Guest editorial…Tobacco products and illegal drugs

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I admit, I had no idea what a Swisher Sweet was.

When the pre-teen girl came up to me at the little gas station store with a handful of change and asked me if I would buy her a Swisher Sweet, I thought she was talking about some candy. I told her I would get her the Swisher Sweet but I didn’t need her money. When I asked the clerk for the item and he reached for a little cigar, I stopped him.

Lou-Ransom
LOU RANSOM

I’m late to most of the drug items on the streets. Guys holler out to me that they have that “good green” and I didn’t know they were hawking marijuana. I used to marvel at the mounds of leaf tobacco that collected near my apartment building until someone told me it came from hollowed out mini cigars (like the Swisher Sweets, Black & Mild’s and other brands) that were refilled with marijuana and smoked as “blunts.”

With all of the attention being paid to youth violence on the streets, unsafe schools, gang violence and substandard schools, it would be easy to miss the fact that our young people are in the midst of an unprecedented illegal drug use epidemic.

While 2007 figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that Black youths are actually less likely than White and Hispanic youths to use alcohol and illegal drugs, the drug use usually influences all those other problems listed in the above paragraph.

And those CDC figures don’t seem to reflect what many store owners are seeing. As one proprietor told me last week, he doesn’t want to stock his shelves with all of the flavored cigars and exotic rolling papers (remember when Topps came in one flavor—no flavor at all?), but he realized if he didn’t stock them, people would just go elsewhere to get them.

“I guarantee you that what I have on the shelves will be sold out this evening,” said the proprietor, who requested that he not be identified. “They just leap off the shelves and sometimes that is the only reason they come in here.”

Buttressing his point, while I was in the store talking to him, at least five people came in looking for the paraphernalia. When told he didn’t have the raspberry or the vanilla, they bought other flavors as single cigars (instead of five to a pack.)

It wasn’t kids buying the cigars, of course. You get carded for tobacco products. But these were young people, late teens and early 20s, and a few older folks who ought to know better. It was before eight in the morning and they were trooping in to get their cigars so they could smoke their drugs.

Some of those young people have been taught that marijuana use is no big deal. Their parents have been smoking for 20 and 30 years and will tell me they can quit whenever they want to (they just don’t want to). These are the do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do parents. Some of their parents even argue for legalization of marijuana. But even with legalization, you wouldn’t want your teenage toking up, would you?

But it is not all perception. In an economy where the Black unemployment rate is over 20 percent, Black youths still need to get money—for shoes and shirts and Hot Cheetos and… well, drugs. That job at Popeye’s won’t fund that kind of lifestyle. The underground economy will fill the void, and it is underground because it is usually illegal. Selling drugs funds a lot of activities on the streets, and I’m still surprised when I see a teenager pull out a wad of cash to buy a soda (and I pull out my debit card).

We cannot ignore the drug component in all that is happening to our children. We can’t treat one symptom and expect all the others to just go away. If, according to the CDC, 38.1 percent of high school students have used marijuana one or more times during their lives, and 20 percent had used marijuana one or more times during the 30 days before they were surveyed, and 8.3 percent had tried marijuana for the first time before they were 13 years old, it tells you the scope of the problem.

Maybe it is not that our kids are bad or violent, or rebellious or uneducated or lack good parenting. Maybe they are high.

(Lou Ransom is executive editor of the Chicago Defender.)

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