Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter now stands alone as a politician unwilling to come to terms with the facts of urban marijuana arrests.
City Council passed a bill 13-3 in June to reduce penalties for marijuana possession. After staying silent for months, Nutter last week unleashed a painfully ill-informed and callous tirade. In more than 15 years of advocacy on this issue, I thought I had heard it all.
But this was a new low for political dialogue.
The mayor says there are greater priorities for the city. But what could be more important than such an easy fix for a massive problem of civil rights and social justice?
What is more important than easing the tension between the Police Department and the community?
What is more important than reclaiming $4 million dollars in the Public Safety Budget and 17,000 police officer hours?
What is more important than giving thousands of young black men better opportunities in life than a criminal record?
Apparently, the Tour de France is more important.
Ignoring the hard data, historical fact, and most of the country's African-American leadership, Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey are content to maintain a high priority on putting thousands of black residents into handcuffs and holding cells for weed.
While Nutter would like to make this a beef between him and the bill's sponsor, thankfully a super majority of 13 lawmakers on Council have already seen the truth echoing around the nation.
John Dixon III is the police chief in Petersburg, Va., and president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. At the group's conference last month he made this clear statement:
“We, as law enforcement professionals, we need to really take a look at how we can decriminalize marijuana, especially user amounts. We are locking people up for a dime bag, for a joint. They’re put in the criminal justice system, which pretty much ruins the rest of their lives.”
Philadelphia keeps up a unique and harsh practice of custodial arrest for pot. Over 4,000 adults are treated this way every year. Police in every other county in Pennsylvania have the option of issuing a summons. Philly is the only place where custody is the standard, in fact mandatory, practice.
The Pittsburgh District Attorney's Office told TribLive last week that they are more inclined to send offenders home after a weed encounter than clog up holding cells.
This is exactly what the bill would do in Philly: Allow cops to issue tickets. No custody, no record. More important: no loss of future employment or housing because of a criminal arrest.
Since 2008 (when Nutter came into office) through 2013, there were 26,054 adults arrested for marijuana possession in Philly; 19,787 were black men.
Yet Mayor Nutter went so far as to question the civil rights issue at the core of the argument to reform local marijuana laws.
He is going against his own peers. Last summer, the American Conference of Mayors passed a resolution on the subject that was summarized by the New York Times:
"Organized crime, the mayors continue, dominates the illegal marketplace; enforcement is not only costly, but also racially biased, with African-Americans far more likely than Caucasians to be arrested for possession despite similar rates of use across ethnic groups.”
The NAACP national Board of Directors passed a resolution with even clearer language in 2013:
“...even though numerous studies demonstrate that whites and African Americans use and sell marijuana at relatively the same rates, studies also demonstrate that African Americans are, on average, almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some jurisdictions Blacks are 30 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.”
Even President Obama told CNN's Jake Tapper earlier this year, "My concern is when you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly and, in some cases, with a racial disparity...I think that is a problem."
Since high school I have regularly attended Quaker Meeting. Social justice and civil rights work have always been part of my religious service. When I first got involved with marijuana legalization in the late 1990s, there was a lot to learn: science, policy, politics.
But one of the things that urged me to move headlong into being an activist for this cause was the stunning institutional racism in prohibition enforcement: It has always been by design.
Harry Anslinger (a native of Altoona, Pa.) created the first federal cannabis prohibition in 1937. Here are some of Anslinger's most disturbing quotes as to why he urged Congress to criminalize cannabis:
"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men,” and:
"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others."
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Anslinger's "1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act" was unconstitutional. That's when President Nixon created the so-called War on Drugs.
As I've pointed out in previous columns, former Pa. Gov. Raymond Shafer (a conservative Republican and constitutional expert) tried to stop modern marijuana prohibition. In 1972, Shafer delivered a report asking that marijuana not be included into the Controlled Substances Act. Shafer saw the truth, too. But Nixon ignored him.
After the meeting, Nixon was recorded in the Oval Office on the now infamous Nixon White House tapes speaking with his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman:
“I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana, I mean one that just tears the ass out of them. You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish…. You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks...The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to..."
Philadelphia Quakers have a particularity deep tradition is addressing these problems. I have often worshiped or stopped in for some silence at the Arch Street Meeting House at 4th and Arch. This is where Harriet Tubman arrived after her own perilous journey along the Underground Railroad. It was a strong network of black and white Americans who worked together to ultimately abolish slavery.
Today, the struggle for racial equality continues. Few civil rights issues have such clear and easy steps to a solution than ending cannabis prohibition and ceasing Nixon's worst legacy: the drug war.
Mayor Nutter should heed the words of former President John F. Kennedy, who said in his 1963 Civil Rights Announcement "that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened."
Until we unbind ourselves from the misguided institutions of the past, equal liberty and opportunity will not be a reality. Changing marijuana policy here in Philadelphia and eventually legalizing it nationwide is a logical, achievable step towards a greater goal.
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. Contact Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @freedomisgreen.