the double entendre of the "gateway drug"

There are so many aspects of the Travyon Martin tragedy that highlight the rampant racism and injustice still raging in our society, that I barely know where to begin when trying to formulate some cohesive thoughts on the pièces de résistance of Zimmerman’s acquittal. So I have chosen to highlight just one small piece of “evidence” used during the trial to cast the victim (Travyon) as perpetrator, as a broadly misunderstood (at best), mis-diagnosed and misappropriated player in the lives of young men that look like him. This important piece in the game of (in)justice is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana.

The point of this piece is not to call on a bevy of academic research about whether marijuana leads to violence. Anyone who knows people that smoke marijuana, or who has at any point smoked it him/herself, knows intuitively that of all the drugs we have at our disposal, including the legal ones, marijuana is probably least likely to lead to violence. In fact, non-scientifically speaking, most people I have known throughout my life that smoke it, do so to calm their minds, or possibly tap into a non-manic creative stream of thought. So: the fact that the amount of THC in Trayvon Martin’s system was even considered relevant to the case at all is problematic. Even more so, was the flip that the “expert opinion” made from initially claiming that the amount of THC in Trayvon’s system was not significant (to be ruled a factor in any way, no matter whether you buy the myth that it leads to violent behavior or not) to then, all of a sudden, claiming that it in fact was a significant enough amount to matter: i.e. to be able to be used as a weapon in demonizing the victim as a perpetrator.

In light of this high profile example of our persistent societal mis-diagnosis of marijuana’s role in the lives of many young people, I wanted to recycle a post I wrote last fall:

September 19, 2012

Many young people in New York City enter the juvenile or criminal (adult) justice system because they are holding small amounts of marijuana for their own personal use. Even though marijuana needs to be “in public view” in order for the carrier to be charged with a criminal offense, rampant stop and frisk policies by the NYPD violate people’s rights by illegally forcing people to empty their pockets so contents are in public view. Marijuana arrests are the number one charge in NYC presently, constituting one out of seven arrests. (Truthout)

At a recent panel put together by five exalt alumni who constitute the New York Juvenile Justice Initiative Youth Council, adults on the panel who work extensively with youth in the juvenile justice system were asked to comment on how the youth they interact with and deal with stress.Sharieff Clayton, a Program Coordinator at a program that works with youth in the system, and who refers many of his participants to exalt, highlighted the fact that many youth turn to smoking marijuana as a means of coping with stress, trauma, depression or some combination of those. This fact, combined with the phenomenon of marijuana arrests being the gateway for young people to enter the criminal justice system, by deduction, he argued, means we are “criminalizing depression.” There was a necessary pause after he said this. A silent space in which something seemed to click into place.

I immediately thought about Esther Armah’s upcoming book on what she calls “emotional justice.” Referencing “all of the spaces where Black people battled, bled and died for freedom; for the right to breathe, vote, live; for the right of economic equity, land, self-governance” over the centuries, she argues that “emotional justice is the remedy for the legacy of untreated trauma impacting us as a people.” Failure to recognize the power and repercussions of unacknowledged and unaddressed trauma has consequences for all of us. “Silence from untreated trauma creates walking wounded — hurt warriors moving through the world…” This is a very apt description of so many exalt youth, boys and girls. They witness and bear more than children should and by the time they enter the system, they are often almost numb to the implications of the crossroads they are at.

This correlation between Sharieff’s poignant observation and Esther Armah’s clearly thought out thesis does not suggest that all young people of color are depressed, nor that all those who smoke weed, nor that we should enable youth who smoke weed to become dependent on an altered state in order to cope with their environments. Rather, it is to contextualize behaviors that we as a society are swift to punish rather than dedicated to healing. We demonize marijuana, and blame those who select it as a means of softening the hard edges of violence, arguing, death, poverty, anger and uncertainty for succumbing to this “gateway” drug. It’s not marijuana that is the source of exalt youths’ potential long term problems, it is our simplistic reaction to its classification as a drug which causes us to endorse ineffective definitions of and responses to crime.

When those of us with enough means – economically and emotionally – to seek and afford self-help resources such as therapy, nicotine patches, spas, organic fruit and vegetable diets, or even just accessing a competent doctor for a sound diagnosis of a problem – seek to change a (bad) habit, we are often directed to the psychological crutch of replacing the bad habit with a good one. Exercise instead of eat or smoke, change your environment if you find yourself in one that triggers familiar habits. The latter can be quite challenging for exalt youth before they find us. Even though it seems so simple – “why don’t they just explore other parts of the city?” – it’s not. If we want them to replace one habit (smoking weed as a way to alter their state of mind, even their ability to withstand the same environment they feel they can’t escape) with another, we have to give them a viable alternative.

At exalt we don’t drug test. But at CASES, where I developed exalt’s predecessor program, we had to for compliance with the courts. We saw that youth who participated in the internship program had far more success at abstaining from smoking marijuana than those who participated in traditional “substance abuse” prevention classes. We gave them a meaningful incentive to stop: an engaging learning experience and the opportunity to put it to practice in meaningful work experiences.

I know for sure that some exalt youth smoke marijuana to some degree. But I also know that they learn quickly they cannot come to our program high. So for a critical period of their day, during the time that most arrests, including stop and frisk arrests, happen, they are engaged in constructive personal and educational development. They are not doing “busy work”. They are not just at someplace else. They are intellectually stimulated and they are using their intellect, creativity and imagination along with a group of their peers. This is a powerful component of what we provide – positive peer associations. Youth who have all been individually and collective labeled as “bad”, “criminal”, “failures” hold each other accountable for positive behavior and support of one another.

So many of our habits, our most entrenched behaviors, are reactions or coping mechanisms for underlying emotions: fear, loneliness, frustration, boredom, anxiety, a sense of being less than, worthless, rejected. exalt youth typically come from communities in which a disproportionate percent of people have high levels of these emotions due to concrete, constrictive circumstances, not just mental machinations explored through choice in the comfort of a therapist’s office or over a glass of top shelf whiskey in a swanky bar after a day of earning a living wage. I love what therapy can do, and I relish a glass of good whiskey. And I also know extreme sadness, angst, fear and a sense of hopelessness. But for the most part, when I employ one of the tools I use to help sort these out, I am not at risk for being arrested and facing a life trajectory of disenfranchisement, untreated depression and unaddressed anger. It will be hard to develop concrete definitions or agreements for what emotional justice may be, but the very concept itself warrants attention.

Even if you’re not in a position to, or not inspired enough to say, take on an exalt youth as an intern, you can contribute towards a paradigm shift in how we treat our youth by simply understanding them better. They are constantly asked and told to adapt to worlds outside of their own. Perhaps we should at least mentally contemplate how we’d adapt to theirs. 

Executive Director

Executive Director