DeMarius "DJ" Tidwells is a not unusual 18-year-old Detroiter. He is a senior at Covenant House Academy on the west side and expects to graduate this June. He's wondering about his future — thinking about college or possibly starting his own business. His interests haven't settled on any one thing, but he talks about possibly starting a transportation company, or a landscaping company, or getting into law enforcement, or opening a marijuana dispensary.
"I believe that it's a good career, the money is legal, and you're also helping out people for a medical reason," DJ says.
Obviously DJ is entertaining a lot of ideas, but for a Detroit youth to consider selling marijuana legally is a new twist on what has long been a road to trouble for so many others.
"To me if you're just using it for fun, it's the same as cocaine or any other street drug that you can find," he says of marijuana. "I don't smoke it, and I don't want to try it. For people that need it for a medical reason, I suggest that you should use it. It's better than popping pain pills all the time."
DJ has seen the evidence up close. His mother, Joyce Tidwells, 46, has had two surgeries for an aortic dissection, a condition where there is a tear in the wall of the aorta and blood flows where it should not. It's the condition that actor John Ritter died from. She also reports suffering from high blood pressure, sleep apnea, anxiety, and depression. For the past five years, she's used marijuana to help keep calm and to control pain. Marijuana is relatively new in her life. She was once a heavy drinker and weighed more than 300 pounds.
"I used to drink," says Tidwell. "My niece was like, 'Auntie, you need to try marijuana. It might mellow you out.' Most of the people that I saw who were smoking weed, they were like couch potatoes. I needed to calm down so I tried it. It was helping me with the pain and anxiety. When I'm in pain, my blood pressure goes up."
High blood pressure is a risk factor related to aortic dissection, so she needs to control that.
However, Joyce's health is just one of many bumps that have beset the family. Although it wasn't related, shortly after starting to smoke marijuana she lost her job because she'd missed too many work days due to illness. Then they ended up in COTS, a homeless shelter, where things did not go well when they heard that Joyce used medical marijuana.
"The counselor told DeMarius, 'Your mom doesn't love you because she won't stop smoking marijuana,'" Joyce says.
DJ says that the counselor told him, "'I don't know, DeMarius, it looks like you're going to be homeless for the rest of your life because she won't stop smoking weed.' To me it was disrespectful the way he put it."
I called up COTS to ask what they would say to a client who was using medical marijuana. I was directed to voice mail in their social work office and left a message, but no one got back to me before deadline.
DJ has stuck by his mom. Today she rents a home on the west side and lives on Social Security disability. She says she always goes into her bedroom and shuts the door when she smokes marijuana so that DJ isn't exposed to it. A younger son lives with his father.
"When I had my surgery, DJ was the only one here to take care of me," Joyce says.
DJ does seem dedicated. His social life is limited because of the time he puts in helping Joyce.
"I enjoy being around family, taking care of Mom," he says. "I don't get out to hang with friends that much."
He keeps an eye on her, and she worries about him when he is on the streets. DJ is over 6 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. He gets stopped by police often enough for her to be concerned, considering the number of young black men who have been shot by police lately. He sees another side of marijuana out on the streets.
"I catch the bus a lot," he says. "I would hear people talking about they have this or that kind of marijuana for sale, the different types. Some calm you down, some hype you up."
Joyce is keeping her eye on the situation.
"He's a big guy," she says. "People have been approaching him to buy marijuana from them since he was like 13. We'll be walking down the street and people will approach him to buy marijuana. ... He doesn't have an interest in smoking marijuana. I get him tested."
Joyce and DJ have an evolving attitude toward marijuana. It mirrors the larger social phenomenon as this gets argued in legislatures and community centers. The biggest change in attitudes comes when somebody gets sick and finds out that marijuana is helpful.
For Joyce, the change is more than just about marijuana. It's about changing to a healthier lifestyle. She's changed her eating habits. She no longer drinks or smokes cigarettes. Fast food and sodium are no longer major components of her diet. Her weight has dropped to 190 pounds.
"I'm happy with just the marijuana," she says. "I don't think you need to do too much. Weed by itself is not bad. I had to learn that over the last couple of years."