George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin and the National Marijuana Debate

Why Zimmerman's lawyers' attempt at introducing Martin's marijuana levels at his time of death as a defense proves we've got a long way to go when it comes to weed.

Back in October 1933, Victor Licata, 21, killed his entire family — dog included — with an ax in Ybor City, Fla. Tampa police later uncovered that Licata had been “addicted to smoking marijuana cigarettes” for upwards of six months prior to the murders, prompting a Tampa police chief to vow that the “increasing use of this narcotic must stop and will be stopped.”

Harry J. Anslinger, granddaddy of the War on Drugs, went on to use the Licata case in his 1937 “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth” article, inspiring what would become decades of misinformation and propaganda run amok in the form of films like Reefer Madness and the like.

Fast forward to 2013, and it would appear that Florida, despite great strides in the national marijuana conversation, still has some reservations about pot. In a move that shocked cannabis advocates everywhere, Judge Debra Nelson allowed into the George Zimmerman case toxicology report evidence that victim Trayvon Martin had trace amounts of THC in his system at the time of his death.

Ultimately, with the defense resting its case Wednesday, the marijuana evidence was not introduced into the court, though it still could be brought up in closing arguments. And even if not, this is not the first time marijuana has been referenced in the case. That this has become such a point of contention shows exactly where we are with that national conversation — namely, still pretty confused.

The pot element of Trayvon Martin’s character has been in play since March 2012, when Sanford police told the press that the 17-year-old had been suspended from school for possession of marijuana. Since then, Martin’s relationship with weed has been used as a prime counterpoint to the media’s alleged portrayal of the youngster as a “12-year-old little angel,” in the words of Zimmerman supporters.

But the tacit association of marijuana with criminal or dangerous behavior betrays a prevailing attitude among those pulling for a not guilty verdict (which, admittedly, seems likely). Marijuana, after all, is not just for non-white hooligans, criminals, sadists or some combination thereof anymore. Now, regular ’ol (read: white) people smoke.

The racial elements of both this particular case and the War on Drugs cannot be ignored in either capacity, and that goes doubly for when both are referenced simultaneously. Just as marijuana was first criminalized with yellow journalism claiming it would cause “negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice,” so too has Martin’s pot smoking been used to portray him as a street-level gangster, stoned and looking for trouble.

Whether Martin was any of those things seems unlikely, but just try to stop the weed references wielded as an indication that all three are so. That those attempts at tying marijuana to criminal behavior are coming from a state that just banned pipes and bongs of any kind seems only to compound the issue.

Among blacks and whites aged 18-25 — the age group Trayvon Martin would currently be in had be not been killed — admittance of marijuana use in the past 12 months is consistently higher for whites, never dipping below 30 percent for any year from 2001 to 2010 in the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health. The percentage of blacks saying they’ve never used marijuana is also consistently higher than for whites during that time period, so if marijuana is “thug” behavior, there must be an awful lot of light-skinned gangsters running around out there that the George Zimmermen of the world are missing on their respective neighborhood watches.

At the very least, the arrest rates for marijuana between whites and blacks can speak to that, with 2010’s arrest rate for blacks standing at more than 700 arrests per 100,000 compared to less than 200 for whites. The disparity here is staggering, and Zimmerman’s lawyers clearly seemed to be trying to use that old-world Reefer Madness misconception to their advantage.

Whether marijuana tends to incite aggression and violence in smokers, as in the aforementioned Licata case, is another matter. Most studies have found no inherent link between smoking pot and a rise in aggression levels, but the overall consensus seems to be that marijuana, being a psychoactive, can exacerbate existing or latent mental disorders under the right conditions.

Another case of “correlation does not equal causation,” but whether Martin exhibited any kind of aggression or antisocial personality behavior in his personality is more or less up for debate. Either way, just like marijuana (or any other drug) didn’t inherently incite Rudy Eugene to eat Ronald Pappo’s face in Miami last year, it also was not the deciding factor in Trayvon Martin’s altercation with George Zimmerman — no matter how stoned he may have been. It merely was present.

But, still, we’re using marijuana, a drug that’s widely accepted to have myriad medical benefits and is recreationally legal in two states, as an indicator of some devilish unscrupulousness or tendency toward inherently violent behavior and people are actually buying it. Perhaps, unfortunately, we haven’t come so far from the Licata-inspired days of Reefer Madness as we think. But, then, any of the world’s Trayvon Martins could have told you that.