Ramsey’s Choice: Criminalizing African Americans

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

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.