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Jeff Deeney Jeff Deeney

What Chief Keef Teaches Us About Gang Violence and Drug Treatment

When the rapper says rehab was a joke, he has a point. The courts let him avoid prison by getting treatment for marijuana addiction. But for men like him, guns and gangs—which just took his cousin's life—are much bigger risks.

9 Substance

Blunt-smoking, gun-crazy 18-year-old superstar rapper Keith Cozart—aka Chief Keef—hates sobriety. If it was up to him, he would blaze weed around the clock. In fact, he’s still smoking tons of weed, even though the decision about whether he should or shouldn’t do that is now in the hands of his probation officer, and that’s creating problems for him. It’s a problem for a lot of dudes who love to smoke weed and get caught selling drugs, because the only deal on offer from the courts that keeps them out of jail puts them in drug treatment, where they do not want—and may not need—to be.

Chief Keef is speaking out about it, although not in an especially effective way. Regardless of how he says it (in songs like “Fuck Rehab” and “Hate Bein’ Sober”), what he says is important because a growing number of lives are on the line. Chief Keef’s own future is in danger—not from pot but from guns, gangs and cycles of violence. Plus, we know of interventions that can help him and thousands of other young men in similar danger.

For those not up on current events in Chicago hip-hop, here’s the quick rundown on Chief Keef. He came up selling heroin on Chicago’s South Side. He was booked on charges of selling dope in January 2011. Later that year he was spotted with a gun by Chicago police and during the ensuing chase he reportedly pointed the weapon at cops, who shot at him a bunch of times and missed. He was charged with felony aggravated assault against police officers and sentenced to house arrest. He filmed a video bragging about being a heroin dealer and became famous.

If I were Cozart’s former judge right now, I would be wishing that I had sent him to a program like Chicago’s “Cure Violence,” rather than to an inpatient drug program for smoking blunts.

In 2012, Cozart was implicated in the murder of a South Side rival, whose death he mocked on Twitter, later claiming his account was hacked. At the same time, record labels were lining up to shower him with huge sums of money. A few months later Pitchfork, a Chicago-based music website, took him to a shooting range and filmed him waving a gun around—a violation of his probation for which he did 60 days in juvenile detention. Cozart continued to bounce in and out of jail, doing short stints as sanctions for marijuana-positive drug tests. After a number of failed drug tests, last November a judge ordered Cozart to complete a 90-day inpatient program at Promises in Malibu for marijuana addiction.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Cozart completed the program, and two weeks later was arrested for driving while high on weed. He posted pictures of himself smoking on Instagram. He also recorded a new song about his negative experience with recovery, subtly titled “Fuck Rehab,” in which he says rehab is a joke and boasts about shooting up his block “like Rambo.”

Maybe Cozart is a hopeless marijuana addict who needs treatment more than he realizes, evidenced by the public safety risk posed by intoxicated driving (he was clocked doing 110 mph on one occasion), and maybe a judge was right to force an intervention before he hurt somebody. But maybe Cozart also has a point.

Cozart’s experience with drug treatment is increasingly common as urban courts, overwhelmed by arrests of low- and mid-level drug dealers, use treatment as an alternative to prison. It’s a well-intentioned move that touts an increasing focus on community support over punishment for drug offenders whose criminality is often worsened by exposure to more seasoned, violent prisoners. But critics claim that stipulating drug treatment for drug sellers is not only problematic due to factors like race and poverty but also frequently unnecessary, ineffective and wasteful of limited resources.

The notoriously slippery definition of marijuana use disorder is partly to blame. Most treatment professionals agree that marijuana addiction exists. (The DSM-V has a “cannabis use disorder” diagnosis as well as “cannabis withdrawal,” although the psychological effects are widely viewed as more problematic than the physical ones.) Most treatment professionals also agree that few clients being treated for marijuana addiction in the drug treatment system actually suffer from it. Whether you receive treatment often has more to do with whether you have involvement with courts that prohibit use of the drug than whether your smoking is damaging your life.

Questions of race and social class inevitably come into the picture. On your average college campus students use marijuana as heavily as dudes on probation do. But white kids largely get a pass on behavior mostly considered indulgent but harmless in their own neighborhoods, but criminal and potentially dangerous in poor black and Latino neighborhoods, despite evidence to the contrary.

Regardless of marijuana addiction’s legitimacy as a medical disorder, there is no denying the fact that it is far more often applied to users who have involvement with the courts rather than those who don’t. Critics, including Cozart in his own way, have concluded that the diagnosis is mostly bogus, created more by prohibition and arbitrary demands of law enforcement than by the addictive power of the drug. This shapes the way marijuana users who are forced into treatment—and the 90 days Cozart did for weed addiction is a very long time to be treated for the disordered use of any drug—see the treatment experience. Most don’t identify as problem users. Their problem, if you ask them, is that they got caught selling.

Counselors like me who deal with court-stipulated sellers in so-called forensic drug treatment hear the complaints daily. “I wouldn’t be here if weed was legal” and “I wouldn’t have any problems with my PO if he just let me smoke” are constant refrains. Chief Keef probably made similar gripes during his Promises stint.

Most sellers are willing to do what they need to do to keep their probation officers off their backs. Going to intensive outpatient a few times a week and passing piss tests often don’t signal a change in their drug dealer lifestyle, however. These clients are frequently rearrested for continuing to sell drugs, and for gun crimes, while complying with their treatment regimen. Some pass a drug test on Friday, and then turn up full of bullets on a street corner early Sunday morning. It isn’t surprising that Cozart promptly left such a long inpatient stint, likely blazed on his way home and immediately recorded a song mocking the entire experience.

Another problem with sending Cozart (and many other drug dealers and users) to treatment for smoking marijuana is that he is arguably a more hardened criminal than treatment programs can deal with. Smoking marijuana is the least of his problems. Cozart’s adult record is free of violent charges, but his juvenile record isn’t. Committing aggravated assault against a cop at age 16 is a very serious offense, and Cozart’s ongoing fascination and contact with guns is pretty troubling. Many young drug-selling defendants who are treated by the criminal justice system as nonviolent offenders have in fact been committing violence as a routine and necessary part of street life since they stepped into the black market at a very early age. They’ve just never been charged with the crime.

Only a small proportion of young nonviolent offenders in the system will become adult violent offenders, and predicting which ones is impossible. Still, it certainly stands to reason that drug treatment does little if anything to prevent violence. But by diverting so many nonviolent poor and minority youths who get caught selling drugs and smoking marijuana into drug treatment regardless of what their other needs might be, we’re likely missing the opportunity to prevent violence. When a kid with an obvious fixation on weapons and a history of violence tells us, “Fuck rehab,” we’re not exactly looking at someone who injects heroin and wants treatment. We should tailor our interventions accordingly.

Two weeks ago, Cozart’s cousin, Mario Hess, aka Big Glo, was murdered in a hail of gunfire that left a street on Chicago’s South Side riddled with dozens of shell casings. The South Side gang culture is known for incredibly bloody cycles of retaliation, where rivals repeatedly hit back at each other to settle scores. Public health-based efforts to prevent gang violence not only exist and work but were born on the South Side of Chicago. If I were Cozart’s former judge right now, I would be wishing that I had sent him to such a program—for example, Chicago’s Cure Violence—rather than to an inpatient drug program for smoking blunts.

Such tailored approaches to court interventions could have value even under the more progressive drug policy regime apparently being formulated by many state legislatures. If Chief Keef lived in Portugal, where drugs are decriminalized, he’d still be in the criminal justice system. Once addicts are out of the criminal system, courts will still be left to deal with drug sellers like Cozart who have distinctly different needs. Job training, educational programming, violence prevention and trauma treatment are interventions that could truly help kids who get booked for selling heroin—and who don’t make it big on the rap scene—get out and stay out of prison. But until then a lot of drug sellers sitting in treatment because of a court order will be saying, “Fuck rehab.”

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and writer who is in recovery, and a columnist at Substance.com. He is also a contributor to The Atlantic and has previously written for The Daily Beast and The Nation. His previous column for Substance.com was about conflicting measures to address the nation’s heroin epidemic.