Blunt Assessment: Inner-City Blacks Continue to Suffer Disproportionately Under Philly's War on Weed

By Nina Hoffmann
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Mar. 1, 2011

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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. 

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Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 2, 2011 at 07:56PM

“Based on which scientific facts is the government justifying the destruction of cannabis smokers lives.”

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2. Jason Matthew Mueller said... on Mar 2, 2011 at 10:44PM

“"We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem. America's problem is us. We're her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn't want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you're not wanted...

We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite...

So I cite these various revolutions, brothers and sisters, to show you that you don't have a peaceful revolution. You don't have a turn-the-other-cheek revolution There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution." Excerpts from Malcolm X's "Message to the Grass Roots"”

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3. Anonymous said... on Mar 3, 2011 at 11:15AM

“What is a Hugo Chavez inspired jacket? you mean Che?”

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4. chronic attack said... on Mar 3, 2011 at 06:04PM

“its a racket, 200$, and then six months later it will be xpunged, i have a bridge the crosses the delaware to nj, arrest 200 potheads,time that number by 200 , yeah this is the citys new money maker, the usa needs to realize this will soon be sold in vegas, ac, all the tourist traps, if u cant handle weed, then u got problems, lohan ,sheen ,agulleria”

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5. Anonymous said... on Mar 4, 2011 at 09:40PM

“the six months is really ridiculous... there's no reason it should take more than 30 days to have that drop from your record. Did the DA give reason as to why it takes this long?

Who the hell cares anyway if there is a pot arrest on your record... most progressive employers understand that's not a risk. We're one of them. Our best staff are regular pot smokers.”

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6. Milo Cronos said... on Mar 5, 2011 at 08:36AM

“As a member of N.O.R.M.L. and a firm believer in legalization I have to say to all the potheads out there.Your public tokings are ruining any chance of legalization the public doesn't care when it's done in private as the article should have told you it's not a black problem it's a dumbass pothead issue. I've smoked freely in private for over 20 years as a stoner who respects the fact that what the public doesn't know it doesn't perceive as a threat.Your public displays are not cool it just shows how stupid you are, take it inside and we can all smoke legally a lot sooner!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Mar 5, 2011 at 01:19PM

“Possession on street -- illegal. Why is this hard to understand for a bunch of Boo Hoo whiners.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Mar 6, 2011 at 08:50AM

“While I understand your frustrations Milo, your perceptions are a little off.

Allow me to use an analogy to prove my point. You say that things done in private the general public doesn't perceive as a threat. When was the last time you walked into a bar and heard 5 people plotting an attack of any sort?

If decriminalization were to happen, we would need to have the transparency that the american people as a whole deserve. If there is nothing wrong with what you're doing there should be no problem with allowing people to see you do it.

What's at issue here is profiling, and even if you decriminalize weed...without transparency you add fuel to that fire. Those against legalization claim that MJ is a gateway to more dangerous illicit drugs, and thus a higher crime rate would ensue. We need to be able to show them that it indeed is not. By imbibing MJ in the public eye we leave no question as to what exactly is going on, instead of having people assume the worst case scenario.”

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9. Jonny Goldstein said... on Mar 8, 2011 at 12:01PM

“Glad to see this article. It takes a long time to change policy, but I see it gradually happening. I am happy to see stories like this chipping away at our counterproductive prohibition of a relatively innocuous plant. To all you folks out there who condemn marijuana: don't consume it. Those of us who do use it responsibly should not be criminalized for it. I know kindergarten teachers, doctors, and lawyers who consume cannabis, either for medical or recreational purposes, and managing to lead productive lives. Of course they are white, older, and middle class, so they don't end up getting arrested. We are going to look back at this last 80 years and go "what were we thinking? this was barbaric." Hats off to you for writing this.

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10. DonJ said... on Mar 12, 2011 at 02:26AM

“There making money on you and still keeping hemp, that makes paper, cloth, plastic and fuel possible without petroleum illegal. The same group that killed the electric car, had it recalled and destroyed it is still stopping hemp from being grown. It was legal before prohibition of alcohol, and after prohibition?.. no alcohol stations, only gas stations. Getting the picture? Hemp was this countries biggest crop before it was made illegal.”

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11. DaveMan50 said... on Mar 12, 2011 at 03:09PM

“Dear Jodi,
I read the quote from you that ended with “but in a way that’s productive and cost-efficient and smart.” Can you explain that last part??? What in hell is productive about criminalizing someone because they happen to like Cannabis? How can you call offering a captive the choice of punishment or addiction treatment, when they are not addicted to anything?
Of course it’s cost-efficient not to go to trial when you have no real evidence that Cannabis is bad in any way. The laws that you are supporting and enforcing are just there to punish those that happen to like Cannabis. So in no way is this productive or smart. Please wake up and think if you can.

DaveMan50 (

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12. shotime said... on Mar 14, 2011 at 06:28AM

“From making this a racial issue, to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. and some real deep thinkers like "it's illegal" end of story, the real point is missed. Legalization of weed is something this country needs to adopt, and stop all the diversion from that need. Legalize it, tax it, and stop the waste of money and affect on people's lives on the criminalization of something that has been nothing more than a political debate. The national debt could probably be paid off, and we wouldn't have the disasters that occur from smuggling a plant. Don't bogart that joint.”

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13. dannyboy602 said... on Apr 18, 2012 at 01:01AM

“Blah Blah Blah...Ima grow it anyway. FUK the pigs. If your gonna go down might as well go down big:P”

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14. amir rousr said... on May 4, 2012 at 09:00AM

“This is really true i just had to do this program i hated that shit”


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