Back outside Room 404, a visibly annoyed Brandon Void exits the courtroom, heading toward two friends waiting for him on the bench. Clean cut and wearing dark jeans and a dark green vest, Void looks at them, laughs and shakes his head. One of the friends gets up to look at Void’s sheet of instructions. “I don’t know, man,” Void says. “This is crazy.” The friends are eager to hear what happened, and are hanging on Void’s every word as he recounts his run-in with the cops.
The 25-year-old father of two vividly recalls the Sunday night he got busted back in December. Void and his girlfriend had just left her Olney house after watching an Eagles game, and were caught off guard when five undercover narcs rolled up on them at a stop sign on Fifth and Wingohocking streets, guns drawn. The cops surrounded Void and demanded that he hand over his gun. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I don’t have a gun.’”
No gun was discovered during the stop and search, but a small baggie of weed found in Void’s pocket was enough get him arrested. He remembers asking the cops, “You didn’t find a gun, and now you’re locking me up? For a little bit of marijuana?” Void was cuffed and taken to headquarters, where he spent 18 hours before he was given a court date and released. Void shrugs the whole thing off because the cops, he says, are a regular presence in his Logan neighborhood. “Man, they roll up twice a week.”
Activists reiterate that legalizing marijuana is the only way to put an end to the disparaging cycle that continues to increase the criminalization of select pot smokers. Even some local anti-drug groups, which have historically taken a zero-tolerance policy against all illegal drugs, are shifting their view—if only slightly—on marijuana prohibition because they have acknowledged that it has done little to curb the use. “We need to try different things,” says Greg Wicks, president of the East Mt. Airy-based community group Wadsworth Concerned Neighbors Against Drugs.
Though Wicks isn’t on board with legalization, he does question the effectiveness of the war on weed, and acknowledges that a simple “pot arrest can affect young people with regard to jobs and education.” He says one of the reasons for the arrest disparity is that “a lot of [black kids] are just getting caught. [Marijuana] is in the white neighborhoods also. But I see [black kids] doing it on public transportation, places where you easily get caught.”
Jerry Mondesire, president of the Phildelphia NAACP and editor of the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, echoes that sentiment. He attributes the racially disparate arrests to police “acting what they see on the street.” While Mondesire says the NAACP has not taken a position on legalization, he’s clear on one thing: Black kids are getting arrested because they “[smoke weed] on the street. White kids do it in private.”
But there’s a dangerous disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of marijuana use. Like Void, most of the people going through the revolving door of diversion court aren’t actually smoking weed when they’re busted. The weed is tucked away in a pocket, out of public view, and usually recovered during routine stop-and-frisks. “The single most common thing a young person is possessing is a tiny amount of marijuana,” Levine says. “But the black kids are walking around or hanging out in the low-income, high-crime neighborhoods where they live, and where the police are making most of their stop-and-searches.” Meanwhile, the white kids are hanging out in places the cops never go.
And why should they? There’s money to be made in the hood.
Every year, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country apply for and receive federal funding through the Byrne Formula Grant Program, created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. These grants are awarded to “improve the functioning of the criminal justice system—with the emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders.” Solving violent crimes and busting serious offenders takes time. But low-level marijuana arrests quickly boost police productivity stats, which look good for “the chief of police [who] can go in front of City Council and tout arrest numbers,” Piper says.
Of the $2 billion in Byrne grants authorized by President Obama in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Philly received $13.5 million. The city gave $3.5 million to the PPD, according to the Philadelphia Recovery Office, which says the money is going toward technology, training, nonlethal weapons and community outreach. Over the years, the Byrne funds have also paid for overtime in the PPD’s narcotics investigations, according to the office. The specific uses of this money is not available, but Levine says that when police departments file reports showing what they have produced with the federal funds, the first thing they list is the drug arrests, including the large number of misdemeanor pot-possession arrests.
The Byrne funding program has been heavily criticized for years for failing to deter crime and to use the money and resources for more important criminal-justice work. Piper calls the program a huge waste of taxpayer money and is fighting hard to defund it. “If the money goes to narcotics task forces, they’ll use it to arrest low-level drug offenders. Then the feds have to pay for incarceration. The Byrne grant money that the PPD is using is going to end up costing the state far more in incarceration costs.”
But it’s been a challenge to convince anyone otherwise. “This is the heart of the problem—money from the Byrne grants,” Piper says. It’s money for overtime. Money for promotions. It’s policing for profit.”
Many associated with law enforcement say the funding puts pressure on police departments to make the low-level marijuana arrests. “The police are sent to make arrests, clear corners … that will never end as long as they cater to the illegal drug market,” says former cop Neill Franklin.
During his 33 years on the Baltimore and Maryland state police narcotics forces, Franklin has seen the escalating war on weed first-hand, having locked up countless pot smokers, pot dealers and pot growers. Now, he’s fighting tooth and nail to keep legalization at the front of everyone’s minds. As the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (its tagline is “Cops say legalize drugs”), Franklin has penned dozens of editorials and appeared on countless talk shows calling for nothing less than strict, legalized pot regulation. He calls Philly’s diversion court is “modest reform,” and questions the rationale behind its creation. “If it makes no sense to charge, convict and sentence someone for using marijuana, why is it a police priority to arrest that person?”
“Policing in America has zero opposition,” says Levine, whose research compelled the California NAACP to support Proposition 19, the now-defeated bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. “The system operates absolutely unanswerable to anybody whatsoever.”
Operating with total freedom has allowed the war on weed to become a money-making machine for police departments. When crime is up, police get more money to fight it. When crime is down, they get more money to keep it that way. It’s a relationship where money and arrests are inextricably tied. And criminal-justice experts say that is by design.
Franklin says the lack of supervision of cops on the street slowly turns good cops into bad cops. They begin to rationalize what they’re doing, and sooner or later: “‘I don’t even consider this stealing. I work hard every day dealing with these knuckleheads, and they’re making this money illegally. So I’m going to take this $2,000 to pay my water bill.’”
Former PPD officer Ray Carnation agrees. “Say you got four guys doing [weed] busts,” “I can say ‘OK, you got the buyer, you got the seller, you’re the surveillance guy,’ and all of a sudden, you got four guys off the street who just easily made up a story.”
“Do they make up stories? Absolutely.”
Carnation, who worked as a Philadelphia police officer in the ’90s, was fired from the force in 1999 for “conduct unbecoming an officer.” What really happened was that he blew the whistle on racial discrimination within the PPD. He sued, and after years battling it out with the city in court, he won. “There isn’t a quota, but there is a quota,” says Carnation, in his thick Philly accent. “There’ll be a roll call where the captain says he wants more narcotics arrests. They don’t say, ‘You have to give me 20 tickets this month.’ They can’t do that because it might blow up in their faces. But they’ll come to you and say ‘Listen, you don’t have any narcotics arrests this month. What’s up with that?’”
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