I t’s time to talk about weed. And no, we’re not talking about last Friday night at the bio pond. It’s time to talk about the discriminatory, wasteful War on Drugs.
Our drug policy has been an unqualified failure. While we understand change will happen gradually, immediate steps can be taken to decriminalize marijuana possession in Philadelphia and legalize medical cannabis statewide. These actions alone would put Pennsylvania on the path to a sensible drug policy.
The facts about marijuana policy are sobering. Though usage rates are essentially the same between blacks and whites, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis in Philadelphia. And according to the US Sentencing Commission, drug sentences for black men were 13 percent longer than comparable punishments for white men. Weed is not just the butt of stoner jokes — it is a vehicle of policy efforts to institutionalize racial inequality and codify discrimination.
Further, marijuana prohibition is expensive. A 2012 report pegged the cost of enforcing simple possession charges at about $2.5 million. Plus, legalizing marijuana would mean being able to tax it — a potentially multi-million dollar new revenue stream. In a city whose public schools face a perilous financial crisis, spending such exorbitant amounts of money on a racist and ineffective zero tolerance drug program is negligent and irresponsible.
But, thankfully, there are people who understand the problem and are trying to affect change.
The Philadelphia City Council voted 13-3 to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Instead of being arrested, risking jail time and having a drug offense permanently stain their record, residents found in possession of marijuana would simply be subject to $25 tickets — and, upon payment of the ticket, the city would expunge the charge.
This bill is a no-brainer. To issue criminal charges — and their attendant ramifications, including substantially diminished eligibility for employment — to disproportionately black men and women simply for possessing a non-addictive, non-harmful plant is lunacy.
But lunacy, sadly, has come to define our drug policy. The City Council bill remains stalled. While Philadelphia arrests 360 people each month for possession of small amounts of cannabis, Mayor Michael Nutter has let the bill sit on his desk. He has called it “simplistic” without outlining any comprehensive vision of reform himself, and he parrots the ineffectual “Just Say No” rhetoric that just doesn’t work.
Marijuana decriminalization is not the only prong in our fight. In the Pennsylvania General Assembly, State Senator Daylin Leach has introduced PA Senate Bill 1182, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, to legalize medical marijuana for patients with a physician recommendation. The bill is common-sense reform and has bipartisan backing, but Republican Governor Tom Corbett stands in the way.
The governor has repeatedly issued veto threats to Sen. Leach’s bill. His support is crucial — it would give political cover for more Republicans to vote in favor of the bill, virtually guaranteeing its passage. Instead, the bill remains mired in the swamps of partisan politics. Worse, Gov. Corbett’s opposition is incoherent. He has been stunningly incapable of articulating legitimate grounds for his hostility to the bill, even contradicting his small government principles by attempting to pass the buck to the federal government.
America does not have a drug proble m — America has a drug policy problem. The War on Drugs is a pandemic, and we do not pretend that these policies are a panacea. Still, the City Council’s and Sen. Leach’s prescriptive measures are steps in the right direction, and we can’t afford to miss the forest for the trees.
Mayor Nutter, Governor Corbett, the ball is in your court. You can act to end these costly, destructive policies. And if you don’t, it’s up to us to vote for representatives who will.
We cannot afford to stand idly by as our city wastes millions of dollars each year to turn chronically disadvantaged poor and minority men and women from workers to inmates. It’s time to pass these bills — the costs of inaction are too high to ignore.
UPDATE as of 7:57 p.m., 09/10/14: It seems Mayor Nutter was reading our minds. The mayor and City Council have just announced a deal to decriminalize the simple possession of marijuana within the city -- though they will still issue summary offenses for public use of cannabis. While he must remember that this is only the first step to developing a real, sustainable drug policy, we applaud the Mayor's actions today, and we look forward to continuing to work for further reforms. Though this legislation is only the first broadside in the battle for justice in drug policy, we are excited to see the administration fighting on the right side.Comments powered by Disqus
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