Outside Room 404 of the Criminal Justice Center on 13th and Filbert streets, men sitting on the long, wooden bench in the blindingly white marble hallway slide over to make room for the latecomers. On one end of the bench, a man nods off. On the other, a few guys trade stories about the “bullshit” that landed them here. In the middle, laughter and a heated debate over the Eagles and Andy Reid’s coaching skills fill time as the men wait to enter Philly’s Small Amounts of Marijuana program, the diversion court started by District Attorney Seth Williams back in June.
Inside the courtroom, it’s time to get down to business. Offenders caught possessing 30 grams or less get to make a deal: Agree to pay a $200 fine and attend a three-hour treatment class and avoid going to trial and risking jail time. Since there’s no legal representation in the court, the director presiding over the process makes sure to state the rules clearly. “We will not hear testimony or the particulars of your case. Upon successful completion of this class, your record will be expunged within six months. You may pay cash or money order on the date of your class.” Most defendants nod their head in agreement and opt for the fine and treatment class.
When they’re done, the offenders trickle out a few at a time, stopping to mingle; some discuss what happened inside. A little girl with a hot-pink backpack exits holding her mother’s hand. Her older brother walks beside them. The mom seems unsure about what happened inside. “This means we don’t need a lawyer, right?” she asks. A few people voice their shared suspicions about the lack of legal representation in the court. Others are just happy to be getting out of there. “I love weed,” says a smiling 20-year-old Desmont Brown as he exits the room. This isn’t the first time he’s been busted with weed, and he’s sure it isn’t going to be the last. The Germantown resident, clad in a Hugo Chavez-inspired military jacket, adds that he’s going home right now to smoke. “Marijuana is not a drug!” Brown says. “It’s weed! It’s everywhere!” The rolled-up Metro in his hand gets tighter as he waves it around to make his point. “Politicians smoke weed. Actors smoke weed. Everyone smokes weed!”
Despite the outspoken opposition from offenders, the diversion program is being hailed as a success in some circles. Nearly 80 percent of the 1,636 arrests for possession of 30 grams or less between June and September 2010 were diverted to the program, putting the city on target to collect an estimated $3 million to $5 million in savings and unclogging a criminal court system that was spending a tremendous amount of resources on misdemeanor offenses.
Others see the program as just another incarnation of the never-ending war on weed. “This whole thing is … just an excuse to make more arrests,” says a man donning long dreadlocks and a black leather jacket, as he exits the courtroom.
What is made clear with each passing day in Room 404 is that black Philadelphians continue to represent a disproportionate number of those arrested for carrying small amounts of marijuana. Of the roughly 4,700 pot possession arrests in Philly in 2009, whites comprised an estimated 800 of the arrests. Blacks made up the overwhelming majority of the rest.
To many inside the criminal justice and pro-legalization arenas, that disparity is nothing short of an ongoing conspiracy. Pot arrests, they say, are profitable—for the police, for the government and for big corporations. 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. The result? The increasing criminalization of just one demographic: inner-city blacks.
For decades, federal studies have shown that whites consistently report higher uses of pot than blacks. Yet blacks continue to suffer disproportionately under the drug’s prohibition. In the early 2000s, Philly’s racial disparity in pot arrests was roughly 2 to 1. Today, it’s 4 to 1. As much as the issue of legalization is a focal point of American dialogue, the war on weed shows no signs of slowing down; it’s netting simple pot possession arrests more than ever before, both in Philly and across the country.
In 1980, police made nearly 340,000 marijuana possession arrests in the U.S. By 2009, arrests for the same charge jumped to more than 750,000. Also in 1980, law enforcement made 63,000 marijuana trafficking (sales and distribution) arrests in the U.S. By 2009, the number had risen to 100,000. There’s no denying that busting traffickers is taking a backseat to busting pot smokers.
“Police officers know that a clerk is selling marijuana out of a store, but they bust the customer because they know they always have that store to go back to,” says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Washington D.C.-based Drug Policy Alliance. “I’m not criticizing law enforcement. It’s a criticism of their performance measures.”
The Philly numbers are no different. There were over 10,000 more pot possession arrests than trafficking/sale arrests between 2000 and 2010, according to the state's crime database.
And policy makers are using this same logic with regard to the number of people in treatment for marijuana “addiction.” According to a report released in December by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, treatment for marijuana abuse is on the rise nationally, with a 30 percent increase in admission rates.
Pennsylvania is high on that list. This could be considered a success if there were actually more people in need of treatment. But as Harry Levine, a Queens College, N.Y., sociologist and a prominent researcher who has documented the racially charged pot arrests in New York City and California, points out, marijuana use peaked nationally around 1980 and has never again reached those levels. Which means that it’s unlikely that the growing number of people in marijuana treatment actually reflects a country struggling with increased marijuana addiction. Case in point: Philly’s pot diversion program asks you to choose between a criminal trial and a treatment class. And between June and September, according to the D.A.’s Office, 79 percent of offenders who entered the diversion program opted for treatment. There is no Door No. 3. Which would you take?
“The majority of people in treatment are there because they’re forced to be there,” Piper says. “The criminal-justice system is the biggest reason people are getting treatment. It doesn’t mean they have any marijuana-related problems.” But the more arrests there are, he says, the more people in treatment there are, and the more money there is to be made by everyone—except the young people arrested and stigmatized by arrest records, which Levine says nobody can “expunge.” (The D.A.’s Office says successful completion of the class results in an expunged arrest record, but that the eradication process takes a few months. This leaves open the possibility that the information can be mined by companies that sell this information to potential employers and agencies, which can then deny a young person a job, a school loan or housing assistance).
When Philly first announced the diversion court, residents and the media celebrated what they thought was a progressive move toward decriminalizing marijuana use. But Williams set them straight. “We are not decriminalizing marijuana—any effort like that would be one for the Legislature to undertake,” the D.A. said last April.
“The diversion court is … working better for the people, as well as saving significant money for the city,” says Chris Goldstein, communications director for the Philly chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which was instrumental in getting the policy changed. “But I’d like to see us take on a serious debate about decriminalizing marijuana.” The end goal, says Goldstein, is for Philly to catch up to the rest of Pennsylvania. “It’s possible we will see the city come in line with the rest of the state, in terms of issuing tickets on the street.”
But when is anyone’s guess.
Since the court started, the D.A.’s Office has denied speculation that the program is in any way part of a larger effort to legalize marijuana. “We are not in the business of decriminalizing something that’s a criminal offense,” says Jodi Lobel, chief of the D.A.’s charging unit. “Our purpose, our function, is to be sure that people who are arrested for small amounts of marijuana are addressed or punished for a criminal act, but in a way that’s productive and cost-efficient and smart.”
For now, state law requires that the Philadelphia Police Department continue to detain, cuff, arrest and process anyone carrying small amounts of pot. The diversion court will help offenders stay out of prison, but pot arrests will continue.
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.
NORML has long considered the widespread acceptance of medical marijuana the clearest path to its ultimate goal—across-the-board legalization of marijuana—so getting a medical marijuana law passed in Pennsylvania is a priority for the PhillyNORML crew. But there was nary a mention of one of the most persuasive arguments out there—one recently adopted by NORML—for the end of marijuana prohibition: That legalization can and should be looked at as a civil rights issue.
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.
Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor