What War on Marijuana?

By Ngani Ndimbie, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: aclu.org)

(credit: aclu.org)

HOT TIP: If you want to smoke marijuana without consequence, be sure to find the biggest house in the whitest neighborhood of your Pennsylvania town and smoke there.

I’ve been hanging on to this not-so-secret secret for 10 years now. But I’ve decided to get the word out for the sake of Pennsylvania’s youth and their futures.

Growing up in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, I got to experience the injustices of the War on Marijuana firsthand.

Picture me as a 17-year-old in a smoky basement of some large home in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood on a weekday after school, hanging out with my friends, feeling calm yet conflicted. On the weekends, I regularly volunteered by registering young voters and talking to my peers about issues and policies affecting them, like the War on Marijuana. When I was conversing with other black youth, they’d occasionally offer a story about how the enforcement of marijuana laws affected them, their friends, or their neighborhoods.

And in my neighborhood? What War on Marijuana? Marijuana was (and is) readily available and regularly enjoyed in Squirrel Hill and other predominantly white neighborhoods throughout Pennsylvania. But Pennsylvania’s war on drugs is not being waged on the white and wealthy.

Last summer, the ACLU released a report titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.” It is the first report to ever look at nationwide, state, and county arrest data by race.

Arrest data show that in Pennsylvania, black people are 5.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. And in Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, black people are 5.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.

In Philadelphia, our recent analysis of city-wide marijuana arrest data, performed as part of our stop-and-frisk lawsuit, showed the same pattern. 84.4 per cent of people arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession were black (43.4 per cent of the population) while white people (36.9 per cent of the population) comprised only 5.8 per cent of the arrests. Oh, and guess who was arrested in the predominantly white areas of the Philadelphia. Yeah, mostly black people.

Law enforcement across Pennsylvania has clearly focused on race rather than behavior when enforcing marijuana laws. Equal enforcement of the laws would see police on every block and in every neighborhood.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is calling for decriminalizing personal possession of marijuana. It’s time that we stop this expensive, racially biased, ineffective War on Marijuana in Pennsylvania.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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