to me. So, in my perfect world, all drugs would be legal and no one would use them. But certainly, in the time until the United States straightens out its drug laws, until we've stopped forcing the hands of these sadistic criminals, I'd love to see a movement where particularly young people in America boycotted these drugs, the way they boycott other products.

DEAN BECKER: The book was a follow-up to Power of the Dog, and it seems that there may be, as you mentioned earlier, a need for another book in this series, if Los Pinos and the White House continue to believe this drug war to be necessary.

DON WINSLOW: It's my fondest hope and prayer that there's no need for a third book. I would love it if Los Pinos and the White House took me out of this business. I don't have plans to write another drug book, you know, next or for a few years, but then I'm really hoping at that point when I look around this landscape that we have come to some sort of sanity, and some sort of wiser policy, and that there's no need for a third book.

DEAN BECKER: Well, me too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and deep prayer in that regard. Well, Don, here's hoping we can continue this discussion again soon and that just maybe, the politicians will read your book and pull their heads out soon. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you'd like to share with the listeners, Mr. Don Winslow?

DON WINSLOW: I have a website,, and, you know, always happy to hear from anybody. I have been very encouraged over the past two weeks by the number of police officers and DEA people that have contacted me. And I think there is a little momentum right now. You know, yesterday the United Methodist Church came out calling for war, an end to the war on drugs, addressing Congress. So I think that there might be a little bit of a groundswell, and I'm going to choose to go with that optimism.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, I want to thank Don Winslow, author of The Cartel.

Chronicle AM: Fed Marijuana Banking Bill, Flying High Out of PDX, Pope Sips Coca Tea, More (7/9/15)

A bill to allow marijuana businesses access to banking services has been filed in Congress, Oregon's largest airport okays flying with pot (in-state only), Indiana's Church of Cannabis is suing the state, the Pope drinks coca tea on his way to Bolivia, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Federal Marijuana Banking Legislation Filed. Today, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Michael Bennett (D-CO), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act, a bill that would allow banks to provide depository and other financial services to state-legal marijuana businesses. Currently, because marijuana is illegal under federal law, both medical and non-medical marijuana businesses are unable to access banking services like any other business. Consequently, many marijuana businesses operate on a cash-only basis, leading to huge public safety issues as businesses become the target of robberies, and are forced to hire armed security to protect their takings.

Indiana Marijuana Church Sues State to Block Enforcement of Marijuana Laws. The Indianapolis-based First Church of Cannabis is going to federal court to try to stop the state from enforcing marijuana prohibition against church members. The church argues that doing so prevents members from fully exercising their religion. Their attorney says he will rely on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to make his case.

Flying With Marijuana Now Okay at PDX. Now that pot is legal in Oregon, Portland International Airport (PDX) has announced that passengers can travel with their marijuana -- as long as they don't leave the state. The airport said that if TSA agents find marijuana on travelers, they will notify Port Police, who will then check to see if the amount is less than the legal limit, the passenger is old enough to carry it, and that the boarding pass shows the passenger is on an in-state flight. If those conditions are met, passengers can fly with their weed. Passengers caught trying to fly out of state with legal amounts of weed will be asked to leave the line and get rid of it before boarding.

Poll: 56% Support for Denver Marijuana Social Use Initiative. A Public Policy Polling survey released today has a solid majority supporting an initiative to allow the use -- but not the sale -- of marijuana at businesses restricted to those 21 and over. The initiative specifies that businesses with liquor licenses would have the option of allowing marijuana use on premises. The Campaign for Limited Social Use needs to collect 4,726 signatures by early August to qualify for the November 2015 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

House Republicans Block Bid for More Medical Marijuana Studies. Republicans in the House Wednesday night killed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have reclassified marijuana so laboratories could conduct "credible research on its safety and efficacy as a medical treatment." The amendment would have encouraged the DEA and the National Institutes of Health to work together to allow studies of the risks and benefits of using marijuana to treat various diseases and conditions. The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Sam Farr (D-CA), as well as marijuana legalization foe Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), would have created a new designation in the federal drug scheduling scheme, Schedule 1R, for research.


Pope Francis Drinks Coca Tea On Flight to Bolivia. The Pope sipped on a brew of coca, chamomile, and anise seeds as he flew from Ecuador to the high-altitude airport at La Paz, Bolivia. The drink, made from leaves of the coca plant, is commonly used by travelers to fight altitude sickness. The airport at La Paz is at nearly 14,000 feet.

Canadian Electronic Music Festival Back On, Will Do Pill Testing. The Evolve Festival will go on as scheduled in Nova Scotia beginning tonight and will still offer the harm reduction measure of offering pill testing for attendees. Festival organizers announced earlier this week they would offer pill testing, but their insurer then canceled their liability insurance, leaving the event in doubt. But now, a new insurer has been found, and organizers say they will do pill testing.

Chronicle AM: Senate Panel Wants DEA Out of MedMJ, MI Legalization Inits Approved, More (6/11/15)

The Senate is following the House's lead in telling the DEA not to interfere in medical marijuana states, two Michigan initiatives get the go-ahead for signature-gathering, a package of heroin bills passes the New York Senate, Vancouver gets tired of Cannabis Day, and more.

Cannabis Day in Vancouver. The city wants to shut it down. (
Marijuana Policy

House Budget Bill Blocks DC Marijuana Sales for Two Years, But Doesn't Try to Roll Back Legalization. The House approved an appropriations bill today that would block legal marijuana sales in the District for the next two years. But, in what advocates called a victory, it does not attempt to undo Initiative 71, which allows for legal marijuana cultivation, possession, and consumption.

Michigan Legalization Initiatives Get Go-Ahead for Signature-Gathering. Two separate marijuana legalization initiatives are ready to start gathering signatures after the state Board of Canvassers approved the wording of their petitions Thursday. One is from the Michigan Cannabis Coalition and the other is from the Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee. Now, the groups must each gather 253,000 valid voter signatures in order to send the measures before the legislature. If the legislature fails to approve them, they would go before the voters in November 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Senate Committee Votes to Keep DEA Out of Medical Marijuana. Just last week, in a series of successful amendments to the Justice Department appropriations bill, the House sent a clear message to the DEA and DOJ to stop interfering in medical marijuana states. Today, a similar message came from the Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted two-to-one today in favor of an amendment from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that prohibits the Justice Department, including the DEA, from using federal funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. Click on the link for more details and reaction.

California Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act Wins Committee Vote. The measure, Assembly Bill 258, would bar health providers from denying organ transplants to people solely because they are medical marijuana patients. It has already passed the Assembly, and was approved Wednesday by the Senate Health Committee. It now heads for a Senate floor vote.


New York Senate Approves Package of Heroin Bills. The state Senate Tuesday approved a package of bills aimed at curbing the state's opiate addiction problem. The package is a mix of treatment and law enforcement measures, including a measure allowing police to charge dealers with murder in overdose deaths. The bills now head to the Assembly.


Vancouver Tells Marc Emery to Cool It With His Cannabis Day Festival. "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery and his wife, Jodie, have been holding an annual July 1 Cannabis Day protest for nearly 20 years, but now Vancouver city officials have told them to cease and desist because "the city does not support or approve this event at this location as planned." But Jodie Emery said that people are going to show up regardless, and if there are any problems, "that's going to fall on the shoulders of the City reps who made this call."

Canada Supreme Court Expands Definition of Medical Marijuana to Include Edibles. The Canadian high court today ruled that medical marijuana is not limited to dried, smoked flowers, but also includes edibles, extracts, and derivatives. Read the opinion here.

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