Peace, Drugs, and Education


The resilience of youth is incredible. I spent this morning discussing legalization of cannabis with a student for his “breaking stereotypes” project at Muzot High School for the arts. Ron is a passionate and sweet kid– he lives alone with his mother in Jaffa and clearly enjoys the “greener” side of things. His artistic talent got him accepted to Muzot after failing out of other high schools, but still the challenge of getting him to focus on academics through ADHD and dyslexia seems insurmountable at times to his teachers.

That’s where I come in. Maybe it’s because I’m not held responsible for his test scores, or maybe it’s just my Berkeley background, but as a volunteer I find that all the formalities and barriers that often get in the way of true education simply don’t exist in my work. The moment Ron walks into the room after his teacher has briefed me on the fact that she’s desperate because a) he’s on the brink of failing his junior year if he doesn’t finish, b) everyone else has finished weeks ago, and c) all the hours of work we did together on the project before Hanukkah has mysteriously disappeared to somewhere irrecoverable on the school’s shitty old computers. I’m ready for him with my favorite Lauryn Hill song and a casual smile. Good morning, Ron!

We get right to work. I summarize the introduction he managed to salvage from the previous work, and launch into questions. “You’ve set out to disprove stereotypes here about cannabis, and to get it legalized. Why should it be legalized?” He talks, and I write. We don’t worry about research and citing sources– though his teacher has told me I should copy from the internet and do the work for him if that’s what it takes to finish the project, I’ve shrugged that aside. I’m interested in his learning. Of course I care that he passes, but the only way I see that happening is if he somehow gains confidence and interest in expressing himself on paper.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much “Freedom Writers” stories, but I honestly believe that the value of education for at-risk children like Ron is in the personal confidence and creativity it allows them if done authentically. I like hearing Ron’s opinions, and find that his anecdotes about his sick mother’s positive experiences with medical marijuana exhibit more genuine understanding of the need to legalize than most policymakers. Though I’m a “teacher,” I feel no moral quandaries with listening to his artistic and relaxing experiences with the drug– and slowly this opens space for us both to recognize the harmful affects of using marijuana. Laziness. Damage to brain cells. Escape. Understanding in these students is born from honesty and trust, not from lectures or test prep. Then he pulls the hemp card and I see light in his eyes as he describes to me the prospects of biofuel and textiles made from natural products.

As we discuss Amsterdam, I worry that maybe his paper lacks facts. But quickly, I realize that the stories he tells about his mother’s trip to Amsterdam, where she sat in the streets making art and smoking pot while people rode by on their bikes, are also evidence for his beliefs about reality. I force-feed him small tidbits of research from the internet, and try to breathe life into their dull timbre by adding my own opinions and interpretations of the philosophy behind the laws in Holland. We discuss personal freedom (and I learn that assisted suicide is also legal in Dutch law) and the refusal to sweep social problems under the rug where they’ll fester. Ron waxes poetic as he declares “The U.S. has a War on Drugs while Amsterdam is a City of Peace!” For Israelis, the thought of a country with no war seems utopic. I wonder if he’s onto something with the legalization thing… Instead of giving up after the frustrating loss of his first draft, Ron is back in the game.

The criminalization and taboo status of drugs forces youth into a corner. They’re hurt and passionate and curious and rebellious– many turn to marijuana and find themselves imprisoned or labeled in files that determine their future opportunities, or lack thereof. Though discussing the benefits of marijuana use in a high school where students already battle infinite distractions and learning disabilities may seem counter-intuitive, it’s actually not. Bringing issues out into the open, where they can breathe and be demystified in the light of educational dialogue will only serve to empower our youth who battle with guilt and feelings of inadequacy day after day.

Let’s tax marijuana so that we can direct those funds to drug education and art therapy in schools for at-risk students. Let’s give them a chance to make peace in themselves by confiding in their teachers and counselors. And as Ron says, let’s make cities of peace by turning inward and allowing for individual freedom to trump national “security” from that which frightens us. From this, we can build community.

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