| Perspective |

The Quiet Assassin

Marijuana means no pain, no gain, and no growth

You know the well-worn joke: My wife and I have an arrangement. She decides the small, trivial things, like where we live, which schools my children attend, and who they marry. I decided the big things, like whether the US should leave NATO, how the world should address global warming, and the pros and cons of space exploration.

In a sense, I feel the same applies to these elections. While everyone is handwringing over the “big issue” — picking a president — a smaller, yet much more consequential change has happened under our collective noses, garnering hardly any attention. For while the presidential vote certainly has great impact on our communities, it really is impossible at this point to assess the particulars. As per the saying, “Leiv melachim v’sarim b’yad Hashem” (by the way, there is no such precise pasuk), it is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty how a given president will affect our lives.

The much more salient vote took place on the same day, and will likely have significant consequences for our community. Recreational marijuana was legalized in New Jersey — and it is likely that New York will be pressured to follow suit. But even if New York does not fold, the effect on the bochurim living in the Tristate area may be devastating. A strong, concerted, unified response and policy is critical… and it has to be implemented soon.

The problem with marijuana use is not health per se. Cannabis may or may not be a gateway to much more dangerous drug abuse. But the more pressing problem is that pot kills motivation. It absolutely destroys it.

Speak to the many rebbeim who have worked in the past with bochurim who need “space”; they know this from firsthand experience. The modus operandi of such yeshivos would be to cut the bochurim slack when they arrived for first-year beis medrash. In general, by Chanukah the boys would get bored with doing nothing and start working.

Bochurim have a natural drive to make something of themselves that kicks in about this age. This drive is harnessed toward self-improvement. It is a well-known and effective formula that has been employed in many of the “chilled out” yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere.

Two things have undermined the approach, however. The first has been the rapid spread in the use of smartphones. The bochurim could dull their senses by being constantly entertained on their phones with the latest meshugas or worse — and the lingering feeling of “what am I doing with my life?” was anesthetized.

But even more pernicious was what happened to the bochurim who came from the parts of the country, and from Canada, where marijuana use was legalized or decriminalized. The effect on them was nothing short of devastating, and it was simply impossible to “get through” to them. There was nobody home.

Now, I am reporting how things worked some ten years ago. Marijuana use has become much more widespread over time. And readers shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that this applies only to “troubled” bochurim. It does not. Ask around and you'll see... and this was before New Jersey’s legalization.

The term “crisis” has lost its power from overuse, and it was never more applicable than now. This issue has to be addressed head-on. How? Firstly, by acknowledging the problem. Burying one’s head in the sand or looking away will only exacerbate the issue. It won’t make it go away.

I have heard the argument: How is it any different from alcohol? To which I could respond, “But isn’t alcohol abuse a problem too? So now we have two issues to deal with.”

But that is not the real answer. The real answer is the residual effect of lack of motivation, which seems to linger on and on.

(Marijuana use has also been associated with memory impairment, anxiety, impaired judgment, distorted perception, and sleepiness. It may even increase the chances of developing mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. One study conducted by Duke University suggested that those who regularly used marijuana as teens experienced an average decrease in IQ of eight points.)

Parents and educators must educate themselves about the effects of marijuana use, and how to identify the telltale signs of someone who is “using.” Perhaps organizations such as Torah Umesorah should organize classes toward this end. Educators must also learn how to effectively dissuade the talmidim from using, or even experimenting, with this drug. Policies must be formed as to how the yeshivos will deal with bochurim caught smoking up. Is random drug testing an option?

To conclude, allow me to lay out a scenario… one that is oh, so real. A bochur in mesivta or beis medrash is experiencing a “yeridah.” It happens to just about everyone at some time, for some more often and more intensely, and for others, less so. Adolescence for many bochurim is painful. There are no two ways around it. The prescription — without marijuana — is to work it through. The pain begets discovery and self-awareness. A bochur discovers his strengths and weaknesses; he learns how to deal with disappointment, how to persevere and how to commiserate with others in pain. He experiences the thrill of overcoming challenges. The pain is a critical component for the passage into manhood.

But let’s now add one ingredient into the mix, marijuana — the great anesthetizer. There is no pain, no feeling, no growth, no nothing. The very term “stoners” refers to an old English expression that means “to make hard or indifferent”— indifferent to one’s environment, to one’s own pain and to the pain of others. The only way to effect change is not to ignore negative emotions, but to embrace them and harness the energy.

Marijuana murders pain — and change — quietly.

I am sure there is much more to be said about the topic, but my objective here is merely to give a “heads-up.”

Because while “leiv melachim” may be “b’yad Hashem,” but the “moach habochurim” is in our hands. And we have to act.

Sooner rather than later.


Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger is the rav of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of New Hempstead and the author of Positive Vision, a Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation project (Artscroll\Mesorah)


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 837)

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