Should We Give the Stoners a Place to Smoke?

People are going to smoke weed in Center City. Why not give them a place to do it?

Pot protest

Photo | Dan McQuade

It had been a long week, and it was Friday afternoon. All I wanted was a contact high. I thought it’d make for a pretty funny story.

So I walked over from the Philadelphia magazine offices to Rittenhouse Square at 4:20 to cover the Toke Back the Wall protest. It was organized after the briefly enforced wall-sitting ban in Rittenhouse, which the Friends of Rittenhouse Square said was due in part to constant pot-smoking in the square.

There were maybe 30 people at the protest. It was low-key. I didn’t get my contact high. What I saw instead was a little bit of police theater. Cops would surround anyone lighting up a joint, drag him or her off to the side, confiscate the weed, and write the protester a $100 ticket. That no arrests were made was due to the bill Mayor Kenney pushed for in 2014 (the fine for smoking in public is $100, instead of $25, thanks to Mayor Nutter).

This routine was actually mapped out beforehand by marijuana activists and the police force. “This a peaceful act of civil disobedience (in the spirit of) Martin Luther King Jr.,” Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan told Philly Voice, “and we appreciate that. They’re protesting and exercising their First Amendment rights.”

A cop comparing potheads to Martin Luther King. Attitudes on marijuana sure have changed.

Pot protest

Protesters at the Toke Back the Wall protest in Rittenhouse last Friday | Photo: Dan McQuade

Legalization in Colorado and Washington has gone better than many have expected — there’s been very little fallout, at least so far — and four more states voted by ballot initiative to legalize last year. Mayor Kenney even said in 2015 that the state could sell weed in state-owned stores, similar to wine and liquor.

But not everyone likes wine and liquor, and not everyone likes pot. And marijuana smells. There’s no doubt that many patrons of Rittenhouse Square — who have just as much right to the park as the stoners — don’t like the marijuana smoke that sometimes (often?) permeates the square. They might not want their kids around it. They might not like the smell. They might be people who haven’t yet figured out the War on Drugs is a complete failure. No matter the reason, though, these people’s opinions matter too.

So why not give the stoners a place to smoke? Marijuana may be illegal under federal law, but states have been able to sell it legally for years. The time to experiment is now.

“We wanted these walls,” said Mike Whiter, one of the organizers of the protest. “That was the point of this protest, but if they want to give us a piece of Rittenhouse Square, we’ll take it. If Jim Kenney wants to give us a shack in Rittenhouse, we’ll take it. Philly’s already a sort of safe haven for pot smokers with decriminalization, so if you can make it a little safer for us, that’d be great. People come from all over the world and stay in these hotels [around Rittenhouse]. You don’t think they wouldn’t love a little pot garden?”

For obvious reasons, it might be tough to get the Rittenhouse crowd on board with a pot-smoking section of the park. And maybe we should just leave the Rittenhouse stoners alone like we should have left the LOVE Park skateboarders alone. But let’s say we can’t use a part of Rittenhouse. Why not somewhere private? Maybe the always-empty half of the park where the Korean War memorial is in Old City. Maybe a spot near the Skate Park near the Art Museum. Maybe some other place!

People are going to smoke weed in Center City. Why not be realistic give them a place to do it?