Free Snowman

As the warm summer air finally graces the North, so too does the thick smell of marijuana smoke as one drives with windows down through Newark’s West Ward.

But before you find yourself tempted to make a judgmental quip, consider the following hypothetical: Imagine if alcohol had an odor as strong as marijuana’s. Consider the fact that, if this were the case, then the neighborhoods of many American suburbs and affluent, country club communities would also reek quite profoundly.

Scientifically speaking, alcohol clearly has more damaging effects on the human body than does marijuana. (For just one visual of the comparative health risks of commonly used drugs, see the graph below from the book Drug War Facts.) On top of that, alcohol abuse enables human abuse in a ways that marijuana simply does not. I’ll save the political question of the prospective legalization of marijuana for another day. My immediate point is that there is no logical argument that the recreational and responsible use of marijuana is anymore immoral or unethical than the recreational and responsible use of alcohol.

Comparing Addictive Qualities of Popular Drugs

That said, the fight I would like to pick today would be with the use and/or sale of any and all illegal drugs, including the relatively innocuous marijuana. This position is founded less on the negative health impacts on the user, but more so on the indisputably devastating ways in which the illegal narcotics trade destroys communities around the world.

In the United States, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy concludes that illegal drug users are 16 times more likely to commit theft then non-users. They are also 9 times more likely to commit assault than non-users.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that no less that 1/3rd of all state prison inmates were under the influence of illegal drugs when they committed the crimes they are serving time for. Furthermore, at least 17% of all inmates are imprisoned for crimes they committed explicitly to acquire more money to feed their drug addictions.

At an estimated 22 million active users, illegal drug use is pervasive throughout the United States in urban, rural and suburban communities alike. The photographs below give a ground level view into how this issue impacts our nation predominantly from the inner-city perspective.

157. West Ward – Newark, NJ. I think these signs are pretty much standard around all school areas across the US. The irony of such signs is so obvious it is barely worth explaining. It is as if the creators of these signs envisioned the following scenario: An illegal drug dealer or user is about to commence illegal drug dealing or using, but then they see this sign and think, “Oh no! I wasn’t aware this was a ‘Drug-Free Zone!’ Since I guess I’m not allowed to sell heroin here, I better keep walking until I find a street without one of these signs…” If we are serious about this issue, pathetic attempts at public policy such as this might as well be scraped all together.

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158. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Students at West Side High School are greeted with this happy face smoking a blunt on their walk to class. This “no big deal” mindset perfectly symbolizes the pervasive ignorance of the very real consequences the illegal drug trade.

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159. Harlem – Manhattan, NY. In his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963, MLK said that, “100 years later (after the Emancipation Proclamation), the negro still is not free.” I think there are clear parallels today with public perceptions of the crack-epidemic, which many now consider to have been confined to the 1980s. The sad reality is that, 27 years after this powerful mural was created, crack-cocaine continues to ravage large swaths of urban America.

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160. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Given the manifest futility of “drug-free zone” signs, at least one concerned citizen in Newark has taken matters into their own hands. Here it is, folks, a series of real life, civilian produced public service announcements where they are needed the most: directly on crack-dens themselves.

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161. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Users beware…

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162. West Ward – Newark, NJ. And to get right to the main point: “Crack Kill(s).”

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163. West Ward – Newark, NJ. When I first spotted this, I assumed that “Snowman” was someone’s nickname and that this was a sort of “Free Mandela” political statement. I was wrong. After a little internet digging, I came to realize that “Snowman” is actually a generic slag term for a coke dealer. So here you have it, in Newark, drug-dealers literally advertise their products with graffiti in the same way mainstream industries use billboards. Also note how sinister and clever this business scheme is. I have on several occasions been offered “Free Samples” by drug-dealers in the area. This surprised me at first, but on second thought, given the addictive nature of their product, it seems a completely sound business plan.

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164. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Coke Boy!

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165. North Ward – Newark, NJ. This one is a tough call. Despite my best efforts, the final word here is admittedly hard to make out. But given the fact that I was propositioned to buy drugs at this very corner, and then was not so welcomingly asked “What you takin’ pictures of white boy?” on my second trip around to get a better shot, I am going to go ahead and hazard a guess that my initial impression was correct and that the message here is “Free Blow.” “Blow” – Cocaine.

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166. Central Ward – Newark, NJ. The illegal drug world is one of endless aliases and nicknames. Here in the Central Ward next to the Spires Towers, “Candie Cane” – Cocaine is advertised.

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167. North Philadelphia, PA. Here, the “Redcup Gang,” amidst R.I.P. homages to fallen members, advertises “Free Hollywood” and “Free Yayo” both additional aliases for Cocaine.

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168. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Here drug users are enticed by the prospect of being able to “Maxx Out” on the product on sale next door. “Maxx Out” roughly translates into “Reach one’s peak high.”

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169. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Marijuana is omnipresent. Crack-Cocaine is still thriving. But the most deadly, popular, and generally socially damaging drug on the Newark market is “Smack” – Heroin.

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170. North Ward – Newark, NJ. Capitalism.

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171. West Ward – Newark, NJ. “H-Town” – Heroin.

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172. West Ward – Newark, NJ. “A.B.G.” is a Grape Street Crips set a block away from my school. This is an advertisement for one of their best-sellers; “Macc” – heroin, presumably a derivative of the term “Smack.” I have also been propositioned with “Diesel” on this corner, yet another term for heroin. Many of my students walk past this on their way to and from school every day.

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173. West Ward – Newark, NJ. It’s February and 20 degrees outside. Rain, sleet, snow or hail, nothing will stop the delivery of crack and heroin.

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174. South Ward – Newark, NJ. City Councilman and Mayoral candidate Ras Baracka urges residents to follow what should be a pretty common sense policy: “If you see something (criminal, illegal), say something…call the police.”

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175. West Ward – Newark, NJ. The reason why signs like those in the previous photograph are put up is to combat one of the most frustrating philosophies that many residents of America’s ghettos have embraced, “Stop Snitchin'” – to be read “If you see something (criminal, illegal), DO NOT say something…DO NOT call the police.”

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176. Southern Illinois. To be very clear, our nation’s drug problem is in no way confined to inner-cities. This is a gas station in the middle of miles and miles of cornfields in Southern Illinois. It was here I saw this poster warning against the hard drug of choice in many rural communities: Crystal Meth.

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177. St. Louis, MO. I spotted the graffiti in this abandoned train station and couldn’t resist the urge to investigate.

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178. St. Louis, MO. And sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed. This former transit hub now serves as a mecca for junkies. Amongst scrapes of clothing, food, and drug paraphernalia was this message, “Just another bombtrack.” “Bomb” is a hit of heroin.

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179. St. Louis, MO. “Lotta drugs.”

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180. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Even as gang members gather to pay their respects for one of their own who was shot and killed at this very spot the night before (See photographs #141 and #142 in “Gunplay” post), the momentum of the narcotics trade does not stop.

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181. West Ward – Newark, NJ. Much like a fast-food restaurant, consumers of the crack-cocaine and heroin market in Newark can simply drive through…

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182. West Ward – Newark, NJ. …and be served. In broad daylight. A half a block behind a school.

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