Dougherty acknowledges that it’s difficult to argue the civil-rights angle when those most affected by marijuana prohibition aren’t engaged in the fight. “People of color are the ones mainly being arrested for these crimes,” he says after the meeting. “So they need to be out on the streets with us marching against this and being vocal about it … It can’t be just a bunch of white people that’s gonna get [legalization] done.”
Once busted himself for pot possession, Dougherty also recognizes that the effort to draw in people of color, or to even talk about legalization as a civil-rights issue, is exceedingly difficult given the perception, fair or not, that NORML is just looking out for whites.
And while Dougherty concedes that NORML could put more effort into outreach—“We can definitely do more …we need to get involved in those areas of the city”—he also says activism is a two-way street. “We can only reach out so much—there’s got to be a hand on the other side to reach out to.”
St. Pierre agrees on both fronts. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot eternally if we do not do this minority outreach.” But, he adds, they “must be willing to reach out to NORML, too. “To stick your head in the firing line, you could lose your family, your profession, your freedom, all of those things. But for true reform to happen, the aggrieved have to make self-sacrifices. The minority community has to take responsibility and have the courage to step up and become engaged in their own liberation. It’s astounding how much reform has already happened with so little resources. If we could even get one percent of minority cannabis users in this country to put some skin in the game, we could win this pretty easily.”
And minorities do appear reluctant to join one of the biggest civil-rights issues facing them. As much as NORML hasn’t reached out to them, they haven’t shown much interest in publicly advocating for legalization, either. The biggest impediment? Fear of becoming even more of a target for harassment or arrest than they already are.
“I think that maybe a lot of white people forget that it’s a privilege to be able to come out and say publicly, ‘I smoke weed and this is something I feel should be able to do.’ You can’t really do that when you’re black,” says “Frida,” a 21-year-old Drexel student and one of the two non-white people at the PhillyNORML meeting (she requested anonymity).
“Hell no!” says a 34-year-old black man and proud weed smoker, waiting for a bus near Ridge and Cecil B. Moore avenues, when asked if he’d fight for his right to toke. “They’ll come knockin’ at my door and lock my ass up!” he says, looking over at his friend and laughing.
Lesra, a 22-year-old Drexel student and aspiring rapper who says he’s been stopped-and-frisked countless times since he was 14, says, “Black people don’t protest weed laws ’cause we don’t fuck with cops.”
Another issue, says Linn Washington—a Temple journalism professor who has written extensively about the war on weed and is an advocate of marijuana legalization—is that Philly’s minority community leaders lack the will to encourage the cause of legalization to their constituents. He points to the vilification of Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, who last year endorsed California’s pro-legalization Proposition 19 ballot initiative (which ultimately failed to pass) on the grounds that it was a civil-rights issue. She was then blasted by anti-legalization forces, particularly the black church. “It is a ridiculous thought to advocate for blacks to stay high … how do you educate an intoxicated mind?” Bishop Ron Allen, president of the International Faith Based Coalition and one of Huffman’s fiercest critics, told NPR last year.
“Who wants to be vilified for this?” says Washington. “Society has pushed this discussion of marijuana prohibition to the fringes of the public debate, so anybody who brings [legalization] up is seen as some sort of radical or just an outright nut. Many of these leaders—whether elected or appointed or self-presumed—are so timid when it comes to this issue. They’d rather go along to get along.”
And then there’s the curious case of Ed Forchion, better known around these parts as “NJWeedman,” which illustrates a gulf in tactics that exists between NORML and some in the black community. For the better part of a decade, Forchion was the loudest, most visible black weed activist in South Jersey and Philly (if not the nation)—a cult hero of sorts that people took to calling the “Superhero of the Potheads.”
A one-time long-haul trucker and unrepentant cross-country weed smuggler, Forchion was busted by Camden County cops in 1997 with 40 pounds of marijuana and faced 20 years in jail. For three years, he tried to wiggle his way out of the charges, waging a public battle against the state of New Jersey and the nation’s marijuana laws. Along the way, he formed the one-man Legalize Marijuana Party and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House and the New Jersey General Assembly. Finally, in 2000, he took a plea deal, served 17 months, and was paroled on the condition that he wouldn’t publicly advocate the use of marijuana. Forchion promptly filmed and aired a series of pro-weed commercials on local TV and got tossed back in prison, where he filed a writ of habeas corpus (styled after Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) claiming he’d been unlawfully imprisoned for exercising his right to free speech. A federal judge agreed and sprung him after five months.
Forchion, now 46, then started smoking weed regularly in front of the Liberty Bell and other public places to protest marijuana laws—he’s been arrested over 30 times—and then split three years ago for Los Angeles, where he currently operates a weed dispensary called the Liberty Bell Temple and runs two growing operations. Last year, during a visit home he got busted in Mt. Holly, N.J. with a pound of weed in his trunk. He’s awaiting a court date this summer, where he intends to once again put weed laws on trial as part of his defense. But he won’t be calling NORML for support.
“I reached out to NORML so many times, but they never wanted any part of me,” says Forchion over the phone. “I needed their help when I was fighting these stupid-ass laws, and I tried to get involved with what they were doing and bring all my supporters to them, but I was never accepted.”
Forchion says NORML founder Keith Stroup has called him a “joke” and a “loser,” telling him that his antics helped set the marijuana reform movement back.
“I was basing my protests on civil disobedience, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King did,” Forchion argues. “I took it as a civil-rights argument from the very beginning, and NORML never talked about it like that until recently.”
When asked about Forchion, Dougherty smiles. It’s obvious he’s got at least some admiration for the Weedman’s cojones, but he sticks to the party line. “NORML’s official policy is no civil disobedience. We have to go through the system.”
St. Pierre isn’t quite so diplomatic. “The problem is, [Forchion’s] the wrong voice. He wanted to legally change his name to ‘Just A Nigga.’ How embarrassing is that to the black community? … Unfortunately he’s scared the bejeezus out of people from Newark to Philly because he’s a loose cannon … that nobody wants to get close to.
“From an activist point of view he’s a negative force,” St. Pierre continues. “He’s not a credible change agent … Repulsing and turning off the body politic may feel good, and I’ve been there, I’ve done it. But in the end, we want results.”
But Prof. Washington, who’s written about Forchion’s exploits over the years, thinks NORML missed a golden opportunity to connect with the black community.
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.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide