Ramsey’s Choice: Criminalizing African Americans

Philly’s police chief will keep making pot arrests. Here’s who gets hurt.

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Commissioner Charles Ramsey has made a decision: He will keep enforcing the state’s drug laws, keep arresting suspects for simple possession of small amounts of marijuana, and it doesn’t matter what Jim Kenney and a veto-proof majority of the Philadelphia City Council have to say about the matter.

“We still have to treat it as a misdemeanor until we are told otherwise by state law,” he told the Inquirer on Friday. “State law trumps city ordinances.”

That doesn’t sound entirely unreasonable, even if it does raise the question of who the hell pays Ramsey’s salary. But it does mean that Ramsey is making a choice, for which he — and Mayor Nutter, if he chooses to back Ramsey up — will bear substantial moral responsibility.

Ramsey is deciding that African Americans in Philadelphia will continue to be disproportionately treated as criminals.

Let that soak in a second.

I’m not saying that turning African Americans into criminals is Ramsey’s goal — I doubt, in fact, that it is — but it is an easily identifiable outcome of his policy choice. Consider what we know about marijuana possession in America, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia:

• Broadly speaking, we know that whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates. Among the age 18-25 group — the folks that tend to get targeted for drug use — whites actually use marijuana at a slightly higher rate.

• Despite that, “Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates, according to new federal data.”

• It gets worse in Pennsylvania: Blacks are nearly five times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

• According to Philly NORML — which, yes, has a dog in this fight — the disparity is just as breathtaking once you hit Philly city limits. “Of the adults arrested in 2012 for marijuana possession: 3,052 black, 629 white.”

Again: Whites and blacks are using at roughly the same rates. But the law disproportionately falls on African Americans — especially in Pennsylvania and especially in Philadelphia. There are two ways of dealing with this: Get under the hood and rip out all the plumbing, so that the law is applied fairly and equally. Or walk away entirely from what might be an inherently flawed undertaking.

There’s no evidence that anybody in Philadelphia, at least, has bothered with the former option. Kenney and Council took the latter option.

Here’s the downside for Kenney and his allies: This is why repealing prohibition is so hard to do piecemeal. Even if you decriminalize simple possession, it remains the case that giant criminal enterprises have sprung up to actually cultivate and deliver pot to its users. As long as sale is prohibited, it’ll be the case that criminals — some of them relatively harmless, many of them not – will be doing the dealing. Decriminalized users will still be part of a criminal process; it’s hard for police to walk away from that.

That doesn’t let Ramsey off the hook entirely, though. When he and Mayor Nutter have implemented racially controversial policies — stop and frisk, for example — they’ve justified it on the basis that violent crime rates are higher among blacks than whites. It’s just persuasive enough to quiet the doubts many of us might have about such tactics.

With pot, though, the choice to reject decriminalization — without an examination of and change to enforcement patterns — becomes a choice that African Americans are the criminals.

Kenney’s bill was to spare the burden of criminalization — lost educational and job opportunities, the stigma of arrest and jail — to people who have otherwise done nothing wrong in their lives. Mayor Nutter, in particular, has been vocal about helping ex-cons find work in Philadelphia. The best way to achieve that goal? Stop making so many cons in the first place. It’s a choice. Right now, it’s Ramsey and Nutter’s to make.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • claygooding

    As long as the DEA accepts marijuana arrests as verification of acceptable drug law enforcement that qualifies police agencies for federal grants the “chiefs” and city managers will continue pushing the arrests,,,follow the money.

  • Charliefoxtrot

    Blacks get arrested more than whites for drug crimes because of the way they tend to deal drugs, vs whites who tend to deal more covertly.

    Which btw is the sole reason for more prison time rates for blacks vs whites -since street level dealers are -shocklingly -MORE VISIBLE TO LAW ENFORCEMENT, they get charged more…..and having more arrests leads to more convictions.
    All of which incorrectly leads leftists like Mathis to cry racism.

    Blaming the commissioner for enforcing laws just because you think it’s wrong isn’t fair to the police force, is it ? Otherwise that thing called the rule of law kinda goes out the window, if the cops can just ignore laws which are still in effect.
    Another typical Mathis article, a mile wide and an inch deep.

    • Joel Mathis

      “Blaming the commissioner for enforcing laws just because you think it’s wrong isn’t fair to the police force, is it ?” I’d normally agree with you, except City Council — Mr. Ramsey’s employer, btw, —just passed a law that Mr. Ramsey says he won’t follow. It makes his actions entirely fair game for debate.

      • Charliefoxtrot

        So if council passes a law that permits, say, underage drinking, the PC can choose not to follow state law on this too? Reminds me of the city council in Vermont who indicted Bush for war crimes.

        “Law enforcement officer” is his title, not “additudes are changing on marijuana so let’s ignore laws on the books officer”.

        • RMexico

          Your first point is wrong, you must watch all this drug dealing on tv. African-Americans get busted for pot typically during DWB stops.
          Ramsey is a Chief of Police, not an elected official of the government. While the Mayor (if the Mayor has legislative powers and isn’t merely an administrative officer, as in council-manager systems) may be in a position to challenge the Council’s rulings, the CoP is not. Your letter carrier does not have the authority to charge you extra to deliver your mail, even though Congress and the USPS have stolen their pension money.

          • Charliefoxtrot

            I’d say not from DWB, but from being a part of a racial group that commits the lion share of crime, according to the FBI.

            Then again, were I black, my rage at being profiled would be directed at the members of my community who caused me to be pulled over, by statistically committing crimes at rates much higher than whites as a percentage….instead the self titled “reality based community” irrationally jumps to Teh Racism! as an explanation for crime stats.

            My first point stands on its own, having lived in ground zero Germantown and the Main Line……whites and blacks deal differently, depending on clientele and location.

          • Drew Lunn

            Looks like we’ve got a closet racist here. Actually, I guarantee that Foxtrot is as much a bigot as he is a human. Possibly even more so.

          • Charliefoxtrot

            Yep, instead of rebuttal, Drew heads for the racism well, as I foresaw in my post.
            Perhaps you should visit the FBI’s page, and see the “racism” displayed there in table form. But I’m sure the cognitive dissonance would be a tad much for you.

        • joe

          If council passes a law that lowered drinking age you can bet your life pc would follow that one. The tavern league is one of the most influential org out there. So you can say he is picking and choosing what to enforce which i believe does come down to following the money

          • Charliefoxtrot

            Council couldn’t lower the drinking age, which was my point, the same as them nullifying state law in marijuana resolution.

    • eastcoastlib

      I grew up in Las Vegas, graduated high school in the late ’70’s. The biggest drug dealers in our community were the two sons of the Mayor. Police and prosecutors tend to avoid looking for crime in places that look like home to them.

      Suburban areas have crime too but they’re far more lenient on the young offenders. Ask any black man you know, anywhere in this god forsaken country, if they’ve ever been approached by a cop with their guns drawn for no particular reason. Of those who it hasn’t happened to (yet), ask them if it’s ever happened to a close relative or friend.Imagine the feeling of being wrongly accused. Of being humiliated, emasculated, by some ogre with a badge.

      A young black man is a target every time he leaves his home. He’s either the victim of all that pent up anger and resentment that is the result of such institutionalized racism or he’s victim of the racism itself. Chief Ramsey is just doing what police chiefs have done for two centuries. He’s enforcing the racist status quo.

    • harry

      from 20 to 33 the rule of law went out the door because of prohibition, so they stopped it, why has this prohibition not stopped even though the rule of law has been thrown right out the door, money, money, the drug war is a multi billion dollar business

    • Henk_sg

      Can you cite the research that supports this claim:
      “Blacks get arrested more than whites for drug crimes because of the way
      they tend to deal drugs, vs whites who tend to deal more covertly.”

      I only have my personal experience, but I’ve seen nothing that supports it. A suburban bar I spent a lot of time in back in the day, had coke and meth being dealt very openly. On the flip side I bought from a black dude who used very elaborate ways of meeting to conceal the purpose of the meeting.

      Also too my white neighbor dealt very openly in the alley. We had a “Chat.” Shortly after he moved out.

      Honestly I think you’ve been watching to much TeeVee.

  • Disappointed

    This article has no value, if you do not address all of the reasons for those arrested. Provide the statistics that shows why each individual was arrested, what were all the associated charges, and then maybe you can have a real discussion. You just wasted 2 minutes of my time writing this garbage

    • Matt C Colgan

      well, you wasted a bunch of time with your sputtering, irrational response too dude.

    • Henk_sg

      While I agree that you’re sputtering nonsense, I suspect that you want to see the details so you can excuse the numbers, but with a disparities as large as this: 3,052 black, 629 white, there are no “details” that would explain it.

  • lawguy

    There is a thing called “prosecutorial discretion.” It means that the prosecutor (and the cops who are part of prosecuting people) can choose to not charge you even if they see you committing a crime. This has been part of the law for hundreds of years. Ever blow by a trooper at 8 or 9 miles an hour over the speed limit and not get stopped? Or how about that nice white kid who got his weed confiscated, but no charges? Or the wealthy banker who laundered the cartel’s money who is still out there making trades?

    But of course they are not poor people of color so the law would be different for them.

  • metroeco

    Find the links between Ramsey’s 401K plan and the prison industry.

  • billmedicare

    Every has choices to make in life. If you must choose to make good or bad you must live with the outcome and how they affect you and others. If you choose to sell pot and get caught you must to the time for doing the crime. It is that simple people. Its not a balck or white thing, it’s being stupid enough not to get a education and taking advantage of the same things in life everyone is given. A chance. You blow it, it’s your own damn fault.

    • mickloud

      So, you support the incarceration of non-violent, tax-paying citizens for their personal use of a benign plant in the privacy of their own homes? The point here is changing the law that ruins thousands of lives for the “crime” of ingesting a substance scientifically-proven to be far less harmful than two substances already being taxed and regulated (legal).

      Do you understand the difference, or is it illegal because it’s bad, and bad because it’s illegal?

      • billmedicare

        As a former EMT I have seen what it all leads to . Pot smoking has lead to severe car accidents and caused death from mva. so yes,

        • Jeff m

          you are an idiot! the only thing marijuana leads to is driving overly cautious!!! every case that they have tried to tie to smoking marijuana it has come out the the person involved was usually plastered too!!!

          • billmedicare

            I respect your opinion as everyone is entitled to one. However I have seen the other side of this argument and it is ugly , and a no win situation for those who decide to drive while heavily under the influence of pot. If caught and you injure or kill somebody its the same as dui. You people just never learn until it is to late and its a very sad sick world you live in. Here is a argument you can not win. Over half of high paying jobs sit vacant right now in the state of PA due to the fact that once people get past the interview process they refuse to take the drug screen or fail it. I wonder why that is? BTW that article was posted on philly.com 2 weeks ago and that’s about as far left leaning as you can get

        • harry

          alcohol is the real gateway drug

          • billmedicare

            Yea , sure. And so is the idiot like you who wrote the comment

          • harry

            why did you take a personal swipe at me, and not my comment?

          • Brion Eduardo

            Billmedicare is attacking you because he/she is a troll w/o a substantive comment to make.

          • Brion Eduardo

            Troll. Yawn…

        • NeCromX

          Oh look the guy who claims to be an EMT but doesn’t know that alcohol causes more motor vehicle accidents than pot does. People are going to use it if it is legal or not. People are going to drive drunk if it is legal or not so what is your point…..people are doing something they shouldn’t be doing after using some substance. It is the persons fault not the substance.

          • billmedicare

            Wow! did I ever deny that? NO! what a pathetic loser you are

          • Brion Eduardo

            You just lost the argument with name-calling. Troll. Yawn…

        • mickloud

          You’ve seen what *what* leads to — driving while intoxicated? No one is advocating for that, so, what was your point again? We were discussing decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, not driving while under the influence of it. Try and stay on topic. No surprise you got eviscerated in these comments.

  • waspuppet

    That tweet says it all. For white millennials hanging out in cafes, for the David Brookses of the world, for well-off white people everywhere, in every real-world sense pot IS legal. So when someone in that category argues to continue a full-on kick-down-the-doors War on Drugs, they’re arguing that other people should have to live under a regime that they themselves will never have to live under. (Although the millennials in that tweet could well be pro-legalization, so at least they have that going for them.)

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  • Immortal Illumined

    the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING! 13

    ENLIGHTENMENT…i was a brainwashed evil, mean, christian conservative until i tried it at 17 years old…i hated gays, immigrants, women’s rights, blacks, marijuana, i was Rush Limbaugh’s #1 fan….until i smoked marijuana….changed the world, hope the EVIL POPE is enjoying the marijuana revolution around the globe, keeping the flock brainwashed and against marijuana, gays, and women’s rights

    1000s of my friends and family have grown 30-99 plants for 20 years, thanks for keeping prices high and NORCAL wealthy…#1 crop in cali = $15 Billion Untaxed…

    “any doctor against marijuana is a doctor of death” – cali secret 420

    from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, cali runs this planet by 2 decades, time to tie marijuana to the 2014, 2016 elections, out with the old, in with the new

    20 years behind us southern states and NEW YORK, sad and scary….nobody denies freedoms like the south, nobody…the top ten incarcerators on the planet are southern states and more blacks are in prison then were slaves before the civil war…even if marijuana reforms did pass the republiCANTS in charge would deny you all your freedoms, centuries of practice…no matter though, we never planned on getting your backwards brethren from day one, half the country already but not one southern state, lol…not 1….the new generations are taking over in the south and they are nothing like their freedom denying parents, let’s ride…

    Deaths by Alcohol: Millions
Deaths by Tobacco: Millions

    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
Deaths by Guns: Millions
Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
Deaths by Marijuana: 0, ever…they are killing my American family while denying freedom

    love and freedom forever


  • Immortal Illumined

    boss franklin would cry in his grave if he knew how PENN denied freedom today

  • joe

    This is one of the few things our representitives can actually change for the benefit of our civilans. Almost all other issues are nothing but broken promises trying to get our vote by both parties. That being the case i think its important as American citizens that we vote for people that can actually back up what they say that will help our fellow people rather then vote on broken promises

  • Spelunker4Plato

    I remember watching a documentary about drug use in Philadelphia.

    The FIRST thing the narrator said was that there used to be steel mills and jobs for workers, but then the business in that city died out and there were no longer jobs.

    Well there’s your sign. Capitalism sucks. There’s only going to be more unemployment across the board as jobs are automated and outsourced. In bad economies employers can let desperate workers compete for the lowest wage.