Marijuana can be dangerous in Philly - if you're black

Chris Goldstein smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. This is his first Philly420 column for Philly.com:

In just a few weeks, adults 21 and over will be able to possess one ounce of cannabis in Colorado or Washington state after voters there approved ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana. The pot stores will be regulated and taxes levied later, but simple possession will become legal immediately.

For marijuana aficionados in Philadelphia, it's a starkly different situation - especially if you're black.

Philadelphia maintains a harsh and expensive policy for more than 4,000 marijuana offenders annually: handcuffs.

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For simple possession in every other county of Pennsylvania, police issue a Summary Violation (and take the weed of course). Hauling in every single person with a blunt or some Purple Kush is unique to Philly. And those targeted for arrests reveal everything wrong with cannabis prohibition.

The statistics are amazingly accessible. Of the 4,226 adults arrested for marijuana in Philly almost half were between the ages of 18 and 21. Of those, a striking 3,495 --82 percent -- were black, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report.

Available data shows that white and black people consume cannabis at nearly equal rates. So the age and racial disparity highlights what's wrong with marijuana policy in Philadelphia. 

In 1972 President Nixon created modern prohibition when he insisted on listing marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act. At the time there was one powerful voice of dissent: former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. A loyal Republican, Shafer had just completed two terms when Nixon tapped him to run a blue-ribbon Presidential Commission on "Marijuana and Substance Abuse." The group spent more than a year touring the country and studying the issue. The final recommendation was that marijuana should NOT be in the Controlled Substances Act. Period.

Shafer and the members of the commission accurately predicted that placing cannabis in the CSA would create a massive imbalance in the equation of federalism and put the government directly in the way of personal freedom for Americans. Nixon ignored the commission's warning out of cultural fear and simple racism; he wanted a reason to arrest hippies and black people. Forty years later this policy has a complex, global impact. But in 2011 the Philadelphia Police Department pretty much fulfilled Nixon's ideals of marijuana prohibition enforcement.

December will bring a immense difference in personal liberty for marijuana consumers in Pennsylvania compared to Washington or Colorado. Many have opined recently that President Obama could allow the two states to proceed with no change in federal policy. But that's a bad idea. Marijuana reform is not an issue of agricultural or tax law; it is one of freedom.

President Obama has a profound chance to take a stand. He can, and should, take up Gov. Safer's 1972 report and end marijuana prohibition by completely removing it from the Controlled Substance Act. This will equalize freedom in America and across the world.

Or President Obama, Governor Corbett and Mayor Nutter can sit back and watch as thousands of young, black men endure the burden of marijuana prohibition in Philadelphia for yet another year.

 Contact Chris Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com

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