Addiction in the Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

Addiction is the missing link in Jeff Hobbs cross-race and cross-class memoir.

Posted Dec 11, 2014

Jeff Hobbs has written a beautiful and compelling memoir. Even though it is not about adoption it speaks to issues I have raised in previous posts here, especially the biological and environmental components of addiction and the difficulties in crossing race and class boundaries. Hobbs, a White writer, relates the life and death of Rob Peace, his Black roommate at Yale from 1998 until their graduation in 2002, and their continuing relationship until Peace’s murder in 2011. Robert Peace grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, bordering on Newark. Although his parent’s didn’t live together and the father was a drug dealer, Rob’s father was heavily involved with his only child, especially with tutoring the boy who had inherited his razor sharp mind. His mother’s family, with whom Rob lived, was a supportive and stable force, as his mother worked long hours at low paying jobs. She skimped and saved enough to later send Rob to private Catholic middle and high schools. When Rob was seven, his father was arrested and charged with murder (perhaps falsely), convicted and incarcerated. Rob visited him often in prison, starting as a child and continuing until his father’s death in prison when Rob was in his mid twenties.

Rob loved his high school, with it’s primarily minority student body and white friars as supportive mentors. Rob made four close male friends in high school, who did not have his intelligence and success, but to whom he remained close during and after college. When Rob was accepted at Yale, a white benefactor at the high school offered to pay all Rob’s expenses not covered by his Yale scholarship.

Based on his own experience and interviews he does with others, Hobbs documents how Peace became the major marijuana dealer at Yale, despite or because of being a very popular man on campus and a member of one of the most prestigious of Yale’s secret societies. Hobbs shows that Peace himself was a heavy marijuana user and drank a lot too. Perhaps because drinking and marijuana use were common among Yale undergraduates in those years, and because Peace was able to graduate in four years with a double major in biochemistry and biophysics, Hobbs, a nonuser, does not investigate the impact of daily marijuana use, especially on someone, like Rob, who started using at an early age. Hobbs merely accepts Peace’s justification:

"Rob was self-aware enough to understand his own relationship with marijuana, which wasn’t complicated to him. He knew the science behind it. H e knew what it cost him. Though he was addicted to it by all definitions regarding frequency of use, he was intelligent enough to control that addiction. ‘High functioning,’ he called himself."

Reports that summarize research and are written to be accessible to a general public present a much more alarming view of heavy marijuana use that undermines Rob’s rationalization that he could control his use. By 2000, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, was almost nine times stronger than in 1965, going from 1% THC to 8.8%. By 2013, the THC content was on average 13%, but in designer brands of marijuana, going up to 70%. Hobbs could have found conclusive evidence that heavy marijuana use leads to amotivaional syndrome characterized by apathy, declining motivation and decreasing ability to master new problems. Heavy marijuana use can permanently affect the brain especially in the parts that influence memory, thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement. However, journalist David Sheff, in Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy reports on research that indicates that addicts’ brains are different from birth, before they use drugs.

Experts now tell us that about 10% of marijuana users become addicted. But for those who start marijuana use when young, 17% become addicted, and for those who use daily, 25 - 50% are addicts, people with a complex disease having biological, psychological and social roots that results in compulsive drug use. New research reported by the Society for the Study of Addiction has found a genetic link to marijuana dependence. Vulnerability to addiction runs in families, but a genetic predisposition to addiction needs to be accompanied by other personality and environmental factors.

This information helped me to explain some of Peace’s behavior that Hobbs merely presents as mysterious.

Why didn’t Rob in his senior year take the exams necessary to apply to medical or graduate school, despite good grades and experience as a research assistant? When asked, he said he was going to Rio and would figure it out later. Hobbs in writing the book discovered that Rob had made more than $100,000 selling marijuana while at Yale and so could afford not to be worried. Yet the motivated student, whose brain had not been affected by marijuana addiction, would have taken the MCAT and GRE to insure that he could go on with his education after a year off.

Other behavior that Hobbs documents but can’t explain is why a Yale graduate would continue and expand his marijuana dealing after graduating and returning to Newark, now operating in a more competitive and dangerous environment that the protected one at Yale. Peace continued his dealing as he taught biology for four years at his old Catholic High School. He talked about returning to graduate school and becoming a college professor but never did anything to accomplish this. Why did Rob resign from teaching to start and become a baggage handler for Continental Airlines at Newark International airport? Rob told friends he did so because of the free travel that was a benefit. He flew often to to Rio and to Amsterdam to party, two of the best-known drug spots on the globe, and started to transport marijuana from Miami, activities that to me indicated addition.

Addiction could explain why he made a mistake with a cargo hauling machine, damaged a plane, and got fired from his job. The impact of heavy marijuana use on the brain offers a plausible explanation of why the brilliant Rob Peace in his mid twenties failed a test for a realtor’s license when he had never failed a test in his life. Hobbs documents Rob’s heavy drinking but never considers whether he was an alcoholic and whether he used harder drugs, a likely possibility given the international partying set in which he moved and by research finding links between marijuana use and increased risk for other drug use. Hobbs mentions only in passing that some of his white girl friends from the larger New York area used cocaine and heroin. Hobbs quotes one of Rob’s girl friends as saying:

"Rob didn’t seem capable of seeing the big picture, the way he had when they’d first met. He trafficked almost exclusively in the day-to-day: this shift at work, this flight, this city, this transaction, this chunk of money."

This strikes me as classic behavior of an addict, but Hobbs seems to never have asked this friend, or anyone, whether they thought Rob was an addict. In the nine years between graduation from Yale and his murder, I can’t believe that the large number of Rob’s friends and family members, many of whom were worried about him, never suggested a rehab program.

Hobbs attributes Robb’s murder when he was in his late twenties to the dangerous world in which he operated as a marijuana dealer and at the end, someone who was using his knowledge of chemistry to enhance the potency of the drug and sell it for more. This is undoubtedly true, but it seems plausible to me that he never would have gotten there if he were not an addict himself.

In neglecting to consider the biology of marijuana use and addiction, Hobbs indirectly blames Rob’s “short and tragic life” solely on his fatherless upbringing and on the impact of ghetto culture, a stereotyped and incomplete analysis.

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