While visiting a middle school in the Bronx, an 8th grade student asked me, “Why is marijuana becoming legal?” I thought this was a good question. Other than revenue, I did not have a good answer. As an educator, I tend to look at legislation and policies from the lens of what impact will this have on children and the message that we give to them. This brings me to the legalization of marijuana. This is a multi-pronged subject that covers health, social, economic, and cultural issues, not to mention the history of drugs in American society and more importantly in our inner cities throughout America. As a child of the ’70s in Harlem, I witnessed the devastating effect drugs had on my community. In junior high school we had drug counselors talk to us about drug abuse. They told us the following: it’s a gateway drug, it affects short-term memory, it kills brain cells, it’s addictive. The position was clear: “Stay away from drugs.” Flash forward to today. Celebrities are on
TV endorsing weed; some are invested in cannabis businesses. The rhetoric around this subject is user friendly. So, what changed? The product, the policy, the science, social acceptance or all the above?
So, did my counselors get it right? We were told that marijuana is a gateway drug. I compare this to gambling. Some people can go to Las Vegas and gamble and know when to stop, others are addicted and lose the children’s college fund and the house. Of course, marijuana is a gateway drug and of course it isn’t. According to the CDC, “People who use marijuana and do go on to use other drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) may have a higher risk of dependence or addiction to those drugs, especially if they started using marijuana at an early age and use it frequently.” Just like any other vice it depends on the user. So maybe the message to children should be, this could lead to harder drugs. I cannot think of a more significant message to children exposed to the horrors of drug abuse in the inner cities. In a 2016 article Robert L. Dupont stated, “People who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin.” This does not support the gateway theory; however, it does suggest the correlation and behavioral aspects of these drugs.
As I mentioned, I like to look at current events from the lens of an educator, but on a more granular level, I also look at it with an equity lens. What are the ramifications of marijuana on low-income inner cities that are populated by Black and Brown people? The CDC lists the following factors that contribute to marijuana abuse, they include:
Having another mental health illness (such as anxiety or depression)
Loneliness or social isolation
Lack of family involvement
Most of the above––however not exclusively––are prevalent in inner cities of America. Research shows that health issues in the inner cities are a high priority, ranking with economics, education housing and crime. Pfizer states that, “Blacks are 20% more likely to report psychological distress and 50% less likely to receive counseling or mental health treatment due to the aforementioned underlying socioeconomic factors.” If we compound these issues with preexisting conditions in the Black and Brown communities, the use of marijuana has a significant effect on inner city communities more so than in suburbia. The CDC further states, “The association between marijuana and schizophrenia is stronger in people who start using marijuana at an earlier age and use marijuana more frequently.”
Although marijuana use is evident in all walks of life, legalization will remove the stigmatism surrounding it by making it socially acceptable, usage will no doubt increase, and the pre-existing health concerns will still not be addressed in communities of color. When I hear people say hey it’s ok, I’ll ask, for who? During Prohibition alcohol usage was limited to speakeasies and illegal juke joints; legalization created widespread usage that the mob could only dream of. As a result, alcohol-related crimes in people of color significantly surpassed that of whites. We must be careful of the message we send. The legal message sent will be, to be consumed with responsibility and of legal age (sound familiar?), but the message heard will be, it’s cool. Because we all know underaged people do not consume alcohol and cigarettes. I have witnessed personally this is easier to do in low-income inner cities than in mainstream markets.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, during the 2019/’20 school year, grade 8 African American students were at a 17% proficiency level in English Language Arts and a 12% proficiency in math, compared to their white counterparts in the same grade, these percentages doubled (which is still low). I chose this grade since it’s considered to be an age where they are still in the stage of cognitive brain development. According to the CDC, marijuana affects brain development in babies, children, and teenagers. This will likely create a disproportionality in the cognitive development of Black and Brown students. I am not suggesting that marijuana is the cause for these statistics, but it makes you wonder where our priorities should be for our future and what we should be promoting.
The CDC states the following, “Marijuana use directly affects the brain—specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time. Developing brains, like those in babies, children, and teens, are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of marijuana.”
We must look at marijuana and how it affects people of color as compared to other people. We cannot afford to use generalized data to speak to the effects of Black and Brown consequences, no more than we can look at incarceration rates in America and make a statement on their significance without looking at disproportionality of different ethnic groups in the penal system. In speaking with marijuana users and advocates (the two are not always exclusive) they use generalized data to justify the use of it. Celebrities who endorse marijuana often take this stance. How can someone who is worth $50 million have the same consequences as inner-city children who have vastly different qualities of life? For example, general data will state that there is very little difference in marijuana use in the Black and white communities, research and data suggest this is true, however according to NORML, a nonprofit public interest lobby, African Americans are arrested for violating marijuana possession laws at nearly four times the rates of whites with Blacks representing 94% of those arrested.
If COVID has taught us anything, it is that the high rate of infection in the urban community is exacerbated by the health issues that plague these communities.
If you chose to smoke or consume marijuana that is of course your choice but look at your profile and who you are to accurately assess the health risk and social ramifications that personally affect you rather than listening to someone on TV who doesn’t know you, telling you it’s ok. Remember, our children are watching and the message they receive will be the same, but the consequences and actions of that message will depend on where they are coming from.
Clarence Williams Jr. is a retired assistant superintendent in the New York city public school system. He holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership, a master’s in education administration, and a master’s in multicultural education. Williams Jr. has a K-12 license in special education and educational leadership, has worked as an educator and leader in the public school system for over 30 years and is an adjunct professor.