In the Know with Mo Flow: Up In Smoke

By July 23, 2012 No Comments
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In 1992, Governor Bill Clinton was a presidential candidate looking to unseat the incumbent President George H.W. Bush. When asked if he had ever used marijuana, he stated that he tried it as a student while at Oxford University in the late 1960’s. He also said that he “didn’t inhale, and…didn’t try it again.” 14 years later in 2006, Senator Barack Obama was presented with the same question, to which he answered “I inhaled. That was the point.” Since the use and possession of marijuana was outlawed in the United States in the 1930’s, societal acceptance of its use has gradually increased in spite of its criminality. According to the United Nations, marijuana is the most used illicit drug in the world. There are no countries in the world where the use of marijuana is fully legal, but several countries including The Netherlands-Amsterdam, Peru, India, and Australia have greatly decriminalized its use and possession.


Marijuana is one of many names given to the Cannabis sativa plant when the plant is used as a drug. The major chemical compound that is found in the Cannabis sativa plant is called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which in combination with other cannabinoids acts on cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells that produce the psychoactive effects that comprise the “high” experienced by marijuana users. These cannabinoid receptors are found in the parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. Users describe the marijuana high as a trance-like state that alters the mind’s thought processes. It is classified as a depressant, causing a general “slowing down” in mental and/or physical functioning. The potency of marijuana has increased steadily of the years with the cross-pollination of stronger strains of the Cannabis sativa plant with increasingly high levels of THC. Marijuana is consumed in numerous ways, including rolling with paper or cigar leaves into a joint or blunt, smoking with a pipe, vaporizing, and cooking to extract the THC into prepared foods.


Cannabis sativa has maintained a significant presence throughout the written history of mankind. For example, the Cannabis sativa plant is one of the five sacred plants mentioned in the Hindu holy textArthava Veda, and is referred to several times in the Old Testament as kaneh-bosm. It has been used as a form of medicine for thousands of years, and is used by some religious groups for spiritual purposes. Hemp, the fibrous stalk of the cannabis sativa plant, is the oldest material ever used by mankind to make cloth and clothing. President George Washington was one of if not the largest producer of hemp in the Thirteen Colonies, and Benjamin Franklin used hemp to develop one of America’s first paper mills. However, the Prohibition Era brought with it increased scrutiny of mind-altering substances, including the flowers and leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant.

The Uniform State Narcotic Act, which was developed from 1925 to 1932, was the first major piece of legislation that gave states the authority to seize drugs used in illicit trade, including marijuana. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed around the same time in 1930. This was followed by the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which solidified the outlawing of marijuana. At this time, the negative effects of marijuana on its users were beginning to get a lot of public attention, although there was a great deal of disagreement over the drug’s overall effects. It is widely believed that the illegality of marijuana largely stems from the racist ideologies of the era during which it was outlawed. The very term “marijuana” has its origins in the observation of Mexican immigrants using the drug, and its link to the Cannabis sativa plant and hemp were not commonly understood. Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, is quoted as saying: “Reefer makes darkies think they are just as good as white men” and that “the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” It is also believed that the desire to eliminate hemp as a major supplier of paper as well as cloth and clothing (to make way for nylon and other synthetic fibers) in addition to the inability of pharmaceutical companies to standardize dosages of the drug at the time were major factors in the push to make marijuana illegal. Mr. Anslinger and his supporters claimed that marijuana caused hypersexuality among its users, as well as violence and irrationality. Propaganda including sensationalized newspaper articles and films such as the 1938 film “Reefer Madness” were produced to solidify these views in the eyes of the public. Many disputed these claims, including Dr. William C. Woodward, head of the Legislative Council of the American Medical Association, and a research team of physicians and scientists commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. However, Mr. Anslinger and his supporters prevailed. The Vietnam era brought with it a culture of rebellion among members of the Baby Boom generation, bringing with it a surge in marijuana use and acceptance. The Nixon administration responded by reaffirming its illegality with the introduction of the “War on Drugs”, which continues to this day. However, these legislative limitations have not stopped the gradually growing prominence of marijuana in the mainstream of America.


Today, there are numerous television shows and Hollywood films that feature marijuana use as normal and acceptable. The use of marijuana is also highlighted in the music industry, and artists of all genres from jazz to punk rock herald it as their drug of choice. Hip Hop artists are no exception. A significant percentage of Hip Hop artists talk about smoking marijuana in their music. These artists include Dr. Dre (“The Chronic” and “Chronic 2001”), Cypress Hill (“Hits From The Bong”, “Dr. Greenthumb”), Bone Thugs N Harmony (“Buddha Lovaz”, “For Smokers Only”), Eminem (“Drugs”, “Must Be The Ganja”), 50 Cent (“High All The Time”), Styles P (“I Get High”), Three 6 Mafia (“Stay High”) and Lil’ Wayne (“Kush”, “Wasted”), who opens many of his songs with the sound of lighting up. Some artists are known especially for their marijuana smoking exploits, the most famous of which is Snoop Dogg. He along with Wiz Khalifa recently starred in “Mac and Devin Go To High School”, which complements the film “How High” starring Method Man and Redman as major Hollywood films featuring the comedic glorification of marijuana use. These films are a far cry from “Reefer Madness”, which had movie posters referring to marijuana as “the torturer that never stops”.

There are some major artists that do not center on the use of marijuana in their music, either for moral reasons or because it is simply not their drug of choice. One such artist is Jay-Z. Jay-Z has stated that he only really smokes marijuana while on vacation in the Caribbean or in other similar circumstances, and that at most other times he likes to keep a clear head in order to stay focused on his robust business empire. In his book “Decoded”, Jay-Z recalls an encounter with marijuana he had with the late Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie. Biggie smoked a lot of marijuana, and one time he finally got Jay-Z to take a few hits of a blunt with him. He then leaned over to a virtually incapacitated Jay-Z and said “I got ya.” Jay-Z states that his encounter with Biggie really messed with his head and at that point Biggie taught him a very a valuable lesson: to never “get caught slippin”.


The effects of marijuana on urban life are very complex, and Hip Hop attempts to capture this complexity. Many Hip Hop artists have described marijuana as a means by which to “numb the pain”, or to mitigate the cruelty of life in the ghetto. Others have described it as a means by which to make money and maintain lifestyle, or to merely survive, in the face of the absence of other seemingly viable opportunities. It has also been described as a catalyst of the creative process, as many artists of all types including musical, visual, and literary artists use marijuana hand-in-hand with the production of their art. Some merely refer to its use as the beginning of good times to be had. However, in Hip Hop’s myriad descriptions of the use of marijuana, the reality of its addictive properties is often lost, ignored, and/or wholly misunderstood.


There are a lot of misconceptions about the addictive properties of marijuana. It has been widely reported that marijuana is not physically addictive, and is more so psychologically addictive. However, the increased strength of Cannabis sativa has led to an increased risk of addiction to marijuana among its users, as well as the risk of developing withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. Chronic marijuana users who begin to abstain have reported a number of physical withdrawal symptoms, including loss of appetite, insomnia, headaches, and nausea. Anxiety, irritability, and even aggression have also been reported as symptoms of marijuana withdrawal.


There have been many Hip Hop artists that have stopped smoking marijuana for a variety of reasons. Kid Cudi has by far been the loudest with his decision, and definitely went out with a bang. Prior to his decision, Kid Cudi was very well known in the music industry for his marijuana-smoking exploits. Kid Cudi’s song “Marijuana” on the album “Man on the Moon, Vol II” is a melodic and almost sacrosanct tribute to the drug. Ironically, he announced his decision to stop smoking marijuana during one of his shows prior to performing the song. During his announcement, he alluded to the fact that he was not using marijuana recreationally and was indeed abusing the drug: “While I was in that state of mind I just was missing a lot….that was going on in my circle. I just felt like I needed to just take a step back, clear my dome and focus on some real important [things]. Like my daughter for one, my family, my business, things that are important. But you know, don’t be sad, I had a good run right?” The music video for “Marijuana” is a documentary-style montage shot by friend and actor Shia LeBeouf chronicling his trip to Amsterdam for the 2010 Cannabis Cup, where Kid Cudi was a judge and performer. Kid Cudi has called the music video an “RIP to his smoking career”. Kid Cudi received some backlash from fans for his decision to quit marijuana, to whom he responded: “You didn’t care about me in the first place if you can’t be proud and happy for me for growing and starting a new chapter. I’m not your puppet or your tap-dancing drug addict here to be your miserable muse.”


Several members of The Wu-tang Clan, one of the most revered groups in Hip Hop history, also recently stopped using marijuana. Ghostface Killah stopped smoking marijuana in part because of his struggle with diabetes. However, he also said that using marijuana began to take a toll on his memory, energy level, and focus, which began to take a toll on his craft. Wu-Tang Clan members RZA and GZA both quit for similar reasons. Both have said that smoking marijuana used to go hand-in-hand with their music production. However, GZA said that marijuana affected his motivation, and that he believes he could have done much more with his music career had he not used it at such a high frequency. RZA has said that he has successfully “transferred” himself by breaking the link between his music and marijuana. Method Man has also begun to distance himself from marijuana use. His focus on raising his children was one source of motivation for the decision. However, the star of the infamous marijuana-themed movie “How High” also stated that he did not want people to always assume that he was high on marijuana or want his name to always be associated with the drug. Other artists, including Cee-Lo and Yelawolf, stopped smoking marijuana because of anxiety attacks they suffered following its use.


The use of marijuana does have a number of negative physical effects, including respiratory problems similar to those experienced by tobacco users as well as increased heart rate and subsequent increased risk of heart attack and arrhythmia. Also, in addition to deficits in learning, memory, attention, coordination, and problem solving, marijuana use may also lead to difficulties in maintaining one’s social life as well as job performance or productivity. However, the psychiatric effects of marijuana use can be devastating. A number of studies have pointed to a positive correlation between marijuana use and the development of anxiety or depression overtime. What is even more alarming is that the risk of developing psychosis is three times as high in marijuana users versus non-marijuana users. Cannabis-induced psychosis is a specific type of psychosis that is marked by disorientation, memory problems, paranoia, visual hallucinations, and other symptoms after consuming the drug. Symptoms of Cannabis-induced psychosis that last longer than a few days may be indicative of the development of schizophrenia or a schizophrenia-related psychiatric disorder. There are a number of studies that have linked the use of cannabis to an increased risk of developing schizophrenia in susceptible individuals, who develop the disease at earlier ages than those susceptible individuals that do not use marijuana. It has been reported that cannabis-induced psychosis may have been the cause of the violent, cannibalistic attack of the “Miami Zombie” Rudy Eugene, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia not long before the attack occurred.

The effects of marijuana use are particularly poignant among young users, as their brains are still in development and thus more susceptible to its potential negative effects overtime. Studies indicate that marijuana use can negatively affect learning and academic achievement, and young people who smoke marijuana are less likely to graduate from high school than those that do not. In 2009, 15% of 8th graders and 42% of 12th graders had tried marijuana in their lifetime. 1% of 8th graders and 6% of 12th graders reported daily use. Many of the parents of these young people belong to the infamously rebellious Baby-Boom generation, whose members generally have more relaxed attitudes and expectations regarding marijuana use in their children than past generations of parents. Regardless, the percentage of young marijuana users has been gradually decreasing over the past decade, following an increase in the 1990’s. The decline in marijuana use among youth in the U.S. is in part attributed to the effectiveness of recent media campaigns discouraging marijuana use among youth, including the “Above The Influence” campaign. Many contend that the success of the “Above The Influence” campaign is due to its ability to tap into teenagers’ desire to be independent and self-sufficient, as opposed to merely warning them about the risks of using the drug. However, high school students are now more likely to smoke marijuana than to smoke cigarettes, as tobacco is perceived to be more harmful. Some elementary and middle school children have even used tea leaves and other herbs to mimic the smoking of marijuana. There have also been instances reported in the media where children have found and brought their parents’ or other family members’ stash of marijuana to school for “Show And Tell” or to share with their classmates.


Although the negative physical and mental health risks of marijuana are substantial, marijuana can also provide substantial health benefits to those suffering from a variety of illnesses. It has been reported that from 1850 to 1942, marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia as a treatment for labor pains, nausea, and rheumatism. Studies have demonstrated that marijuana is effective in reducing muscle spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, pain caused by neurological injuries and other illnesses, loss of appetite and other unpleasant symptoms stemming from chemotherapy and radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer, and ocular pressure in the treatment of glaucoma, among other health benefits.


As Hip Hop is the “CNN of the Ghetto” as described by Hip Hop legend and Hip Hop Public Health-supporting artist Chuck D, Hip Hop artists have also vividly described how the purported “War on Drugs” has affected young men and women of color in urban areas. Marijuana-related arrests account for more than one-half of drug-related arrests in the United States annually. In 2010, over 850,000 arrests that were made were marijuana-related. Many marijuana-related arrests are first-time arrests, and many of the people that are arrested for marijuana-related crimes become hardened criminals overtime once they are introduced to the relentless tentacles of the criminal justice system. Hip Hop artists have also addressed the fact that non-minorities in both urban and suburban areas have similar rates of marijuana use and engage in criminal acts involving marijuana and other drugs at similar frequencies, but are not profiled, detained, prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced at nearly the same levels as their minority urban-dwelling counterparts.

This narrative has played out dramatically in New York City, the birthplace of Hip Hop. The harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws in combination with the controversial “Stop and Frisk” tactic employed by the NYPD has led to thousands of marijuana-related arrests in New York City annually, the large majority of which are young Black and Latino men. One of the most controversial aspects of the “Stop and Frisk” tactic is police officers requiring suspects to empty their pockets, and if they have marijuana in their pockets, they get a higher sentence for having the marijuana out in the open than they would had they had it in the privacy of their homes. The pursuit of marijuana offenders in urban areas sometimes turns deadly. For example, on February 2nd of this year, 18-year old Ramarley Graham was gunned down by NYPD Officer Richard Haste in a tragic series of events initiated by Ramarley’s suspected sales of marijuana in front of a bodega in his neighborhood. Ramarley was unarmed, and was shot inside of his bathroom while trying to flush a small amount of marijuana down the toilet in a vain attempt to avoid prosecution.


While New York has some of the most stringent policies upholding the illegality of marijuana, its West Coast counterpart California is the most marijuana-friendly state in the Union. In 1996, via the Compassionate Use Act, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and is the only state that sponsors medical marijuana research.   In 2010, California voted on Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana in the state. The proposition lost by a 53.5-46.5 margin due to a number of factors, including the vague language of the initiative, the chaos that people believed it could bring to the politics of the state, the ease of obtaining medical marijuana with or without a prescription, and the uncertainty of the effect of the initiative on the activity of drug cartels operating in the state. One of the primary arguments in favor of the initiative, which include the potential for reducing crime and police corruption, creating revenue for the state, and freeing up law enforcement resources, was reducing the racial bias in marijuana arrests.


The argument about the place for marijuana in U.S. society will continue to be a source of controversy for years to come. While many members of the Hip Hop community will continue to embrace the use of marijuana for a variety of reasons, it is important that the conversation of marijuana in Hip Hop stay true to the origins of the genre and its movement: addressing the injustices faced by the people that the culture represents. For example, while Hip Hop artists should continue to speak out against the disproportionate prosecution of people of color for marijuana possession and sale-related crimes, they should not only encourage their listeners to pursue legal means of supporting themselves, but should also use their resources to help create such opportunities. The Hip Hop community must also continue to support measures that expand health care coverage, which can help to provide resources to people who are dealing with marijuana addiction and/or other physical or mental health issues stemming from use of the drug. Also, it is important that revelers in the culture are honest with themselves and others about the potential negative effects of marijuana in addition to its actual and perceived positive effects, so that people who are indeed struggling with an addiction to the drug can identify and feel comfortable acknowledging their addiction and seeking help without fear of ridicule or obligatory relapse. Hip Hop artists should also encourage young people to protect their physical and mental health, to which marijuana is a potential threat.


Hip Hop Public Health staunchly discourages the use of marijuana. For example, all of the Hip Hop artists that are affiliated with Hip Hop Public Health, including Doug E. Fresh, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Easy A.D. of the Legendary Cold Crush Brothers, do not use the drug. While our team acknowledges that the use of medical marijuana to treat health conditions for which it has been clinically shown to improve symptoms and outcomes should continue in states where it is is legal, we contend that its non-medical use is a Pandora’s Box, particularly for people of color, opening its users up to a number of health, socioeconomic, and legal threats. Young people of color in urban communities, particularly young men, already face a litany of societal barriers to prosperity, including lackluster public education, law enforcement that has been trained to target them, economic environments bereft of employment opportunities and overflowing with prejudice and discrimination, and environmental conditions that propagate and exacerbate poor health outcomes. The illegal use of marijuana leaves people of color even more susceptible to these destructive forces, which can lead to a downward spiral of criminality and subsequent limitations in opportunity, mental and physical health problems, impaired cognitive functioning, and/or substandard academic and career achievement. Frankly, pervasive marijuana use is yet another chain that needs to be broken in the pursuit of true freedom for people of color in this country.


Through its various initiatives, the Hip Hop Public Health team encourages healthy lifestyle choices for thousands of elementary school children annually. However, the Hip Hop Public Health team, led by Easy A.D. of the Legendary Cold Crush Brothers, is also in the process of developing The Hip Hop Public Health Academy, which will target middle and high school students to create awareness about drug use and other public health and social issues that affect them and their communities. Our efforts are a small segment of the concerted effort on behalf of all concerned parties that is essential to ensuring that the future of our children does not go up in smoke.