IN THE WEEDS: The Behind The Scenes Story Of How Philadelphia Got Its Decriminalization On


BY N.A. POE If you get involved in activism work to chalk up victories, you’re getting into the wrong business. It’s mostly unappreciated grunt work done on a shoestring budget, and the pay is virtually nonexistent. Career activists and volunteers face a constant uphill battle against a system designed to distract, disengage and confuse the average citizen. But now and again, something happens that makes all the bullshit worthwhile, as it did on Thursday, right here in Philadelphia, when City Council voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

In late 2012, a small army of stoners armed with nothing but hand-rolled joints started a protest called Smoke Down Prohibition that would go on to change the landscape of marijuana reform in this city. I was among a core group of organizers, who at the time had little idea what we doing, that was composed of people who would probably never have associated under any other circumstance — people with a myriad of reasons to feel passionate rallying together around a common cause. We were arrested, threatened and bullied by the full-force of our all-powerful federal government. But we never backed down and our hard work has finally paid off.

A little under a year ago, the marijuana reform community reached out to Councilman Jim Kenney’s office about creating a bill similar to one that was introduced in Washington D.C. that would eliminate custodial arrests for pot possession, and significantly reduce the cost of the accompanying fine. Chris Goldstein, Ann Gemmell and myself (PICTURED, L-R) met with Kenney and his staff, who seemed eager to get the ball rolling and we left the meeting feeling confident that we found an powerful ally in City Hall.

The legalization movement in Philly had recently been garnering a lot of attention, both locally and nationally, from the Smoke Down Prohibition protests at The Liberty Bell and the trials and tribulations that came with it. We felt it was the right time to shift our focus to decriminalizing weed in the city with a full year of  Liberty Bell protest under our belt and a few productive meetings with police brass which we dubbed “The Donut Summits.” I’m sure Councilman Kenney would like you to believe that this bill came to him in a dream, but in reality, a small group of dedicated stoners, who had been personally victimized by the drug war, played a crucial role in shaping this legislation.

The initial decriminalization bill passed unanimously through the Committee on Law and Government after inspiring testimony from members of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Law, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and average Philadelphians who had the unfortunate experience of being arrested for possession of small amounts of weed. We were told the bill was headed for a full council vote and we were cautiously optimistic that it would be passed before the high holy day of 4/20.

The bill then hit a few snags after Kenney met with a shadow group of “Philadelphia’s criminal justice stakeholders” (aka the Criminal Justice Advisory Board) that scoffed at the idea of the change in policy. Undeterred, Kenney and his staff restructured the bill and we were assured that it was not being shelved.

We continued to keep up the pressure. Just for good measure, we made the decriminalization issue the centerpiece of my campaign for the at large city council seat last spring, in which a stoner comic with a criminal record received over four thousand votes without spending a dime. After some foot-dragging, the new bill was introduced a few weeks ago, passed through committee again and led us to a full council vote Thursday at the final session before summer recess.

Working outside the system for so long, I developed a natural distrust for our elected officials and for the political process in general . Even though we were assured the vote was going to be overwhelmingly in our favor, I still had some butterflies walking into City Hall.

Upon entering the chambers, I observed council members, staffers and journalists hobnobbing and joking around, and I immediately realized I could have stayed in bed another couple of hours and not missed a thing. As I fiddled with my Instagram account, council members ran through photo-ops, and mumbled over mundane resolutions and bills I could barely comprehend.

Yet patiently I sat, waiting for a vote on a marijuana decriminalization bill that would immediately thrust Philadelphia marijuana law into the 21st century and finally keep handcuffs off cannabis consumers in the city of brotherly love. A last minute op-ed in The Daily News by former mayors John Street and Wilson Goode supporting the bill was brought to my attention and set my mind at ease. We live in a town where 4000 people — over 3000 of them African American — were locked up last year for marijuana possession and the time has come for this racist and immoral policy to end. After about a year and a half of banging pots and pans in the streets and lobbying councilman Kenney and his staffers, we are finally in a position to bring real change to Philadelphia.

After what felt like days, it was finally time for council to vote on the bill we worked so hard to bring to fruition. It passed with an apparently veto-proof 13-3 majority.

All thirteen of City Council’s Democratic members voted in favor, and in typical fashion, the three Republicans voted against. GOP Councilman David Oh, securing his position as the most clueless gentleman in the room, declared, “While people may enjoy marijuana, I think it is also important to understand that people are being killed in the marijuana drug trade.” Sure they are Dave, just like the 37 people overdosed from injecting the reefers on the first day of legalization in Colorado.

Because Council is adjourning until September, the mayor can draw out signing the bill until then if he chooses to do so. But Kenney is going balls to the wall and calling on Nutter to order the police to adhere to the policy immediately, in deference to the super-majority. This is clearly the right move, as we could start off by saving the city a few hundred pot arrests over the summer, a prime season for twisting up and fatty and chilling the fuck out.

Chris Goldstein of Philly Norml, a key player in shaping the bill and getting it to a vote, was elated with the results. “This is nothing short of a historic day for civil rights in Philadelphia” he said. “We can now stop the practice of having the harshest penalties in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for having a small amount of marijuana. Philadelphia City Council just saved $4 million dollars by keeping our residents out of handcuffs and out of jail.”

The cruel irony is that neither Goldstein nor myself can celebrate this achievement because we both face random drug testing after being sentenced to federal probation for our roles in The Smoke Down Prohibition protests. But if me and Chris toughing out a couple years of random piss tests is the price that had to be paid so that nobody in this city ever has to go through this bullshit again for the unspeakable crime of igniting the leaf of a plant that grows in the ground and inhaling the ensuing smoke — it was all worth it.

UPDATE: Philly’s Top Cop: We’ll Ignore Weed Decriminalization

HIGH TIMES: The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Friday, “I am not in favor at all of any form of [marijuana] legalization.” So Ramsey’s police will just ignore the decriminalization. “We still have to treat [marijuana possession] as a misdemeanor until we are told otherwise by state law. … State law trumps city ordinances.” The senior attorney for the city, Martha Johnston, seems to think the police commissioner is wrong. In a memo addressing the conflict between city and state law, she wrote “the balance of factors weighs in favor of a conclusion that [the bill] is not pre-empted by the state Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.” MORE