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Stupid pot laws a chronic malady

The first step in addressing a substance-abuse problem, they say, is admitting you have one. But when it comes to our archaic pot laws, that isn't enough.

Americans are realizing that criminalizing pot is a terrible idea. Colorado and Washington have legalized pot; 18 other states permit medicinal use. Even in Pennsylvania, a Franklin & Marshall College poll last month found, 38 percent favored legalizing pot outright — up from 22 percent in 2006.

But as for enforcing the pot laws? We can't seem to break the habit. According to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report, marijuana-related arrests have risen by roughly 15 percent since 2001, to nearly 890,000 arrests in 2010. Nearly 90 percent of those busts were for simple possession, the least serious offense. And the report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," suggests the addiction has a painful side effect: "[T]he War on Marijuana has [allowed] police to target communities of color."

Nationwide, the study found, blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be cited for pot ... even though both races report similar rates of marijuana use.

The ACLU reports that in Allegheny County, blacks are 5.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot, while in Pittsburgh, which accounted for 40 percent of Allegheny County's pot busts that year, blacks made up two-thirds of arrestees, despite representing less than one-third of the population.

Pittsburgh Police Lt. Daniel Herrmann, the acting commander in charge of the narcotics division, doesn't contest those numbers, but says racial animus isn't to blame. 

"We don't just go out there and arrest people for marijuana," he says. "If we did, the numbers would be a lot more even, I think." 

Police often file pot charges when they discover the drug while handling another crime, says Herrmann — which makes pot busts more common in low-income communities with higher crime rates. Alternately, Herrmann says, officers "will be out on the street, and they'll smell pot on someone. If they've been smoking, it's like, ‘Here's a citation, see you in court.'" Most such cases are dropped down to a disorderly-conduct offense, payable with a fine. 

Enforcing pot laws may not be "racist in intent, but that's the effect," says Patrick Nightingale, a defense attorney and former prosecutor on the legal committee for pro-legalization advocacy group NORML. "It's not that officers are targeting marijuana per se, but they'll look for guys smoking blunts as an excuse to check for weapons or other drugs."

For example, the ACLU numbers suggest that in 2010, lily-white Upper St. Clair had just one pot arrest, a white juvenile. Having been a white juvenile in USC, I can tell you the cops could've found more violators than that just in my third-period shop class. But as Nightingale says, "Where marijuana users are behind closed doors, you won't see the same [enforcement] as in an urban environment," where there's a stronger police presence to begin with — and "where consumption may be more out in the open."

Of course, it's tempting to suggest urban potheads should just go inside, or drive out to USC and blaze up at a Rotary Club meeting (or wherever the kids hang out nowadays).

But that's missing the point. When police enforce arbitrary and ham-fisted laws, it inevitably makes them look, well, arbitrary and ham-fisted. And that doesn't help police/community relations. And not every pot arrest ends up with a fine: A drug conviction can mean the loss of college aid, public housing and other aid that helps people in struggling communities.

Blame Wiz Khalifa if you want, but pot use doesn't carry the kind of stigma that justifies the laws on the books (assuming those laws are on the books where you live). While Herrmann, for one, opposes legalization — "It's just another drug to make you not normal" — he adds that "alcohol is a more destructive thing." Yet an officer responding a domestic disturbance likely won't arrest anyone just for having a fifth of gin on the kitchen table. 

In any case, Herrmann says somewhat ruefully, based on national trends, "Pretty soon, the whole nation is probably going to be puffing." Let's just hope we're not all in handcuffs at the time.

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