When I was 16, my mother caught me with a roach that I forgot in a matchbox which I foolishly left in my pant pocket. Within a few months of the incident, that little box sent me packing from a tropical paradise on the idyllic shores of Puerto Vallarta, to a ‘top-notch’ Catholic boarding school in New England.
Within weeks of arriving from Mexico to my new school, I started hanging out with the local cannabis aficionados. If anything, the way my mother reacted had pushed me deeper into rebellion and further away from the desire to want to pursue the life that she and my father had laid out for me. I hung with the hippies, got into Grateful Dead and Phish, and I started a whole new era of my young adult life.
It was then that I met Jay. I had never met someone with his background, and we found common ground in that he was almost as much of a misfit at that school as I was.
Jay was from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the state of New York and was awarded a scholarship to attend my school—one of the highest-ranking private schools in the country—thanks to a program that awarded outstanding academic and athletic achievement in lower-income families.
As for me, the only reason I got in was because my hardcore Catholic grandma knew someone who could pull some strings with the Benedictine monastery headmaster. It was way above what my parents could afford but they spent every penny they had to make it work.
Jay was one of three Black kids in the entire school, and the only one there under scholarship. He was well aware of the fact that the opportunity that had fallen onto his lap was truly one in a million, and so he was doing everything in his power to make the most out of this rare chance.
We were both in drama class and that’s where we became acquainted. Both of us were there not so much because we loved the stage but more so because it was one of the easier classes to ace. You see, most of the kids at this school were so rich that it would have been hard for them to get kicked out. For kids like me and Jay, it was different.
Every year was do or die. I slowly crumbled under the pressure. My academic performance was mediocre and my interest shifted away from sports towards music and psychedelics. My clock was ticking.
Meanwhile, Jay was absolutely killing it. Top grades, top athlete, popular, smart, and with the gift of the gab…this kid was unstoppable!
Yep, kids like Jay knew that they had to be perfect in order to be in a place like this. And he was. But there was just one thing: Jay liked weed just a little bit too much.
At first, it was just for him. He would sneak a little into school after being home for the weekend and keep it on the way down low, only letting out a few tastes to the lucky few. But you know how these things are.
Soon every one of his friends knew where to get the NY fire. And we bugged him about it.
Eventually, he conceded to selling some to his friends and gradually it became a regular thing. His family could not afford an allowance, so it became a natural fit as this was his only way to pay for stuff outside of the room and board afforded to him under the scholarship.
I wasn’t his closest friend but I could have never seen it coming. Jay was ten times more popular and hung out with a different crew than me—the Untouchables, I used to call them. Kids that were so rich, smart, athletic, popular…they just seemed so happy, like nobody could even touch them. But one day it all went away for Jay. All for a small-time hustle.
He got caught with a few ounces of weed in the mail. One of his friends back home was sending him a re-up in a box of shoes and the cops caught it.
Word got out later that the school got suspicious and that it was actually the school itself that called the cops on Jay after catching the weed inside some sneakers. They charged him with intent to distribute. The cops showed up at the school and took him away in handcuffs. I never saw him again.
Race and Class in Cannabis Criminalization
It was traumatic to the whole school. We all loved this kid. It made me so angry when I saw what happened to him just because he was sharing/selling some harmless herb, while other kids were getting plastered on prescription meds and Bacardi 151.
The whole situation only made me want to get further away from mainstream society, deeper into the Phish scene, psychedelics, and alternative culture, repulsed by the complacency of my peers. I was not happy.
Jay was one of the funniest, most talented, hard-working people I have ever met and just like that he was gone. No matter what happened to him after, I knew that Jay’s life would never be the same. All of his accomplishments, hopes, and dreams were thrown away because he chose to smoke, share, and occasionally sell cannabis to his friends.
Kids hook up other kids all the time, but it’s kids like Jay who often pay the ultimate price.
Shortly after, I was also caught with cannabis and likewise, they expelled me. They sent me back home and told me that I should feel lucky that they did not call the cops and have me arrested. I, like Jay, was stripped of my life, my friends, girlfriend, and all academic dreams I could have had in the US. But my price was not even a fraction of what Jay had to pay.
I arrived in Mexico and plugged right back into my upper-middle-class lifestyle, re-connected with friends and got back to my life. My parents were angrier at the school than they were at me. They saw how deeply affected I was by the experience and how unfair the situation was. I was expelled because I was caught doing the wrong drug and my parents just weren’t rich enough. After this, they started to become more supportive of my love for cannabis and things started getting a lot better for me.
Jay, on the other hand, was 17 with a criminal record and living with a family that could not afford to give him a good life or hopes of a better future. He would have to find that for himself despite knowing the fact that the world may never look at him the same way again.
It is important to mention that I am a Mexican of mostly European descent. Despite what most Mexicans will tell you (particularly privileged ones), race is a huge factor in who has opportunities and who does not in my country. Native people in Mexico experience something similar to what Black people experience in the US—these groups are shut out of power circles because of how they look, dress, and sound.
Remember that Jay did not grow up in a privileged neighbourhood. He dressed and spoke differently from the rest of the kids in that school, and he stuck out like a sore thumb even though he excelled in both athletics and academic performance. One has to wonder what circumstances lead to the detention and search of that sneaker box sent in from the poorest boroughs of Queens.
Would the school have caught the package and/or disciplined so harshly if that sneaker box was addressed to any of the 600+ wealthy white kids?
I can still recall how earlier that year some of the kids from Newport (where some of the most extravagant 18th-century mansions in the entire country can be found) were, in fact, caught by police in the back of a van having a sex party with cocaine, prescription drugs, and alcohol. These kids were from local ‘old money’ families that were untouchable. It was then that I learned that Mexicans and Americans are not that different after all.
In my case too, this type of leniency hinged on race and social influence, as the school did not notify authorities about my stash, nor did they assume I was dealing, as in Jay’s case. Jay was the wrong guy, in the wrong place, caught with the wrong drug, and society made an example of him.
As the years have passed, I often think of him and that school… and wonder what could have been.
Cannabis Legalization and Criminalization
Today, a lot has changed legally speaking, but not enough has changed culturally and socially. Mainstream society still characterizes anyone who has grown/sold this plant outside of the regulated system as a ‘criminal’ and most people seem perfectly fine with this. Kids are still unnecessarily removed from their schools, put into treatment, sent to juvie, etc, because they like cannabis. Adults lose their jobs, their cars, athletes’ medals are stripped, and families continue to lose their lives and livelihoods in regulated and unregulated countries all over the world without proper justification.
We are simply miles from understanding how to effectively liberate ourselves from the oppressive and illogical nature of our past. In the year 2021, we still have not fully realized that we do not need a hammer to crack an egg.
This plant does not need to be regulated as if it was ‘dangerous’.
We do not need to criminalize those who have resorted to growing and selling cannabis as a form of income, especially not those who are doing so as a form of survival. The truth is that the bulk of the people growing cannabis around the world are doing so for subsistence, out of need and in many cases not by choice.
Growing plants and fungi as a form of sustenance are fundamental human rights, not meant for only those with the funds and influence to afford to legally partake in their production. It is sad that this can be considered a radical thought in today’s world.
Common human practices like drug use, drug trade, and sex trade are not going away using the time-honored system of labelling perpetrators as ‘criminals’ and simply throwing them into the penitentiary system. It just doesn’t work and there are better ways to do things. All we have to do is care.
Effective and true-intentioned legalization must have reconciliation and inclusivity for those affected by the injustice of the ongoing drug war as central objectives, but that is just not how things have played out up to now. In fact, quite the opposite.
Our North American brand of ‘cannabis legalization’—which is sadly being adopted by many foreign nations—has placed virtually all of its focus on commercialization and taxation, with cost structures that allow only the very lucky few to participate in ownership.
Our cannabis laws, although some of the most evolved on the planet, have as of yet failed to provide any solid framework for itself or any other nation to build a truly inclusive industry, where ending the persecution of the cannabis user/grower is authentically the central objective.
Each of us making a living from this plant have a responsibility to challenge the stigma of prohibition in our own community, workplace, and in the halls of power. Cannabis amnesty laws must evolve, but perhaps the process by which society labels someone a ‘criminal’ as a whole and how we then allow ourselves to treat these individuals must change at a fundamental level if we are ever going to evolve as a society.
Criminalization does not rehabilitate the individual or the community that produced them. Period.
It only deepens trauma and perpetuates systemic forms of poverty and racism that further entrench the challenges that led to the ‘criminal’ incident(s).
Our mistakes do not define us.
All humans have a fundamental worth that cannot be discarded under any circumstances and the modern penal and penitentiary system transgresses this line in more ways than one.
Before we can learn how to change laws to be more human, we must first learn to be more human ourselves.
I am still not okay with what happened to Jay.
In fact, Jay is only one of many people in my life who have had to sacrifice their lives to teach me what is truly right from wrong. Like his story, I have 20 more friends who have been sent to jail, kidnapped, tortured and killed….all because of the war on drugs.
These stories must be remembered. It is painful for me to remember, but in the context of today’s world it is a sacrifice that I am willing to make. My only hope is that one day the world will be ready to say, “Enough is enough!”