Is Philly the New Model for Pot Reform?

Marijuana decriminalization may be another urban blueprint that fills in the gaps left by a federal government that can’t — or won’t — lead.

Story by Malcolm Burnley

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Leave it to reefer. Just when the ever-dull mayoral race in Philadelphia needed a spark, last month two legitimate candidates — both AARP eligible — started sincerely duking it out over the fate of Philly’s four-month-old policy of decriminalizing recreational marijuana.

In one corner was Jim Kenney, longtime city councilman and son of a Philly firefighter (old, silvery, says he has smoked pot); in the other corner was hard-charging former District Attorney Lynne Abraham (older, more silvery, says she’s never smoked pot). Both are polling near the top of the Democratic pack. Weeks after Abraham had doubled down on her staunch opposition to decriminalizing small amounts of weed — calling the ordinance that Jim Kenney championed as a councilman “illegal” — she reversed course when asked again. Yes, in fact, she does support the policy, so long as it excludes children and adolescents. Kenney pounced, accusing Abraham of flip-flopping, and forced the D.A. to go on the record (for the third time in four weeks) with a decidedly final 90-word clarification on the evolution of her stance on cannabis. Talk about a haze.

Marijuana hasn’t just earned a special place in Philly’s mayoral race. Decriminalization of pot is an issue being talked about in cities across the country. Mainstream law-enforcement issues like stop-and-frisk, civil forfeiture and imbalanced racial incarcerations are bound up in the twisted web of weed policing. Which is why marijuana reform has become a civil rights issue in the eyes of the NAACP and ACLU.

Seventeen states, including California, Nebraska and Rhode Island have implemented some form of pot decriminalization. In some states where the capitol has balked (Illinois) or the law was being bypassed (New York), the major metropolis has taken action. In mid-November, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton jointly announced an amendment to New York City’s police directives that quickly dropped marijuana misdemeanors by 75 percent in the following month. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana (NORML) continues to focus on statewide legislation (New Hampshire, Delaware and Texas have all introduced bills in the past three months), but more cities may go it alone.

Jim Kenney, Lynne Abraham

Philadelphia mayoral candidates Jim Kenney, left, and Lynne Abraham exchanged barbs over the city’s move to decriminalize recreational marijuana. (AP Photos/Matt Rourke)

The civic case for decriminalization is primarily two-fold: By curbing the power to arrest people carrying personal amounts of the drug, it not only spares millions of dollars in police budgets, but also, improves discriminatory policing. And the latter issue is particularly relevant to cities at a time when local police-community relations are fraught across the country. Marijuana decriminalization could be one gateway to reconciliation.

But some reforms have exacerbated the racial imbalance. Research indicates that the racial disparity in marijuana arrests has actually gotten worse in the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and California after decrim. While arrests went down by 72 percent on average across those states, the gap between arresting whites and blacks grew slightly more stratified. Chicago’s decriminalization policy made no impact on the racial imbalance. All of which makes Philadelphia’s early results — Kenney’s bill went into effect on October 20, 2014 — all the more astonishing. Not only has the overall arrest rate dropped dramatically — even more than in New York — the racial disparity of enforcement has been cut in half. Granted, there’s only three months of data in Philly, which is a very small sample. The police chief, activists and watchdogs are all reserving some skepticism that the program is a rousing success.

Yet, if it keeps up, Philly could be the new model for marijuana decriminalization. It wasn’t achieved with a statewide initiative or a public ballot, nor was issuing tickets just optional (like Chicago). This was a City Council-stamped bill. While the drug remains a Schedule I substance in the eyes of the federal government, even President Obama has recently endorsed states decriminalizing. Already, municipal leaders have taken the lead on immigration reform and minimum wage hikes in the face of bickering politicians in Washington, D.C. So why not marijuana too?

Pot Activists Give Philly Police the Benefit of the Doubt

The brief outline of how pot reform was achieved in Philly goes something like this: In 2011, during Occupy Philly, Chris Goldstein, the co-chair of PhillyNORML, and Nikki Allen Poe, a comedian-turned-activist, hatched an idea to hold monthly prohibition rallies near the Liberty Bell to draw attention to marijuana-enforcement reform. Goldstein and Poe smoked on Independence Hall, got arrested for possession on federal property, and soon enough, arranged a meeting with Kenney, who was charmed by the gravitas of their message. They sold him on the fact that police resources were being squandered, disproportionately to arrest black men, for carrying around a plant. In turn, Kenney authored a policy that called for fines in lieu of arrests for smoking in public ($100) and possession of under 30 grams ($25) for both adults and adolescents. He estimated decriminalization could save the police department $4 million annually.

The bill passed City Council, and last October, Philadelphia became the largest city in the country to have fully decriminalized recreational use of cannabis. “I passed the ordinance not only to save police resources for more serious crimes, but also to end the practice of saddling youths, and disproportionately black youths, with criminal records for the rest of their lives,” Kenney wrote to me in a statement.

Out of the city’s 4,000-plus marijuana arrests in 2013, over 90 percent involved African-Americans and Hispanics — despite local and national data showing usage rates are virtually equal across ethnicities. Further, about 60 percent of those marijuana arrests came from pedestrian stops, according to attorney Paul Messing. His firm is monitoring the city’s stop-and-frisk program as part of a consent agreement in the related case of Bailey v. City of Philadelphia. For every one gun that’s found per 500 police stops, there’s 10 pieces of non-firearm contraband. And that’s typically weed.

“If the police do find contraband, it happens to be marijuana,” says Messing. Stop-and-frisk and marijuana arrests — the two go hand in hand. “It’s an unfortunate collateral consequence of the stop-and-frisk program. With the new ordinance in effect, there won’t be as many arrests, but there are still going to be stops.”

According to one PPD officer, who asked to remain anonymous, making stops but foregoing arrests was already a regular occurrence before the ordinance took effect. “If you stop someone with two bags of weed, the only reasons they’re getting arrested is if they mouth off to you or have a gun hidden in their waistband,” he says. This cop acknowledged there were “mall-cop” types in the department who’d consistently pursue weed arrests, but by and large, the police force didn’t care about it if they weren’t making overtime. “The whole terrorizing people for weed thing? Come on.”

Pot citation, Philly

In October, PhillyNORML activist Mike Whiter was the first person to receive a citation and $100 fine, for smoking pot outside city hall, on the day marijuana decriminalization went into effect. (Photo by Malcolm Burnley)

And now, police care even less about writing citations, he says, illustrating with a story. “We were driving down Walnut Street about two months ago, when we see the guy next to us driving with his knees and rolling a blunt. He goes from 22nd Street all the way to 46th Street. We pull him over and I tell him ‘Dude, you were just rolling a blunt for 20 blocks!’ And the guy says, ‘It’s legal now.’ I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s not legal.’ We still let him go and didn’t take his weed.”

After Chicago passed a decriminalization ordinance in 2012, there was virtually no change in the racial outcome of arrests and citations. Its policy differed from Philly in that police officers were given the option of issuing a civil penalty instead of an arrest, for possession of less than 15 grams. Police in Philly have been required to only issue tickets for up to twice that amount.

In the first two years after Chicago’s policy took effect, misdemeanor arrests dropped by over roughly 20 percent, but there was no dent in the racial discrepancy of enforcement, according to a study by Roosevelt University. Black residents were seven times more likely to be arrested than whites — just as they were before the ordinance — and about six and a half times more likely to be ticketed. So far in Philly, black residents are getting ticketing at just two and a half times the rate of whites under decriminalization in Philly, according to a recent story in the Philadelphia Daily News. Prior to the bill, blacks were arrested over five times more often than whites for marijuana. That’s significant progress. And overall, arrests appear to be down between 75 and 90 percent, although the numbers continue to be revised.

Of course, these hopeful harbingers are based on data being released by the Philadelphia Police Department — which, it turns out, hasn’t been stringently kept in order. The Daily News checked the data and found that PPD mistakenly underestimated the number of citations by 131 for the first three months. PPD spokesperson Christine O’Brien said the discrepancy could be due to two factors. Either the other police departments in the city, like campus cops at UPenn or Temple, have been issuing citations independently — which wouldn’t be logged with PPD — or, the police had simply been sloppy with their internal paperwork.

The latest update of numbers I received from the City’s Office of Administrative Review now show over 225 citations were issued for possession or public use in the first two and a half months of decriminalization. Overall, the city has collected less than half of the $5,100 that it’s due from those fines.

Goldstein is willing to give PPD the benefit of the doubt, as is Poe. “What I’m more concerned with as a marijuana activist in Philadelphia is what the numbers are in April, May and June — rather than December, January, February,” says Poe. “Let’s let spring bloom and see what happens.”

Decriminalization vs. Medical Marijuana

The RAND Corporation released a report this year that estimated the average cost of enforcing a single marijuana offense in one state (Vermont) was $1,266. Those potential savings could add up to tens of millions for Pennsylvanians, which is in part why Governor Tom Wolf endorses decriminalization statewide. Wolf has also vowed he’ll sign a medical marijuana bill that’s currently circulating in Harrisburg, if it’s passed. From the perspective of cities though, decriminalization is a less complicated gambit than legalized medicinal weed.

“There’s no such thing as ‘good medical marijuana policy’ at a city level,” said UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, in a Next City feature on California’s medical system. “There’s absolutely no reason for cities to be working in pharmaceutical regulation.”

In California, hundreds of municipalities have banned pot shops to avoid the additional burden of policing legalized medical marijuana. Reducing crime and arrests associated with the drug are more acute concerns within cities, not providing medical care with it. Which is why Philly may have found the right city-centric blueprint for marijuana reform.

Decrim Has Limitations in a Stop-and-Frisk World

Days before Mayor Michael Nutter signed Jim Kenney’s decriminalization ordinance into law, the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth and other organizations held a rally outside City Hall in support of the bill. The group’s executive director, Archie Leacock, has been nonplussed by the city’s decriminalization policy in action. “The young men I work with are just as concerned about police as they ever were,” says Leacock. He insists it’s made little impact on the community most vulnerable to marijuana enforcement, which is black youth, despite the downtick in arrests. That’s because stop-and-frisk remains rampant. “The Police Commissioner, no matter if Obama put him on a National Task Force, he ain’t functioning in Philadelphia.”

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey deflected criticism about the racial disparities in his department’s enforcement of drug laws, telling the Daily News that the PPD is “not keeping a scorecard on a particular ethnic group.” Like mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham, Ramsey initially resisted the decriminalization law — originally saying that he wouldn’t make his officers participate — but has relented, if only begrudgingly.

The PPD has put out flyers and gone on local radio to dispel rumors about the new law (first and foremost: Weed isn’t legal). But there hasn’t been a broader public acknowledgement about the damage that policing tactics have done to minority communities residents, in relation to marijuana enforcement. The police commissioner in Washington, D.C. — where marijuana has been legal for a little over a week now, after a public referendum passed by 70 percent last November — made such a gesture, while giving an enthusiastic nod to the new policy. “All those arrests do is make people hate us,” Chief Cathy Lanier told Vox last week.

Ultimately, ending the disproportionate ratio of blacks and whites getting apprehended for weed — whether that’s arrests or citations — relies less on decriminalization, and more on concluding policies like stop-and-frisk. “It’s the policing tactics in Philadelphia that are causing the racial disparity, not the usage,” says Poe. “If the PPD went through my bag every time I walked down Walnut, the white arrest rate would go up too.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow, and is a contributing writer for the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit journalism outlet that reports on issues affecting women. He’s also a contributing writer to POLITICO magazine, Philadelphia magazine, WHYY and other publications. He reports primarily on criminal injustice, urban solution and politics from his home city of Philadelphia.

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