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Marijuana decriminalization a racial justice victory in Philadelphia

Philadelphia will soon become the largest U.S. city where you can have marijuana and smoke it too — at least without going to jail. Rather than arrest, being caught with anything under an ounce of marijuana will carry with it a $25 fine and citation. Getting caught smoking in public means a slightly heavier penalty: a citation and a $100 fine that can be avoided with 9 hours of community service. Combined, this year’s series of national victories around marijuana decriminalization may look spontaneous, but they in fact speak to years of racial justice organizing and the cultural shift around criminalization that they’ve helped bring about.

The Philadelphia City Council voted 13-3 to decriminalize marijuana back in June, but putting the decision into law has been dependent on Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s signature. The bill, introduced by councilman Jim Kenney in May, originally included even less severe penalties, but was beefed up in a compromise with Nutter’s administration. In return, he’s agreed to sign the bill into law.

Nutter has been quick, however, to draw a distinction between legalization and decriminalization. On KYW Newsradio, he clarified that there will still be “a consequence to people violating the law.” Nutter scoffed at the council’s decision earlier this summer, saying, “Suddenly, this is the great civil rights issue of our day — that black guys should be allowed to smoke as much dope as they want.” As Dan Denvir pointed out for Philadelphia’s City Paper, Nutter’s class-tinged moral posturing around marijuana use has become an anachronism in light of a shifting political context; a Quinnipiac University poll found that 85 percent of Pennsylvanians favor not just the decriminalization, but legalization of marijuana.

Philadelphia’s decision is part of a growing trend among state and municipal governments. Washington, D.C., has a similar law, while Washington state and Colorado each voted to legalize recreational marijuana use last November. Twenty-three states have legalized the use and sale of the substance for medicinal purposes. Soon, Florida might become the first southern state to do the same.

Kenney described marijuana decriminalization as a cut and dry racial justice issue: “Marijuana possession and use has been decriminalized in Philadelphia for years… if you’re a white person.” Indeed, African Americans accounted for 83 percent of the over 4,314 marijuana arrests last year in the city. As Kenney told Policy Mic, city police have been far more reluctant to make arrests at Phish concerts or frat houses than predominantly black working-class neighborhoods.

Philadelphia is the nation’s poorest major city. The poverty rate is an astounding 26 percent, with 40 percent of children living below the poverty line. One in four people are at risk for hunger. As public education is gutted and prisons crop up around the city, it’s become harder for even the city’s most well-off to avoid the racial disparities embedded in the criminal justice system. Former gubernatorial candidate John Hanger made decriminalization a centerpiece of his Pennsylvania People’s Campaign, arguably pushing other primary contenders further left on the issue. The Hangar campaign itself was built on the foundation of groups like the Institute for the Development of African American Youth, or IDAAY, and Decarcerate PA, which for years have been fighting the prison expansion in the state.

Councilman Kenney’s use of phrases like “school-to-prison pipeline” didn’t spring out of nowhere; that one of America’s highest elected city officials has started using the talking points of prison reform and abolitionist movements is thanks to those movements themselves and the public pressure they’ve built. Kenney admitted as much to the Philadelphia Tribune, saying, “City government would not have gotten to this point without IDAAY and other groups’ grassroots effort to change the mayor’s opinion and get him to implement this policy.” IDAAY executive director Archye Leacock echoed the sentiment, and said that his group would work to hold the mayor and city council accountable to implementing the law on “terms that are agreeable to community stakeholders.”

Given the heightened visibility of racist violence in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere this summer, waves of marijuana legalization aren’t the only thing drawing national attention towards what can most generously be described as the country’s unequal justice system. Ideally, Philadelphia’s ruling will be the first of many movement victories decriminalizing not only marijuana, but whole segments of the population.