Decriminalization of marijuana is a racial justice issue.
According to statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2003, Black youth were 3.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than White youth; by 2013, the number grew to 4.3. In 2003, there were more White youth incarcerated, starting in 2006 there were more Black youth; and ever since, the reverse has been true.
Black juveniles sell and use drugs at roughly the same rates as their White counterparts, but they are more likely to do so in the streets rather than behind closed doors; their neighborhoods are also more likely to be classified as “drug-free zones” in which drug use is more harshly punished. And within their schools, they are more likely to be policed, arrested, and even sent to jail for misbehavior according to the Marshall Project.
Racial minorities in the City of Pittsburgh, predominantly Black males, are charged with minor possessory offenses five times more often than their White colleagues despite similar rates of usage.
Marijuana has been described as a gateway drug to harder narcotics. That belief is unsubstantiated. The truth is that marijuana is a gateway to disproportionate incarceration of Black youth.
The Drug Policy Alliance reports that over 700,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana in the United States and the vast majority for mere possession of small amounts of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) class I scheduled narcotic.
Although now legal in four states; Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington states and the District of Columbia and legal for medical reasons in 23 states; Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington the Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative (PJC) is not advocating its usage for recreation.
The PJC is firmly convinced that the current approach of dealing with marijuana usage as a criminal activity is wrong and misguided but rather the PJC believes that drug abuse is a public health and personal health issue and should be treated as such. It is for this reason that we support harm reduction strategies and arrest diversion programs, such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), as the answer.
Mass incarceration is not the answer. Providing low income people, Black people and other people of color with a quality education, job training, employment, housing and mental and physical health care is the solution.
This is why following the lead of the Washington DC Marijuana Decriminalization legislation the Pittsburgh code’s restriction of Police from encountering our youth because they smell marijuana. The legislation states “Police shall not use the mere odor of marijuana to unreasonably detain an individual or seek entry to a private residence” this is a critical reform that will have significant impact on law enforcement practice if embraced and actually followed.
The Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative (PJC), comprised of grass roots organizations, is working to undo the devastating effects of the War on Drugs which has played out against low-income Black people in our region. This movement to combat mass incarceration is why the PJC supports amending Article 8, Title 6, Article 1 of the Pittsburgh City Code.
We applaud the actions and leadership of The Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative Co-Chair, Brandi Fisher of Alliance for Police Accountability (APA), and Councilmember Daniel Lavelle for spearheading this initiative to amend Title 6: Conduct, Article 1: Regulated Rights and Actions providing for the assessment of a civil fine for the possession of small amounts of cannabis in the City of Pittsburgh under certain terms and conditions.
Much work remains to be done. We must work to insure that the new policy is followed and, where there is room for discretion in enforcement, that there is not a disproportionate number of African Americans represented in the issuance of citations.
We expect that there would not be a pattern of disproportionately assessing Black people the higher fine of $100 while Whites are assessed the lower $25 fine. We expect that the discretion to assign a person to 9 hours of community service instead of fining them would also be proportionate to the population distribution by ethnic group.
Finally, we would hope that the fines do not become a new burden for already besieged low income families.
The Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative will be monitoring implementation of Article 8, Title 6 Article 1
Brandi Fisher, Co-Convener Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative, CEO Alliance for Police Accountability (APA)
Darcel Madkins Co-Convener Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative, Co-Founder African American Leadership Association (AALA)
Rick Adams Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative LEAD Task Force, Board Chair Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW)
Pittsburgh Justice Collaborative (PJC) Member Organizations* (for identification purposes only)
1. African American Leadership Association (AALA)
2. Alliance for Police Accountability (APA)
3. Bethany House Academy
4. Amachi Pittsburgh
5. Higher Purpose Learning Center
6. Sankofa United
7. W. Pa Black Political Assembly
8. Black Political Empowerment Project (BPEP)
9. Greater Pittsburgh Coalition Against Violence ( CAV)
10. National Council for Urban Peace and Justice (NCUPJ)
11. 100 Black Men of Western Pennsylvania
12. Southwestern Pennsylvania Re-entry Coalition (SPARC)
13. Hill District Consensus Group (HDCG)
14. One Hood
15. Primary Care Health Services Inc.