It’s a Thursday night in early April, and two dozen or so people are huddled around a table inside West Philly’s anarchist community center A-Space talking about weed. It’s the bi-monthly open meeting of the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—the leading brand in the legalization movement—and the only thing hanging in the air is the smell of serious business.
Medical marijuana dominates the first half of the conversation as bearded, ponytailed PhillyNORML Executive Director Rob Dougherty, shaggy haired Secretary Derek Rosenzweig, and neatly dressed Communications Director Chris Goldstein (who looks more like a lawyer, or maybe a detective, than your average weed activist) apprise attendees of the status and minutiae of medical marijuana bills on the table in Pennsylvania and elsewhere around the country.
It’s not the most enthralling discussion, but it’s a necessary one. 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.
Finally, a bit of levity: “Smoke-out at the Liberty Bell,” Goldstein half-jokes, as the conversation switches over to 4/20—National Pot Smoking Day. “There are some local glass blowers who’ll give us [pipes] to raffle off [at 4/20 events]—you know, they’re for tobacco only,” Goldstein deadpans.
Not a single speck of weed has been lit over the course of the 90-minute meeting. Disappointing, maybe. But not as disappointing as the fact that 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.
A spate of recent studies—including the 2010 report Targeting Blacks for Marijuana, prepared by New York-based Marijuana Arrest Research Project—confirm that around the country, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately arrested for pot possession compared with whites, even though whites use marijuana at a higher rate.
A recent PW story explored the 4-to-1 racial disparity in pot arrests in Philadelphia: Of the 4,904 adults picked up for marijuana possession in 2010, only 813 were white and nearly all the rest were black. The story also explored the potentially devastating consequences of just one minor weed charge on communities of color: No loans, no public assistance, no public housing, no jobs.
Legalization, some in the article argued, is the only way to eradicate this tool of racial discrimination. And much like the medical marijuana argument has gained ground by appealing to people’s sense of compassion toward the sick and terminally ill, a legalization strategy framed within the context of civil rights could possibly convert the anti-legalization crowd by appealing to their sense of social justice. That any perceived harm from marijuana use is far outweighed by the potential long-lasting harm that comes from possession arrests. Public opinion shifts, elected officials take notice, pro-legalization bills are more easily passed, and everyone is free to spark up in peace.
On paper, it actually seems feasible. But there’s a big problem: PhillyNORML is too white.
There are hardly any minority voices within the organization that can help make such a case. All of its leaders are white. Most of its members and regular volunteers are white. At tonight’s A-Space meeting, only two black people dropped by; for one, it was her first NORML meeting.
Unfortunately, that’s the norm for NORML. “We’ll have a few African-Americans come to our meetings and events from time to time, but then we never hear from them again,” says PhillyNORML secretary Derek Rosenzweig.
And it’s not just the Philadelphia chapter.
Allen St. Pierre, NORML’s executive director, estimates that only about 10 percent of NORML’s roughly 15,000 dues-paying members are nonwhite. “I’d be shocked if it was any more than that,” he says over the phone from the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. St. Pierre says that every one of NORML’s seven-person staff is white, and adds that the same goes for the leadership at most of NORML’s 150-plus chapters around the country. He recalls one NORML conference in the ’90s that drew about 500 people, “but I counted no more than five black people there.” Things haven’t gotten a whole lot better since then, he notes. “It’s a big problem.”
Image is everything, and the absence of minorities within the organization has created the perception that PhillyNORML is primarily working to ensure that the white pot smokers of the world can get high without worry. Oftentimes, it appears that NORML isn’t keen on straying from its comfort zone, where its traditional base of young white college kids hang—local events and outreach usually go down in University City, Fishtown, Old City, Rittenhouse Square (at PW ’s annual Concerts in the Park, for example), and even Warminster, where they’re holding a bowling fundraiser on Saturday. But seldom do they happen in predominantly black locales like North Philly (except for at Temple) or Southwest Philly.
PhillyNORML events often feature musical acts, but typically they’re jam bands or psychedelic rock bands. Less often do they feature hip-hop, R&B or other genres that draw people of color. Reps from the local chapter insist they’ve tried to set up hip-hop shows, but have often run into unforeseen logistical problems—shows “fall through,” or they find that venues around town charge double or triple for insurance premiums if a hip-hop act is on the bill.
Whatever the reason, PhillyNORML hasn’t been able to capture the people most affected by the war on weed.
At its inception in 1970, NORML’s membership was predominantly white because at the time it was much easier for whites to publicly advocate marijuana legalization without repercussions than minorities. Since then, St. Pierre admits, outreach has taken a backseat to NORML’s consuming lobbying efforts, such as the medical marijuana fight, which has swallowed up most of the group’s limited resources (including their annual budget of less than $1 million) over the past 20 years.
St. Pierre says the organization focused on medical marijuana because “that’s what we had to do.” His analogy is “Churchill in World War II saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll go fight Rommel in the desert,’ and they said, ‘Why? You don’t have to.’ And Churchill said, ‘Because we need to win somewhere. We’re losing everywhere.’ Medical marijuana has been the means to establish a toehold to turn prohibition around.”
PhillyNORML likewise cites a lack of money and manpower. “There’s a lot of ground to cover out here,” says Goldstein. “It’s a big city. We do the best we can. As a nonprofit volunteer organization with less than $10,000 a year, we can only do as much as our resources allow.”
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.
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