“Some of the things Ed’s done are totally outrageous … but he was getting attention for the cause,” says Washington. “When Ed was going through his things, NORML wouldn’t support him. That was totally absurd. That was an occasion where a little bit of togetherness could have advanced the ball. But NORML didn’t take advantage of it and it’s really hurt them. Yes, you need some people to take a quieter approach, but you need different people doing different things as long as they’re all working toward a common goal.”
Forchion still keeps tabs on PhillyNORML from 3,000 miles away. He’s not averse to offering them some tips on how to attract Philly’s minority community to help advance the legalization effort. “Get local rappers on board to make songs about PhillyNORML—they’ll do it. Go on local black radio and talk about weed. Go around and put up signs,” he advises. “They’re small, they’re all volunteers … what they really should do is just hire a black person to … be a liaison to North Philly and places like that.”
Can linking up with a rapper really convince minorities to join the fray? “It could end up cheesy, but if you get someone like Wiz Khalifa or the Roots to mention NORML in a song, maybe people will Google ’em,” says Jimmy, a 23-year-old African-American Temple student who says he’s stopped all the time in North Philly by cops looking for weed.
And with PhillyNORML already so strapped for cash, where would funds to hire people come from? Dougherty laughs when asked if they can get money from NORML. But St. Pierre says a lifeline may be on the way in the form of the tentatively dubbed “Minority Marijuana Project” that NORML intends to roll out in 2012. Details are still to be hammered out, but St. Pierre says modest funds could be made available to individual chapters’ outreach efforts.
Despite the challenges, PhillyNORML has made headway. Spurred by the 2010 report Targeting Blacks for Marijuana, Goldstein crunched the 2009 Philadelphia pot possession arrest numbers from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System database and when he discovered the 4-to-1 disparity in black vs. white arrests he took those numbers to city officials. “I spent hours meeting with the deputy mayor, the police department, the district attorney, all to help the people who are getting arrested,” says Goldstein. The data persuaded District Attorney Seth Williams to create Philadelphia’s Small Amounts of Marijuana (SAM) diversion program last June. It mandates that anyone busted with 30 grams or less of weed gets the option of a $200 fine and a three-hour treatment class in lieu of a court date and possible prison time.
“That’s a tangible change we’ve gone through this year,” says Goldstein.
But he concedes there is more work to be done. “I wish there were more African-Americans that were more regularly a part of our organization. The door is open here at PhillyNORML. But no matter what anybody thinks, what the perceptions are, we’re going to keep working to stop people, all people, from getting arrested. Do you have to be black in order to try to change the system to make it better for black people? No. The end game here is to legalize marijuana for everybody.”
PhillyNORML meets on the first and third Thursdays of every month at 7:30pm at A-Space, 4722 Baltimore Ave. phillynorml.org
While pop culture has been connecting women and weed for a few years now—there’s Showtime’s Weeds, of course, and a smattering of articles in women’s glossies with titles like “Stiletto Stoners” and “Marijuana Moms”—the organized campaign to change drug laws has also been bringing women and weed together.
If you’re looking for something to help mark the day, there’s a few things going on around town. Note: Some of these events are on the down-low, so you might have to do a bit of extra work on your own to get all the details.
To many inside the criminal justice and pro-legalization arenas, the racial disparity in Philadelphia's pot arrests is nothing short of an ongoing conspiracy. And a look into the policies and practices behind marijuana prohibition reveals a scheme in which weed culture is supported by the very agencies charged with eliminating it.