When Parents Bury a Child: Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Justin Salomone died of a Heroin Overdose at the age of 29

This photo is Justin Salomone at age 5. He would be dead of a Heroin Overdose at the age of 29.

On the last day of the month, for the last day of the year, (2018) I sat in my blue Chevy Equinox in the pouring rain outside the home of Susan and Steven Salomone in Putnam County New York. It was about 5 pm, and I had just finished three hours of WABC talk radio, co-hosting with Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa. It rained the entire hour-plus drive north from New York City to the village of Brewster.

Justin Salomone

My heart was heavy as it related to my journalistic assignment. I was to interview Justin’s parents about his life at 6 pm but arrived early. As I sat there actually enjoying the rain, (I always have) and the sound of the drops on my windshield, I received an email from Justin’s Mother Susan. She asked if I wanted to come inside and wait for our Verizon FiOS TV News Photographer Aaron Cipollina. Aaron is one of the best in the business. A first class guy. So I was looking forward to working with Aaron, but was saddened to interview parents that have been forced to bury their child. Respectfully I declined to come in early. The reason was twofold. As a journalist, sometimes I just need peace, some silence.

But the other truth of why I stayed outside, it is awfully tough to talk to parents in this situation. What do you say to them? What do you do? Life was not kind to their son Justin.It’s hard comprehending that part of the parents die with their child.

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Full disclosure here. My grandfather Johnnie Carter who I have a lot of respect for, was also a heroin addict. My grandfather, on the streets of Harlem New York, did all the horrible things to his family that addicts do. Stealing and so on, but at the end of the day I’m proud of my grandfather because when he died, he died clean, and kicked his tough addiction. I also discuss my grandfather’s situation in keynote address around the country. We all fall down in life, the question is do you get back up. To me, it’s a no-brainer of whether marijuana is a gateway drug. Of course it is.

My grandmother raised me on: “Boy first it’s reefers, then it’s cocaine, then it’s heroin.” -Anna Pearl Carter

Forty years later, I still remember what my grandmother, from Augusta Georgia taught me. This is how Susan Salomone put it:

“My son was sick for very long….for 10 years. He started smoking pot at 16 years old, and he moved to stronger drugs at 19 years old and it was chaos for our family.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone
“ Do I think it’s a Gateway drug? Well I believe that Marijuana can lead to other substances. They don’t like to use the word gateway anymore. They use the word pathway. So is it a pathway to other substances. In my opinion, yes it is. I met many people. I work with many families that have had the experience of their children moving on to stronger drugs after starting with Marijuana.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone
Steven Salomone and his Son Justin in Better Days
Justin’s dad was even stronger on answering if Marijuana is a gateway drug: declaring that he and his wife had firsthand experience with Justin. I asked him to tell me about his son and what happened.
“My son Justin died of a heroin overdose on May 29th,2012, and as a result of that, through our loss, we decided to start an organization to try to get the word out about addiction. What’s interesting and what’s pertinent to this conversation is that my son started using drugs with Marijuana when he was 16 years old. So in terms of whether it’s a gateway or pathway drug, we had firsthand experience that it was. Justin’s drug use escalated as he grew older, and got more freedom, especially once he went to college…..his drug use kind of mushroomed, but he did start experimenting with marijuana…moved on to some other drugs. Alcohol etc. Cocaine, harder drugs, pills, and then ultimately heroin.” Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

“From a mother’s perspective I want you to tell me about your son, what happened?” -Newsman Dominic Carter.

“Ok. My son was sick for very long….for 10 years. He started smoking pot at 16 years old, and he moved to stronger drugs at 19 years old and it was chaos for our family. I have three other boys, younger ones. So Justin was the oldest, Dylan was the youngest. Dylan was 9 when Justin first got in trouble. So although he started smoking pot at 16, he didn’t get into any trouble until he was 19, and then he got arrested at college for carrying marijuana on him, and the end result was chaos in our family. Justin continued to spiral downhill because he had substance abuse disorder. He was sick. We didn’t know he was sick. There was nobody talking about this anywhere. So between the ages of 19 and 29, Justin got in more and more trouble with drugs. Not that much more with the police. That might have been better if he did because maybe he would have ended up in jail and got clean. But instead he continued with the drugs and eventually passed away. He had many periods of clean time, ok….it wasn’t like using drugs all the time. He tried over and over again to stop using drugs, stop using heroin. Once he started with the heroin, he knew he was in trouble and he tried many times to get clean. And had 5–6 months of sobriety and then would relapse. It was heartbreaking for us. It was heartbreaking for my other boys, and our family, and there was a lot of chaos in our house, and the end result was we lived with his disease for 10 years and then he passed away. Now we have Drug Crisis in our backyard which is an organization to bring awareness of the rapid of heroin and opioids in our community and help families that are struggling with this. So we work with families.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone. You can also hear the audio of our interview by clicking here.
“Again from a mother’s perspective, I’m trying to understand the timeline. This happened over a 10 year period?”
“He started smoking pot at 16. He got arrested once, at 19. He died when he was 29. So in total it was 10 years of when the light went on for us and said, it looks like there is a problem here. Cause he got arrested and then 10 years after that he died. So it’s 14 years, but we didn’t see the first three years cause he didn’t get in any trouble. He started smoking pot, but he didn’t get into any other serious until he got into college.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone

But on the other side, many elected officials are coming around to actually legalizing Recreational Marijuana like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Bill DeBlasio,the Mayor of New York City.

Deblasio’s own father, a veteran of World War II, who lost part of his leg battled Alcohol addiction, and addiction to cigarettes.

Elected officials repeatedly declare this is about correcting historic wrongs in the criminal justice system.

“If you look at the consumption of marijuana historically, consumption has been equal amongst White Communities, and communities of color. Yet the overwhelming number of convictions happen in communities of color. It’s an unjust system. -State Senator Luis Supulveda
“Where is Justice and fairness when our kids, and our communities are going to jail, are getting scarlet letters that prevent them from getting jobs, getting tuition assistance, getting opportunities in life that are prevented with a marijuana conviction. That’s inherently unjust and it has to be corrected.” -State Senator Luis Supulveda

Democrats in New York won both chambers of government, so Legalized Recreational Marijuana will soon pass into law. I also spoke to New York Assemblyman David Welprin, who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee. He hit the similar theme like State Senator Supulveda.

“but also with prior convictions for marijuana and treating them differently once marijuana is legalized and possibly eliminating some of those convictions and not having effect parole, and changing maybe conditions of parole.” -Assemblyman David Welprin
The Salomone Family

Not long after Justin died seven years ago his parents started: “Drug Crisis in Our Backyard,” For families devastated by drugs. Justin was one of four boys. At times he did well with the help of a treatment program, and stayed out of trouble.

But Justin’s own mother wishes he had been arrested more than just once. With being locked up, she feels he might have been able to stay clean and be alive today. On Legalizing Recreational Marijuana, Mrs. Salomone said:

"I think that their crazy, OK!!! I think that my feeling about it is how can you legalize recreational marijuana when we got an opioid epidemic on our hands. They go hand and hand.” -Susan Salomone

“It would be saying when we were young that we didn’t try to have a beer. When we were 12, 13, 14.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone

The Salomone Brothers

But while tragic… some officials do not buy into Marijuana leading to more serious addiction. State Senator Luis Sepulveda represents parts of the Bronx and is adamant.

”Well I have done extensive research on gateway drugs, especially marijuana and there is no substantial, credible research to establish it as a gateway drug. and so that characterization I take issue with, and I have for a couple of years now.”-State Senator Luis Sepulveda
I ran into the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and here is what he told me, fully supporting legalization.

“Legalizing marijuana and regulating marijuana is a step in the right direction when it comes to safety because we’re consuming a lot of marijuana in New York with no restrictions as to what’s in the marijuana. There’s tax dollars obviously that are being lost by not legalizing it.”-Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance

With few exceptions, District Attorney Vance has stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana cases. He’s not alone….District Attorneys in Brooklyn….Philadelphia, and Boston have similar policies. The parents of Justin Solomone counter they support such de-crimimination actions. But legalization is a different story.

“Should Marijuana be legal in the State of New York? I asked. Justin’s dad believes absolutely not.

“I don’t believe recreational use of marijuana should be legal in any state in the Country. New York is the one we are talking about, so the answer to the question is no, but I don’t believe it’s a good idea for any state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. There are ways to deal with the the marijuana issue that are short of legalization such as decriminalization. So decriminalizing the use and possession of marijuana is one way to not impact the penal system or the criminal justice system with all these cases. It doesn’t need to go to court. People don’t need to get arrested over this, but legalization is a step beyond that, in that once pot is legalized for recreational use, what’s going to happen is big business is going to come in, and their going to advertise the use of it, their going to start promoting the use of it, and they are going to start offering products that are very creative in terms of how to use it in many different ways, more easily. Vaping it. Ingesting it.” Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

“Their going to make it appealing to children because that’s what they have done with cigarettes. So legalization is really going to open up like a Pandora’s box of endorsing its use, making it seem acceptable to young people, and putting big business marketing behind it, in order to promote its use.” Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

“So its way, way, the pendulum swinging way too much in the other direction. Again, I think we could scale it back and say let’s decriminalize marijuana use. We don’t have to lock people up or arrest them. I think that would be a more reasonable approach to changing legislation on marijuana these days.” Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

“Now to your wife. Should Recreational Marijuana be legal in the State of New York?”

“Definitely not. I am opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana because I believe that it is an experiment. And they are experimenting with a very violative situation. Once you legalize marijuana, as Steve said, it will be commercialized. First it will legalized, then it will be commercialized. Right now a big tobacco company is looking to buy one of the Canadian marijuana companies. So what do you think, this is big tobacco, back again. When cigarettes sales dropped, they had to get the market again. We go in, we do presentations in schools on vaping! 90 percent of the kids are vaping in middle school ok. That’s a nicotine product but what do you think, Marijuana is not going to wind up in that. So for me it definitely should not be legalized, recreational marijuana that is.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone

“As a mother, when you hear legalized Recreational Marijuana, what goes through your mind?”

“I think that their crazy. OK I think that my feeling about it is how can you legalize recreational marijuana when we got an opioid epidemic on our hands. They go hand and hand.There both drugs. We do we have to legalize another substance to change the state of someone’s mind. Altered states. We already have alcohol legalized. We are not going to prohibit that. It’s already out there. Why do we have to legalize another substance that can be very harmful. Right now the kids are addicted to vaping, which is nicotine. Just in another form. And they admit that they are addicted to it. So we have to now legalize another substance? It doesn’t make any sense to me. I hear it, and it’s like, I can’t get my brain around it to tell you the truth.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone

I asked: “Your son is no longer here. This is a crisis that is devastating the Middle Class, and all of America. How does this happen?”

“That’s a difficult question to answer, but it does happen to….most of the families that we speak to are very similar to us in terms of the demographic and just the way they brought their children up, and the attentiveness that they had in terms of raising their children and being there and being diligent. The common thread seems to be, it’s usually good families that it does happens to. Children are apt to experiment. When they are young, they take risks. Some of them experiment with substances and some of them don’t have problems, and others do have problems, so you don’t know where your children are going to fall. So now to spin it back to the marijuana issue, we’re legalizing marijuana, and we’re making it accessible and we’re endorsing it, probably a large majority of the children will experiment with it, and we’ll just be causing the ones that have the predisposition to have a substance abuse problem to be that much more susceptible to, or more apt to having the problem because their experimenting, and it seems to be ok to experiment in this society that has legalized marijuana.” -Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

But his wife Susan pulled no punches.

“It’s happened here because the pharmaceutical companies back in 1996, Purdue Pharma in particular, copyrighted a drug called OxyContin. They prescribed so many, many of these. The doctors were prescribing them. The pharmaceutical rep’s were saying it’s ok to prescribe this for back pain, wisdom teeth, everything under the sun. So they were prescribing them like crazy, and that was pandora’s box.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone

Mother and Son

Critics also say money from Legalized Marijuana shouldn’t be used by the government as a piggy bank to fund other programs. so I put the question to Justin’s mother and father.

Steven & Susan Salomone

“There are those that say the money, the taxable income that will come to government, it can be used to fix the badly needed Transit system?”

“First off, a lot of the money that’s going to be generated will be used for the extra law enforcement that has to be present because of smoking pot in public. Supposedly that’s not suppose to happen. I don’t even think….So there no correlation there! Your going to legalize marijuana so that you can have extra money to fix the infrastructure. It doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re dealing with an Opioid epidemic right now, and millions of dollars are going into grants to stop the opioid epidemic and to prevent young kids from getting addicted to drugs and now your going to legalize Recreational Marijuana. It doesn’t make any sense. Because we know that there are many risk factors for addiction, and one of them is early onset. So the first use. Using the first thing at 12, 13, 14, and that’s really where it starts. To think that these kids are not going to smoke Marijuana is ridiculous. -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone
“I think there will be a net cost to our society in terms of legalizing marijuana. The argument that is being proposed that it’s going to generate tax benefit and be used for good purposes is a false argument because the cost to…of health, of lost work, of policing, and of car accidents, and increased car accidents as evident in other states that have legalized recreational marijuana is going to be much higher than any of the benefit. I believe that argument is being used to induce the general public to believe it’s a good thing when In fact statistics will show it’s not a good thing.” Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

But still what appears to be a central theme for Elected Officials, the Racial Disparity with the criminal Justice system. Justin’s father doesn’t dispute that. However he feels the statistics are being used as a smokescreen. First his wife responded.

“What do you say to the argument….from across the board, lawmakers. They say this is about righting a wrong when it comes to the minority community and unjust arrests for Blacks and Latinos.”
“I say decriminalize it as Deblasio did. So now you can smoke pot. Your not going to get arrested for it. You’ll get a summons. You need to decriminalize it. They found in Colorado, there was more African Americans arrested than before legalization and they also have found 20 percent more youths are smoking pot since legalization than before legalization. So I think that the argument about that racial injustice…there’s an article…from NBC today…it was posted today, is really really false. And its really just trying to get a hold of the audience. This is big marijuana. That’s what driving this. Big Marijuana. It’s a lot of money behind these companies. -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone
“There are alot of people that are going to get rich on this, let’s face it…A lot of people, and we are not one of them but there are a lot of people.” -Susan Salomone/Mother of Justin Salomone
“I believe it’s a Trojan Horse. I believe it’s a way to get in, because using the race argument is a very hot topic in today’s society so it gets a hot button. And so when people hear that, they forget about what the real argument is and they get diverted to thinking that we got to do this to alleviate the racial tension in the country. So I believe its a way of taking people’s attention off the real issue. I think there are ways as Susan has mentioned, as I have mentioned, around that being an issue such as decrimin or other way around it. So I really believe it’s a way to really disguise the real issue. -Steven Salomone/Father of Justin Salomone

Below is the audio of Dominic Carter’s interview with the parents of Justin Salomone

Newman Dominic Carter delivers his own testimony at churches around the country and speaks on the subjects of Children, Foster Care, and Mental Illness. You can follow Dominic on Twitter.