Chris Goldstein is a marijuana activist living in New Jersey
Neill Franklin, former undercover narcotics cop in Baltimore, was at the PAL in Wilmington, Del. last night making a case for legal marijuana.
"Marijuana is what gets us [the police] into your pockets, into your cars and into everything else," Franklin told the group.
Delaware decriminalized possession of marijuana last year, but Franklin says that doesn't go far enough. He was speaking as the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP),
Franklin explained to the crowd of about 80 gathered in the PAL meeting room that a small amount of weed is the starting point for having a person's life deeply intertwined with the criminal justice system.
"We need to remove from the police the discretion over people when it comes to marijuana possession," says Franklin. He said that arrests are still an option even under relaxed policy.
That notion has clearly played out in Philadelphia according to the data we've gathered here at Philly420. According to figures from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System, the impact of Philly's ordinance to hand out $25 tickets for joints instead of handcuffs reduced the city's previous 4, 200 pot arrests every year dramatically.
Custodial arrests went down by more than 80 percent and about 1,400 tickets were doled out. But 700 people are still put into handcuffs at the officers' discretion; and four out of five are black.
That's why NAACP chapters around the country have backed cannabis reform for years. It started with Alice Huffman at the California NAACP in 2010 and now C. Linwood Jackson of the Delaware chapter is joining the effort.
"The application of our marijuana laws have been applied to our young people of color," said Jackson, citing data from the ACLU's landmark report on such disparities.
Arrests generate records, and the ripple effect of on the 600,000 Americans fingerprinted, photographed and entered into national crime databases causes discord in every life for years.
"White men with a criminal record have a better chance of getting selected or a job than a black man with no record," says Jackson.
He's correct. The situation is described carefully and meticulously in Harvard sociologist Devah Pager's book "Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration."
Jackson's conclusion is an endorsement for change. "The NAACP of Delaware supports the effort to end marijuana prohibition and tax and regulate here," he said.
Indeed, the First State is aspiring to live up to it's moniker in new ways. Delaware is heavily favored on a short list of states who could go green with cannabis in the next two years.
Cynthia Ferguson, co-founder of Delaware NORML, says that Senator Margaret Rose Henry is poised to champion a bill for retail cannabis in 2017. Incoming governor-elect Jack Carney, a Democrat, does not really have the issue on his radar yet says Ferguson, but it may be soon.
There have been major victories to end prohibition in eight states so far, but they have all been approved by the ballot initiative process – directly at the polls. The next milestone is for a smaller group of elected officials to make the same pragmatic shift that tens of millions of voters already have.
There have been rumblings of legalization in Dover for several years. An October 2016 poll by the University of Delaware showed very strong support for the issue with 61 percent backing reform.
Tom Donovan, a criminal defense attorney, says that he is still defending clients who have extensive runs-ins with local police over paraphernalia like rolling papers, bongs and in one recent case, a grinder.
Zoe Patchell of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware and DENORML said that while her state is still spending more than $20 million in criminal enforcement there could be hundreds of millions in potential taxes.
Advocates like Patchell are also finding increasing resonance behind quickly growing research pointing to cannabis as a vital move to handle nicotine, opiate and alcohol addiction.
A clinical review from the University of British Columbia just this week sums up the potential benefit to convenient and legal marijuana: "Research suggests that people may be using cannabis as an exit drug to reduce the use of substances that are potentially more harmful, such as opioid pain medication," says the study's lead investigator Zach Walsh, an associate professor of psychology at UBC.
But there is also a much more personal impact says Patchell, ""It's safer for me - as a female - to be around others who choose cannabis instead of alcohol."
Centers for Disease Control data on alcohol sadly proves her point.
"Do we continue to make this all-natural, non-toxic plant a burden," Patchell asks, "or do we regulate this plant like alcohol?"
Delaware is home to just under 1 million residents but serves as a thruway to millions of people in the Mid Atlantic every week. Famously duty free on many goods, retail outlets enjoy a massive out-of-state customer base. Cannabis would be the same.
If the bountiful, free-market-friendly wedge of Delaware decides to legalize marijuana – before any other bordering states - it would have a profound impact on the region.