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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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?’”

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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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