Today, November 20th, is a big day for marijuana. It has been one full month of decriminalization in Philadelphia.
There were 300-360 men and women who were not put into handcuffs and then holding cells for having less than one ounce of cannabis. Instead they got handwritten tickets from police. In place of a life-altering permanent record, these cannabis consumers received a fine of $25. As states around the country are fully legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana, we simply took a pragmatic step away from the failed policy of criminal prohibition.
Wanda Sykes noticed the new policy. During a ceremony at the Kimmel Center where Jon Bon Jovi was given the prestigious Marian Anderson Award, Sykes quipped "Thanks to Mayor Nutter, we're all carrying a little bit of weed around with us now."
Sykes might also thank Councilman Jim Kenney, who vigorously sought this change, Kenney's 13 fellow City Council members who voted in favor of it (twice), and the years-long effort by the volunteers at PhillyNORML.
The sky has not fallen. There are not crowds of thousands lighting up blunts on Ben Franklin Parkway every afternoon at 4:20 p.m. (except during the Made in America concert). Columnist Christine Flowers' fears of city residents rolling into the suburbs, bong-in-hand on public transit have not come to pass. Former District Attorney and now mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham's ominous testimony before the U.S. Senate in 2010 that "'Welcome to Philadelphia, Light Up a Joint' may just be our new slogan," would be the result in any shift away from a full-scale war on weed has not come true either.
This city is saving money every day. More police are free to deal with serious crime. Underground medical marijuana patients and otherwise law-abiding recreational consumers are living with a little less anxiety.
We also influenced a growing trend. Today marks the first full 24 hours of a similar policy in America's largest city, New York. The Big Apple used to be the nation's capitol of pot arrests. Last year's total in NYC of 38,000 marijuana possession arrests was almost as many as New Jersey and Pennsylvania performed statewide, combined. Now, as highlighted in a wonderful "Saturday Night Live" skit, the NYPD has also traded handcuffs for tickets.
Washington, D.C. also implemented a fine-only marijuana procedure earlier this year. All of Massachusetts decriminalized after voters took the matter into their own hands in 2009, and now Bay State voters are looking to go further in 2016. It is amazing to realize that cannabis consumers in the very interconnected and influential cities of Boston, New York, Philly and D.C. no longer face arrest for the first time in decades. This is a significant change.
If it were up to voters in N.Y., Pa. and N.J., marijuana may have been already regulated and taxed. But we do not have direct-to-law ballot initiatives. That is why the true solution for states like ours now rests with President Obama. It is time for the federal government to end prohibition once and for all.
That brings us to another interesting anniversary today: Irvin Rosenfeld, one of the two surviving federal medical marijuana patients, celebrates 34 years of receiving his relief directly from Uncle Sam.
Irv, who testified before the Pennsylvania Senate Law and Justice Committee earlier this year, has just started smoking his 217th pound of cannabis. Since November 20, 1982, it has all been grown at the University of Mississippi, rolled into joints in North Carolina, and delivered to his pharmacy in Florida by the United States Government. Yes, the very same government that holds marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act because it "has no currently accepted medical use in treatment."
Irvin's case, along with the fact that there are still about 600,000 marijuana possession arrests nationwide and the clear sentiment of voters, should prompt federal action. There is growing pressure from within Congress as well.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), Rep. Jared Polis (D., Colo.), Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R., Calif.) joined others on Capitol Hill last week to address the issue.
"To my fellow Republicans," said Rohrabacher, a former Reagan press secretary and speech writer, "Wake up! . . . The American people are shifting on this issue."
N.J. Sen. Cory Booker spoke at the Center for American Progress this week and went even further saying that the so-called War on Drugs is "a source of so much of the pain of economic injustice, social injustice." Booker, the former Mayor of Newark, has been consistent in calling out the racial disparity of marijuana enforcement. The fact that African Americans endured more than 80% of the arrests in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City was the real impetus behind the shift in procedures in all three cities.
The GOP-controlled Congress could make moves to pass bills to decriminalize as well. Federal possession penalties are very harsh; I am serving two years of supervised probation and got a $3,000 fine for having half of a joint on federal property. The same half a gram of weed that would get me a ticket on city property results in a severe penalty in a national park.
But Congress could and should go even further. Harvard economist Jeffery Miron wrote in an OPED at CNN this week:
To realize the full potential of legalization, therefore, federal law must change. The best approach is to remove marijuana from the list of drugs regulated by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the federal law that governs prohibition.
Standard regulatory and tax policies would still apply to legalized marijuana, and states would probably adopt marijuana-specific regulations similar to those for alcohol (e.g., minimum purchase ages). State and federal governments might also impose "sin taxes," as for alcohol. But otherwise marijuana would be just another commodity, as it was before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.
But will Congress act soon enough? When a new president takes office in 2017 the state-level reforms could be at risk. While N.J. Gov. Chris Christie may not be the strongest contender for the nation's highest office, he is very much on the short list for cabinet positions. The former federal prosecutor could be in line for a job that could directly impact these policies. "U.S. Attorney General Chris Christie" is an ominous combination of words for marijuana reformers.
That is why the real burden for change is not on Congress but directly on the shoulders of President Obama. It was President Richard Nixon who started modern cannabis prohibition and the White House has always been central to the policy.
President Obama has the authority and the power to move marijuana out of the Controlled Substance Act. Tens of millions of Americans live without a ballot initiative process in their states. We should not be held hostage by local legislatures as prohibition falls elsewhere. It is time for the patchwork of cannabis consumers to be unified into a green quilt of real freedom.
Decriminalization is an important step, it stops arrests. But the real goal is to stop oppression of people and of a lucrative underground market. In the name of peace and property here at home, it is time for President Obama to act, while he still can.
Philly420 columnist Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine.