4/20: Civil Disobedience & Marijuana Reform – Philly Smokes Out Prohibition

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Every month, in collaboration with the Philadelphia-based podcast Panic Hour, PhillyNORML hosts Smokedown Prohibition, which is an educational rally capped with an act of civil disobedience or the more affectionate and apropos term: “moment of cannabis reflection” at 4:20 p.m.

Held in Philadelphia’s designated free speech zone at 5th and Market, the event is coordinated, peaceful and non-violent. It begins at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday, April 20th, with cannabis-inspired comedy, songs and poetry. Signs made at previous sign-making parties are passed out to the crowd. National and local activists for cannabis reform that have spoken at Smokedown Prohibition have included Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion, Ken Wolski, R.N., executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ); Kevin Clough, executive director of PhillyNORML,  Adam Kokesh of podcast Adam vs. The Man, and Diane Fornbacher, publisher of Ladybud Magazine.

The crowd counts down to 4:20, and a thick haze of marijuana smoke settles across Independence Mall after everyone lights up in reflection and celebration. Joints are encouraged; paraphernalia (especially glass) and marijuana possession are “discouraged”. Afterward, signs are collected and the crowd disperses peacefully and promptly.

The first Smokedown, held on Dec. 14, 2012, was met with heavy police presence.  Paddy wagons, police officers and bike cops met the 120 protesters gathered. To date there have been no arrests made despite the heavy police presence.

Brief primer on civil disobedience:

Motivated by his disdain for slavery and the Mexican American war, Henry David Thoreau penned Resistance to Civil Government, aka Civil Disobedience, in 1849. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines civil disobedience, also called passive resistance, as a “refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, without resorting to violence or active measures of opposition; its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power.”

Civil disobedience is a tactic utilized by different political parties and movements throughout history. Often nonviolent resistance is associated with Gandhi and India’s struggle to combat British Imperialism or the United States Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Gandhi translated a synopsis of Thoreau’s essay for Indian Opinion during his Satyagraha campaign. He was heavily influenced by Thoreau’s book, though he preferred the term “civil resistance.” These same tactics were also utilized by the Civil Rights movement, such as sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom rides and bus boycotts to protest segregation. Like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. was also motivated by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

“Civil disobedience, also called passive resistance, is a ‘refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, without resorting to violence or active measures of opposition; its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power.”


At Philadelphia’s Smokedown Prohibition, we engage in civil disobedience by smoking marijuana together, peacefully breaking the law we believe shouldn’t exist. We believe marijuana should be removed from Schedule One of Controlled Substance Act and legalized for medicinal and recreational purposes. PhillyNORML Board Member, Joseph Forte comments, “We aren’t doing this just because we want to smoke weed outside with a crowd of people, we’re doing it because we have to. Smoking it in our living rooms just doesn’t get our point across and this is a point that we have to get across. Marijuana is safer then alcohol, millions of Americans choose to use it every day and over half the country agrees it should be legalized.”

“It should be noted that it’s incredibly important to contact your representatives in government regarding actions you, as constituents, are concerned about but visibility and crowd unity is important as well,” says Diane Fornbacher, who is a member of the board at National NORML. “Some of my colleagues are in dispute about the effectiveness of these types of actions but I personally find it very enlivening and refreshing. Why shouldn’t we celebrate our freedoms and make a toast of defiance against unjust laws?”

Civil Disobedience in Philly: Smokedown Prohibition

Civil Disobedience in Philly: Smokedown Prohibition

According to the most recent Pew Research Poll, fifty-two percent of Americans want to see marijuana legalized.  In Pennsylvania, approximately 25,000 citizens are arrested annually for marijuana-related offenses, which costs taxpayers around $325 million. And, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report, of the 4,226 adults arrested for marijuana in Philly last year, 82 percent of them were Black. Almost half were between the ages of 18 to 21. Blacks and Whites have equal rates of drug consumption, yet mostly young Black men are being persecuted and incarcerated for drug usage in the City of Philadelphia and across the country.

Some progress is being made. In November, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana and now Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill, SB 528, that would fully legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania. “The most conservative estimates say the revenue generated by taxing the sales of marijuana would amount to at least $24 million per year. Legalizing marijuana and taxing its sale could provide a multi-million dollar reoccurring revenue source that our state could tap into for years to come,” Leach said. Senator Leach’s bill calls for marijuana to be regulated in a way similar to alcohol and tobacco through the Liquor Control Board for purchase by adults over 21.

In 2010, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams started a program called the Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program that makes possession of up to 30 grams (a little more than an ounce) of marijuana a summary offense in 2010. Previously, the same amount could result in a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 30 days’ probation or jail time and a $500 fine. Instead, because of the SAM program, offenders pay $200 for a three-hour class about drug abuse and their records are expunged in the SAM program. Before SAM, offenders were left with permanent criminal records.




PhillyNORML meets on the first Thursday of each month at the A Space. The next Smokedown Prohibition will be held on 4/20/2013. The rally begins at 3:30 p.m., with a moment of cannabis reflection at 4:20 p.m. More information about Philly NORML news, events and legislation can be found on our Facebook page and websiteThe Smokedown events have been covered by Vice Magazine  and a recent Philly Daily News article takes a closer look at the current marijuana laws in Philadelphia. Join us this 4/20, tell your local friends and remind everyone you know that the Drug War Isn’t Over.