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This Is What Chief Keef Can Teach Us About Violence and Drug Treatment

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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. 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.

Chief Keef 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.

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. 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.

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, 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 a growing focus on community support over punishment for drug offenders. But critics claim that stipulating drug treatment for drug sellers is 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, and also agree that few clients treated for marijuana addiction actually suffer from it. Critics, including Cozart in his way, have concluded that the diagnosis is mostly bogus, motivated more by prohibition and arbitrary demands of law enforcement than by the addictive power of the drug.

Another problem with sending Cozart 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. Committing aggravated assault against a cop at age 16 is a very serious offense, and Cozart's ongoing fascination and contact with guns is troubling.

Only a small proportion of young nonviolent offenders in the system will become adult violent offenders, and predicting which ones is impossible. Still, it stands to reason that drug treatment does little if anything to prevent violence. By diverting so many nonviolent poor and minority youths into drug treatment regardless of what their other needs might be, we're missing the opportunity to prevent violence. When a kid with a 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 on Chicago's South Side. The South Side gang culture is known for these bloody cycles of retaliation. 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 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 being formulated by many state legislatures. 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.