Philadelphians fight for the right to get high.
In 1972 President Nixon appointed former Pennsylvania governor Raymond Philip Shafer, a Republican, to chair a commission studying marijuana usage. The commission came to a stunning conclusion: Marijuana possession should be decriminalized. It recommended "a social control policy seeking to discourage marijuana use, while concentrating primarily on the prevention of heavy and very heavy use."
Nixon never implemented this plan. Today the plant remains Schedule I, the toughest restriction on illegal drugs, along with heroin and GHB. The federal government considers marijuana to have no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse.
On a bright Saturday earlier this month a few hundred people marched down South Street attempting to change that. The chant they raised collectively was the kind usually reserved for the late innings at Citizens Bank Park.
"Ma-ri-juana!" Clap, clap, clap clap clap. "Ma-ri-juana!" Clap, clap, clap clap clap.
Okay, it's not the kind of cheer you'd hear at a baseball game--at least not since pitchers Herb Hash and Stoney McGlynn retired. But the people protesting at May 5's Global Cannabis March were as serious as the fans at a Phillies game are when they cheer--maybe more so.
Before the march I wondered if one could take a protest for marijuana seriously, and Derek Rosenzweig, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, agreed that most marijuana users--at least on the East Coast--aren't very outspoken. After all, the drug's illegal.
But even if Americans won't vocally support marijuana legalization, they'll honk their horns and cheer when yelled at. And even though the 200 or so yelling and holding signs consisted mainly of people in their 20s, marijuana usage isn't limited to postcollege ennui. The 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated 4.1 percent of adults over age 26 used marijuana that year.
As if to underscore that point, the cars driving by reflected a diverse group: Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians all honked their horns in support of the protest. People driving BMWs and Kias honked.
A woman who had to be in her 70s got the biggest cheer of the day: After a particularly boisterous protester yelled, "Honk if you smoke up," she repeatedly beeped in support. The cheer I heard might've been as loud as any I've heard at a Phillies game.
I honestly expected a small crowd for the march. But as it got closer to 4:20--obviously, the time the march began--the group had swelled to several hundred. And this wasn't a bunch of kids with their hands in their pockets.
Nearly everyone had a sign. There were giant pill bottles marked "Medical Marijuana." There were signs calling for legalization and for decriminalization.
The cheering continued as the march started. Customers and employees of South Street stores stopped to cheer or join the march. (Naturally, a Domino's Pizza delivery guy was among the loudest supporters along the route.)
Hey, who said marijuana smokers are lazy stoners?
In 2005, 696,074--89 percent of all marijuana arrests--were for simple possession. There are 14.6 million regular marijuana smokers in America. Almost 5 percent of regular marijuana smokers were arrested two years ago for simply consuming a plant that can't be overdosed on; that the Shafer study said should be decriminalized; that a 1999 National Academy of Sciences study said had tremendous potential for medical uses.
It wasn't just a march, though. A group called Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana, started by Upland's Barry Busch, has been contacting legislators and attempting to get a sympathetic one to sponsor a medical marijuana bill. Twelve states and some cities, including Denver, have passed medical marijuana laws, despite the U.S. government continuing to prosecute people under federal law.
Busch conducted an informal study over the past year, calling up state legislators and asking them if they were sympathetic to the medical marijuana cause. He says he's convinced the state's legislators can pass a law for medical cannabis use.
"Pennsylvania is where freedom in this country was founded," he says. "I believe Pennsylvania has a moral duty to stand up to the federal government. We just have to change minds."
Barry the Pot-Dealing Samaritan is risking his freedom to provide a sick person with the medicine he needs to fight cancer. Prison time. Fines. A criminal record that would follow him for his entire life. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2