The truth about 4/20

Two days ago, if you remember, was April 20, the unofficial holiday devoted to recreational drug use, especially marijuana. Since traditionally students return home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, 4/20 might be the only “holiday” celebrated with friends at colleges across the country. My friend at our Little Three rival, Wesleyan, reports that at their 4/20 festivities last year, the entire campus gathered on the central lawn Woodstock-style while a band covered all of Abbey Road. She adds that at no other time are there that many Wesleyan students in one place. Similarly, the annual 4/20 gathering at the University of Colorado at Boulder drew 10,000 people in 2008. While an event of such magnitude could not happen at Williams, there is no doubt that many people in our community celebrated this unofficial holiday.

As with most things fun, the act is shrouded in sin and illegality. Drugs are brought here by criminals, whose activities invariably involve unsavory elements. Instead 4/20 seems to couch drugs in terms of stickin’ it to the man and of fashionable worldliness. We must break this topical facade and realize that drug use is more than just a statement; it has real, far-reaching consequences and will only become more consequential as 4/20 culture becomes more popularized.

A reflection of the pseudo-holiday’s popularity is its entrance into mainstream culture. The participation of so many of the coveted 18- to 30 year-old male demographic makes it a goldmine. Asher Roth, of “I Love College” fame, has exploited this niche counterculture by explicitly playing to it. His frequent references to drugs and alcohol and his college party-boy image are all very strategically chosen to build up a loyal fan-base among this culture. His debut album, titled Asleep in the Bread Aisle, was released on – surprise! – 4/20. The first 5,000 albums include rolling papers so you can “smoke my album,” according to Roth. Roth’s quick ascent to fame provides an indication of the strength of this stoner counterculture.

Underneath this triumph of capitalism, however, is a darker picture inevitably brought forth by the involvement of the seedy world of drug trading. In the black market, where there is money to be had, there is organized crime. After a lull, cartel-related violence has skyrocketed along the U.S.-Mexican border as cartels fight against each other for market share in the lucrative American drug market and against the government for survival. Kidnappings, murders and even beheadings are common in northern Mexico. Since 2006, 10,560 have been killed – almost all the victims were in the drug trafficking business or were among the soldiers assigned to police it. This ugly business is not only limited to Mexico. Last year, there were 368 reported kidnappings for ransom in Phoenix, Ariz. – nearly all related to gang warfare. Escalating drug-trafficking-related violence has been reported as far as Alabama.

What does this violence have to do with 4/20? Simply put, the law of supply and demand. Demand – that is, your, mine and every American’s insatiable need for drugs – is skyrocketing. At the same time, the war on drugs is restricting supply by busting distributors. The effect overall is higher prices and only slightly lower quantities sold. Those distributors that survive are rewarded with higher prices against similar costs. By that logic, if you, a drug lord, can eliminate another cartel, your profits soar, hence the violence. The fewer the cartels, the fewer the targets for the government, and the more desperate the cartels become. Such a cycle provides huge incentives to engage in violence. The best solution is to reduce demand, which will decrease prices and decrease quantities sold. But given the direction of American popular culture, as epitomized by April 20, this is not forthcoming.

A disclaimer: I understand that the picture I paint is incomplete, as I regrettably do not possess all the facts. There are, of course, drugs made in the U.S. that don’t contribute to this violence. I do not know how much of the market they constitute. In addition, drugs from Mexico may be mostly hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, whereas 4/20 mostly celebrates marijuana. However, I stand by my general premise: that our drug consumption habits have implications well beyond the horizon.

It is simply a fact – not good or bad – of globalization that our actions, no matter how innocuous, have worldwide implications. The deeper truth behind this has only recently begun to hit me as I near age 20: What I do matters and affects others, even those I have never seen. I do not mean to advocate against recreational drug use, as I may or may not be guilty of it as well – many times over. In addition, I would never have chosen to write this article before 4/20. Instead, I simply urge you, next time you light up, toke up, hit the hay, to reflect. Reflect on the burdensome responsibility such a realization places on your shoulders. Reflect on the power that blunt places in your hands, even in such private and harmless acts as lighting up with some close friends.

Mo Zhu ’11 is from Belmont, Mass. He lives in Brooks.