Viewpoint: From ‘Aggressive’ Trayvon to ‘Laid-Back’ Dzhokhar — Marijuana’s Changing Image

Differences in the way the media have covered Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's cannabis use are a troubling reminder of the racism that still largely prevents us from seeing drugs as a health issue

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pavel Khorenyan / Getty Images

Aside from having regularly smoked marijuana, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Trayvon Martin share little in common. Tsarnaev, of course, is the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings and Martin was the unarmed black teenager shot to death in Florida in 2012 by a man who claims he felt threatened by him. But differences in the way the media have covered their cannabis use portend a major shift in public attitudes about the drug, as well as a troubling reminder of the racism that still largely prevents us from seeing drugs as a health issue.

This week, the judge in the Martin case said his accused killer, George Zimmerman, may not use evidence related to the victim’s past marijuana use in his defense. As the New York Times put it:

Mark O’Mara, Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer, argued that Mr. Martin’s drug use could have made him aggressive and paranoid, which the defense said might have prompted him to attack Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood-watch volunteer.

Such an argument is contradicted by medical evidence, which shows that marijuana tends to reduce aggression. Nonetheless, the fact that metabolites of the cannabis were found in Martin’s blood made national headlines when it was first made public. The blood test was generally seen as discrediting the victim. As his mother told the media at the time, “They’ve killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.”

(MORE: Did Drug Stigma Contribute to Trayvon’s Death?)

Indeed, while the marijuana-related evidence was only part of a huge trove of data released, it received most of the attention. From ABC News to TIME to Rush Limbaugh, the fact that Martin had smoked pot some time in the days or weeks before the killing was seen as potentially helpful to his killer’s case that his victim had been up to no good.

Now let’s consider the media’s take on the weed habit of the man suspected of carrying out the worst act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11. Here’s how a high school friend, widely quoted in the media, described him to the New Yorker’s David Remnick:

‘He was a cool guy,’ Ashraful Rahman said. ‘I never got any bad vibes from him. He wasn’t a star student, but he was smart … It’s so out of character. And you have to remember — he was a stoner. He was really into marijuana. And generally guys like that are very calm, cool.’

Here’s how the Times described him, in an article headlined, “The Dark Side, Carefully Masked”:

To even his closest friends, Mr. Tsarnaev was a smart, athletic 19-year-old with a barbed wit and a laid-back demeanor, fond of soccer and parties, all too fond of marijuana. They seldom, if ever, saw his second, almost watertight life: his disintegrating family, his overbearing brother, the gathering blackness in his most private moments.

USA Today put it this way:

Friends and classmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can’t grasp how the pot-smoking party boy they knew is the same young man now accused of carrying out a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, Politico described Tsarnaev as being “more interested in blunts than bombs” and quoted a friend as saying he was a “normal pothead.”

In other words, rather than portraying Tsarnaev’s marijuana use as a sign of his criminality, it is presented as a reason not to suspect him — a signal that he’s “one of us,” not some unknowable monster. The New York Times actually lists marijuana use as one of his “light side” characteristics, not as a harbinger of other criminal acts.

What can account for these differences? The most obvious factor is race: Martin was black and Tsarnaev is white, and our educational and justice systems certainly treat drug use by those two groups rather differently. In white kids, marijuana use is typically dismissed as relatively harmless youthful experimentation — in blacks, it’s a reason for arrest and suspension from school. Black youths are arrested for drug crimes at a rate 10 times higher than whites, despite research finding that whites are equally or more likely to take or sell drugs.

Another factor may be public perceptions about terrorism. Because of the connection to religious radicalism in the Tsarnaev case, marijuana smoking might be seen as more mitigating because radical Muslims are forbidden from drinking and using drugs. However, the 9/11 terrorists drank and attended strip clubs before their attacks, so this explanation is not necessarily plausible.

A more important influence, I believe, is timing. Since the Martin case became national news in February 2012, two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized recreational use of marijuana. National polls show continually growing support for ending marijuana prohibition, a position now taken by a majority of Americans. The younger the age group, the greater the pro-legalization majority, suggesting that in the long run, change is highly likely.

These shifts meant that by the time the bombings occurred in April, a major re-examination of marijuana had occurred. The media, which generally attempts to mirror public sentiment, did not want to seem out of touch by making an issue of Tsarnaev’s marijuana use. Reporters and editors recognized that a drug that half the adult population has tried is unlikely to be a key driver of terrorism. (Other than, ironically, by financing it through illegal trade, which appears to have been directly the case with the Tsarnaev brothers, at least one of whom apparently sold the drug.)

Indeed, virtually the only nonironic media attention given to the idea that marijuana could have caused the bombings was an op-ed arguing for drug testing, written by a former antidrug official who runs a drug-testing company and once testified in court that even irregular use of marijuana signifies addiction.

The fact that two marijuana users could commit an act of terrorism that injured 264 and killed three — with their marijuana use seen as either irrelevant or actually mitigating — suggests that America may have finally gotten over its reefer madness. If we can now make sensible laws that don’t criminalize the use of a substance demonstrably less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, perhaps we can also start to eradicate the racism that has led to our harsh drug laws, their biased enforcement and their terrible consequences.

MORE: 7 Tips to Make Legalizing Marijuana Smart

38 comments
JulieGaskins
JulieGaskins

What it comes down to isn't race, or not only race.  Let us say Dzhokhar looked more like Tamerlan.  He'd just have been another terrorist.  Hell, for most of the media, Dzhokhar was, too, he just gets the benefit of the doubt from some teeny-boppers and some people who realize that curly haired youths with Near Eastern facial features are exactly the kind of people our president is out to get (Abdulrahman Alawaki anyone?)

ChrisHoran
ChrisHoran

This is a really interesting article with some brilliant points about drugs and race.  Thanks.

SandyLuong
SandyLuong

Um...Dzhokhar isn't white.  I know people get confused by the Caucus mountains but they are in central Asia and full of brown people...... have you looked at him?  Or especially his brother?  If the news had told you they were Arab, would you have honestly batted an eye?

NormanGooding
NormanGooding

While attitudes and perceptions of marijuana's harms are becoming more sane the distrust for our government and it's agencies is deteriorating faster than a speeding bullet,,,the US government couldn't sell ice water in the dessert right now.

PatrickQueen
PatrickQueen

First of all from what I seen of zimmermans head wounds it was very obvious that he was attacked by this kid and he did what he had to do plain and simple.This has nothing to do with racism,it has to do with someone protecting their own life plain and simple

CindyTrautmeyer
CindyTrautmeyer

What's there to differentiate? Both characters are stoners. Bloomberg is the one with common sense. The USA is OBSESSED with drugs.  

DanielStoner
DanielStoner

Pot needs to be legal, without a doubt.  But it's still interesting that the M supporters claim that no one can be violent when on it, while Tsarnaev the pothead blows up innocent children.

JaredBork
JaredBork

People have used marijuana longer than theyve been worshiping your Christian god. I think the latter has caused more damage, seeing as pot dosent slow down human progress and stunt innovations both socially and technologically.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

I think you're actually underestimating the degree to which racism is a factor in the difference in judgment. A white person smoking is a 'stoner' A black person smoking is a 'thug'.

Trying to find any other explanation is to try and whitewash this unavoidable conclusion.


JenniferK.
JenniferK.

People have smoked pot for centuries...if you took into consideration all those people and everyone in between then and now that have smoked, how many of them have commited unspeakable crimes?  Pot makes 99.9% of people mello.  This was an interesting article, but needed a few more statistics in it.

TyroneBiggims
TyroneBiggims

 Correlation does not imply Causation. They both also liked milk, ate ice cream, and experimented with alcohol. Marijuana use has been linked to the Nobel prize (Carl Sagan), the Olympic gold medal (Michael Phelps), the Oscar, the Grammies, and the even the US Presidency (Obama, G.W., Clinton). Using marijuana doesn't mean that im going to get any of these things. Since we are using correlations instead of actual causations to prove a point.... If its true that Trayvon Martin and Dzokhar Tsarnaev became violent criminals from smoking marijuana its also true that since Obama, George Bush, and Clinton smoked marijuana as teenagers they became president. I guess you have two outcomes as a pot smoker prison or the presidency.

JohnHurd
JohnHurd

This is one the most insightful columns I've seen lately.  So true, how people (media included) turn weed-smoking into a "plus" for a white person (cool, laid-back) but turn it against a person of color. Zimmerman's lawyer, O'Mara, is a low life.  He probably smokes a fair share of weed himself.  He's an immoral lawyer who will throw anything against the wall to see if it sticks.  I hope his strategy backfires on him.  The kind of paranoia mj users get into makes them do things like drive slowly and stop at stop signs -- to avoid being noticed and stopped by police.  They DON'T suddenly decide to kill strangers with their bare hands in apartment complexes with lots of witnesses at home.  

ThaTutsta
ThaTutsta

I smoked weed everyday for 20 years! Quit weed and nicotine 9 months ago (well i say quit, I'm actually giving my lungs a good health break just for 10-20 years or so!) now i drink a bottle of wine every night instead!!

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

For believers in Ockham's Razor the simplest, most logical explanation is that there are in excess of 20 million Americas who choose to enjoy cannabis from time to time. We do not speak with one voice or walk in lockstep. In a cohort that size it's  not unreasonable to expect that you're going to find examples of every single manner of human being that you can possibly imagine. It's grossly unreasonable to claim that if you find a deviant who smokes pot that it proves that the deviance is caused by the choice to enjoy cannabis. Please remember that there were over 20 million of us that weren't setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon. But I'll betcha that at least a few of us did suffer physical injury or the horror of one of our loved ones being injured in that senseless incident.

Also, I thought I heard someone mention that Mr. Tsarnaev had stopped any use of cannabis months before the incident. Have we got access to his lab results that indicate that he had recently used cannabis?

Unbiasedude
Unbiasedude

I work hard every day

Putting up with stress for the pay

Paying taxes they take

Every evening I say

Need relief from this pain

Make the pain go away

Take the stress off my shoulders

Give me a joint for my pain

But don't make my work world go away

Locking me up in a cell won't pay

Cause I would pay taxes those days

So when the pain goes away

I havn't hurt anyone in any way

I've just gained solace for the way

To work hard another day

Make the pain go away

Take the stress off my shoulders

Give me a joint for my pain.

Make big brother go away

And solve a real crime for the day.

judderwocky
judderwocky

What a poorly thought out article. The author is trying to relate to completely different situations to make some overly complicated point about racism and marijuana. 

"What can account for these differences?" .... Differences in what exactly? You cherry picked a single article about the bombing suspect, a product of media and journalism, with a defense case by a lawyer in a completely different part of the country where law enforcement treats this very differently. 

Its quite passe in the media to talk about the malleability of stoners. You can't honestly compare that media strategy that produces that dialogue, to the strategy used in a courtroom.  

This was not critical thinking. This wasn't even passable for a first year university students. 



tonyl6596
tonyl6596

wow.....I never looked at it that way.  But there it is right in front of our eyes, hiding in plain sight.

gibranparis
gibranparis

if he looks white and the other one looks black than a duck is a duck and there's nothing more to be said

Paulpot
Paulpot

@PatrickQueen Zimmerman was stalking Trayvon. 

He was maliciously intimidating and provoking him.

NormanGooding
NormanGooding

@DanielStoner In ancient times there were troops that were given cannabis before each battle because while marijuana makes a person tend to be cheerful and stationary,,once a person decides to go all out,,it doesn't stop them,,in fact they can go into a trance like state and go berserk,,most of the advocates talking all the peaceful world crap haven't lived and toked long enough to know what they are talking about. I think the book is "The Hasheaters" or something like that,,written in the 15th or 16th century I believe.

Pot does not cause violence just like it doesn't cause cancer,,,violent people commit violent acts regardless of pot use or not,,crazy people do crazy stuff and whether they are pot users has little to do with causing it,,in fact studies show that certain psychological qurks cause a person more likely to use marijuana as a treatment for the problem,,sometimes successfully.

TyroneBiggims
TyroneBiggims

@DanielStoner were not saying that we are saying that marijuana isn't what caused him to become violent. It was radical Islam that did.

JaredBork
JaredBork

I wouldn't agree that you can't be angry when using marijuana. Anger is a natural chemical reaction in your brain thats supposed to let you know when something is wrong(different for everybody), how the individual acts is soley up to the individual anything else is denial. Also it helps to not assume/sterotype everyone's got their own story, nobody has the same brain!

jagged_85
jagged_85

@TyroneBiggims 

Actually, Bush and Obama are also violent criminals...

George Bush has been convicted for mass-murder and crimes against humanity by several different war crimes tribunals across the world.

And even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barrack Obama has murdered a lot more civilians than any terrorist.

Still, there's nothing to suggest Marijuana had anything to do with their violent crimes.


judderwocky
judderwocky

@JohnHurd Really. Where is that positive outlook when white celebrities are getting trashed for using marijuana ? REmember all the flack fox news gave miley cyrus for the pics taken at her private parties? justin bieber when he was caught smoking? 

They were not portrayed as cool and laid back. Irresponsible and unstable were the portrayals I seem to remember.

The article was cherry picking to push a sensationalist headline.

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

Perhaps Ms. Szalavitz is overly presumptive in the amount of information she expects to be in the minds of her readers but anyone that follows this subject closely understands that neither point of view is uncommon or specific to the examples she's using in presenting the idiotic dichotomy of public opinion when it comes to people 

Yesterday they were saying that we're brain dead idiots. Today the mayor of New York claims we've pulled the biggest con job in history. Is it really that much to ask that if we're to be denigrated that the haters avoid denigrations that are mutually exclusive? Are we axe murderers of pacifist communist sympathizers? Pick a meme and stick to it for crying out loud.

SandyLuong
SandyLuong

@gibranparis I was saying the brothers didn't look white, they look light brown with big noses and eyes, thick hair; basically they look like people who you'd expect to die in a drone strike.  The only reason people started calling them white is because they are from the Caucus mountains (and thus 'Caucasians').  This confuses people like the author of this article.

jagged_85
jagged_85

@TyroneBiggims @DanielStoner 

Nope, blaming their violence on religion is just as nonsensical as blaming it on drugs. It is blind vengeance that causes people to become violent. 

For every major terrorist attack in the US and UK in the 21st century, the perpetrators have always cited the same motive time and time again: an "eye for an eye" for the war crimes perpetrated overseas by the US and UK governments. It really is as simple as that. 

Still, even that is not enough to turn someone into a violent criminal. What it really comes down to is how we've been brought up and how well we understand that "violence is not the answer" to our problems.


Sandydog5
Sandydog5

@TyroneBiggims "It was radical Islam that did."   Nope, it was himself that caused him to be violent.  He made his own decision.  Make him accountable.

andyk123
andyk123

@judderwocky Yeah, and I remember Fox News being  upset about Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Michael Phelps being stoners/partiers/whatever for a whole 45 seconds. However, Trayvon Martin's marijuana use has been in the news for how long? A year now? If you really think that color makes no difference in how the media (read: most of America) treats people who use marijuana, then you're truly lost.

CommonSense42
CommonSense42

Interestingly enough I remember that Miley was smoking with the rapper Wiz Khalifa, a black person. I also remember reading comments that she had gone to the "dark side" because of it. Subtle, but still racism

MuricanBob
MuricanBob

Maybe because their target audience is children? Hmmm? Calm down Johnny Goodtwinkle and educate yourself

judderwocky
judderwocky

@Duncan20903 Frankly, no. That kind of thinking doesn't change individual minds. People have varying degrees of disinformation about marijuana use, so they are going to account and reason with that information in wildly different ways. Its only when you step back and look at the whole that your brain superfluously adds in a concept of "they"... "they have contradicting ideas"... there is no 'they' ... that is a product of your imagination. What you have is a variety of people with varying degrees of misinformation that need dialogue and to be corrected about certain things. Together these negative ideas add up to prohibition. The problem with this article, is that this kind of thinking forces you to drum up some sort of boogey man. It causes you to miss the real, root level problems, in search of greater more abstract causes that have no real solution, and don't offer a practical solution to the disinformation specific to that individual. 

The prosecutors weren't taking advantage of a racial perceptions with marijuana use, it was taking advantage of the governments self enforced and self proclaimed lack of evidence on the safety of marijuana. As long as some government officials claim that marijuana turns people into face eating zombies, prosecutors will attempt to use marijuana as evidence in court cases. They have an incentive to do so. You should be more concerned about the reasons they are allowed to use faulty information. By focusing on the race element, you are actually missing the root cause which is the gonvernments predilection to publish conflicting information on the effects of marijuana.