"Everyone smokes and everyone knows that everyone smokes,” says a Penn sophomore and Philly native over breakfast at Metro. Whatever you want to call it—marijuana, weed, pot, dope, MJ, ganj—Penn students are doing it. In a 2014 Street survey of over 650 students, 39% of respondents admitted to smoking regularly. For the past four years, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana has been considered a criminal offense in Philly, punishable with a fine of up to $500, a record of the arrest and the possibility of 30 days in jail. For everyone concerned, there’s good news. Starting October 20th, decriminalization will make the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana subject to a $25 ticket—with no arrest or criminal record. Sounds dank, right?
Two summers ago, Amanda*, a junior from Philadelphia, ventured out to the Jersey Shore with some of her friends for a break from summer classes. After a day out in the sun, they rolled a joint and smoked in the car. A bike cop approached the parked vehicle and quickly guessed they were getting high. On top of that, Amanda had an eighth of an ounce of pot in her purse. Her friend in the backseat had a quarter. Amanda and her friend were handcuffed and brought to a police station where their mugshots were taken.
Amanda recalls, “I was freaking out that this was going to be on my permanent record—that I was never going to be able to get a job, that my life was over.” Amanda was put on conditional discharge—a year of probation—during which she could be randomly drug tested at any time. She looks down and confides, “It would’ve ruined my life if I fucked up.”
Amanda is an exception. Penn students rarely go to prison; leaves of absence aren't to be spent behind bars. But outside of the Penn bubble, marijuana–related arrests happen all the time—and a stint in jail is a very real possibility. The stakes on campus are markedly lower. The 16% of students who cop to smoking everyday will see the effects of decriminalization play out in a very different way than other Philadelphia smokers.
Sophia*, a senior in the College and regular smoker, sits cross–legged on her couch in her off–campus house. She says, “I don’t remember a time when I would be out [and] dealers were not around. That doesn’t happen. There’s a web that just supplies, and supplies, and it is perfect.” This network isn’t made up of stereotypically menacing meth–addicts who dropped out of high school. These pot dealers are students you see at Smoke’s or who lived in your freshman hall.
Sophia’s roommate, a senior named Alan*, plops down on the couch. Fresh from Pottruck, he jumps into the conversation: “I’ve also never had a sketchy experience getting weed here. I’ve never felt uncomfortable. At home, you have to drive somewhere and you don’t know who it is [you’re meeting]. Whereas here, it’s people you trust.”
With decriminalization, that might not be the case anymore.
Professor Emily Owens, who teaches in Penn's Criminology department, argues that decriminalization could bring more police scrutiny to the supply side of the illegal marijuana market. “One of the goals of decriminalization is to allow police to shift their resources to crimes we consider more of a social harm.” She pauses. “One of which [is] selling marijuana illegally.”
According to Professor Owens’ argument, police officers will now begin to focus less on the consumers. Now pot smokers have a lower threshold to pay for the product. Dealers, on the other hand, “have a higher cost of doing business,” she concludes. “In theory, they’re going to demand higher prices for their good.”
Right now, marijuana on campus has a standardized market price—retailing for about $50 for an eighth of an ounce (3.5 grams) and $100 for a quarter (7 grams). If Owens is correct, these prices will get higher as Penn does the same after October 20th.
But income's not the reason that many campus drug dealers got into the business.
Lauren*, a senior at Penn, started selling her surplus weed to her friends to save herself some money. She explains, “The average person only buys an eighth [of an ounce] at a time. But then again, I’m not the average person and would like more than that. And it’s smarter to buy in bulk because you get it cheaper.”
Furthermore, some dealers know they can be the most convenient option. Sam*, a pot dealer from California, says, "I live near the center of campus. People call me like, 'Hey, I’m by Huntsman right now coming out of class, are you home?’” According to pot smokers interviewed, the majority of on–campus dealers get their supply from California, vacuum–sealed and shipped by USPS or FedEx to their doorstep. More cautious dealers venture out to South Philly to pick up the package.
But Sophia didn’t get her weed from Lauren or Sam. Instead, she outsourced. Her old dealer—not a student—would knock on her door at the Radian. “[He was] the best,” she laughs. “He had a punch card so you would get the tenth one for free.”
What happened to him?
“He’s in jail,” she responds.
Another weed dealer on campus, who refused an interview, explicitly stated that “decriminalization will not have an effect on the business or on those who smoke.”
Taking the opposite opinion, a Wharton professor, who chose to remain anonymous, reiterating that decriminalization will increase casual smokers’ demand for weed, because they will face fewer legal repercussions.
With casual smokers wanting more pot, students need better education on healthy drug use. Perhaps that conversation on safe smoking should follow the safe sex approach: people are going to do it anyways. Teach them how to protect themselves.
There must be a middle ground between abstinence and ignorance, between the blatant condemnation of drug use and its vehement promotion. In light of decriminalization, Penn and its students could take the opportunity to reprioritize and reevaluate the school’s attitude towards weed.
As a result of decriminalization, support for weed use will likely increase even more. Unsurprisingly, it’s already hard to find weed opposition on campus. If anything, people seem to be indifferent. In Street's anonymous survey, only 7% of respondents said they were against marijuana use.
Amanda says that’s not necessarily the case. “It’s a spectrum,” she explains. “There are definitely some people who do experiment with other drugs. Some of them do hard, scary drugs and don’t smoke weed at all.” But, of course, there are some people who do start with weed and then trade up.
When someone wants to try a harder drug, like cocaine or prescription meds, the first person they'll ask is probably their weed dealer. No one knows this better than Lauren. "When I was selling, people would text to ask me for other drugs,” the former dealer notes. “They had no other reason to believe that I sold [hard drugs] beyond the fact that I sold a little bit of weed."
Professor Owens knows that buying weed informs other behavior, but not the behavior of addiction. She comments: "The true gateway effect of marijuana is that you learn how to use illegal markets.”
While decriminalization is a reality, legalization is still a pipe–dream. But medical marijuana is on its way to retail spaces in Center City.
On Monday, the Republican–controlled Pennsylvania state Senate voted 43–7 in favor of a bill titled the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, championed by Democratic state senator Daylin Leach. Calling from his Harrisburg office, Senator Leach notes that according to the act, age will not bar patients with a demonstrated medical need from receiving a medical marijuana license.
When asked if people would abuse medical marijuana, Senator Leach responds, “You always have the possibility. Those are possibilities with any medicine."
For some students interviewed, the option of purchasing marijuana at a legal and local dispensary is much more attractive than acquiring it illegally. Convenience will cease to be a selling point for on–campus dealers.
According to Amiyr Jackson, the president of Penn Democrats, legalization would be ideal if weed was then sold in dispensaries below market price, thus cutting out illegal dealers—our peers and larger–scale dealers alike. He explains, “You start putting all those people out of business.”
With that slice of the black market out of the picture, maybe, we change the conversation to one about harder drugs.
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of students.
Correction: The original version of this article said that Amanda was put on conditional dispatch. It has been updated to reflect that she was actually put on conditional discharge.
Ariela Osuna is a junior studying architecture and urban real estate and development from Tijuana, Mexico. She is the current Backpage Editor and former Music Editor for 34th Street Magazine.