If the City of Pittsburgh soon decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana for personal use, don’t expect one of the movement’s biggest champions to light up a celebratory spliff.
“I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, let alone a joint,” says Aggie Brose, Deputy Director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation (BGC). “I’ve never had a drink in my life. And the bottom line is yeah, I’m spearheading this. I want to see this go down for all the right reasons.”
Since 1976, the BGC has served a singular purpose: “to improve the quality of life for all in Garfield and surrounding neighborhoods through active community engagement.” Agnes Jean Brose, 81, has been at the BGC since its inception. She has helped organize gun buybacks, battled slumlords, and fought for affordable housing. And yet after decades of work she continues to see many of her residents face lifelong collateral consequences from simply smoking a joint.
“What’s happening,” says Brose, “is a kid gets arrested, for nothing else, just a small amount of marijuana. They get fingerprinted. They have a record. They can’t get a driver’s license. They can’t get a job. Some of them can’t get public housing.
“When they go to court,” she continues, “what does the judge do? Right now, he reduces it to a summary offense and a fine . . . So if at the end of the day, if a judge feels it warrants a fine, then why aren’t we doing a fine up front, and not creating a [criminal] record?”
Fed up with the current process, in 2011, the BGC Public Safety Task Force, which Brose heads, approached the BGC board about passing a resolution calling for the full legalization of marijuana.
The resolution passed, and Brose went about setting meetings with state legislators to explore the legalization issue and present the BGC’s position. To help, she recruited her old friend, Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, who had assisted the BGC with other legal issues in the past.
The pair made zero headway.
“It was just falling on deaf ears,” says Brose. “They wouldn’t even entertain medical marijuana. They just didn’t want to hear about it.”
The issue went dormant until October 2014, when Philadelphia passed a marijuana decriminalization bill making small amounts of marijuana (under 30 grams), or smoking a small amount of marijuana in a public space, a civil violation subject to a fine of $100.
Nightingale reached out to Brose again, this time to see if she and the BGC would be interested in pursuing a similar citywide decriminalization ordinance in Pittsburgh.
“She said ‘I’m all for it,’” says Nightingale. “And when Aggie Brose gets kicked into high gear, things happen.”
They first approached Councilman Lavelle, of District 6, Chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee. After meeting with Lavelle’s Chief of Staff, Dan Wood, and presenting him their arguments, Lavelle agreed to introduce the legislation.
But there are, of course, nine members on city council, and Brose and Nightingale still had to win over the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, Pittsburgh Police and other political players. So Brose started working her Rolodex.
“I called up and got appointments with every Council member,” she says nonchalantly.
In August of 2015, after meeting with almost every City Council member, the BGC held a community meeting to present the idea of decriminalization to the public. Representatives from neighboring community associations were on hand, as well as Zone 5 police, including Commander Jason Lando.
Brose introduced Nightingale, who laid out the case for decriminalization based on the Philadelphia model. He emphasized that police would not lose their ability to use the presence of marijuana as a basis for probable cause to investigate other criminal activity which was a concern of the Pittsburgh Police.
“One of the things we learned from Philadelphia is that this requires everybody working together,” says Nightingale, who cited the “universal respect, admiration and affection people have for Aggie Brose” as a catalyst for getting different parties to come together to support the legislation.
“We could not have had a better ally if we had gone to central casting,” Nightingale says, recounting that some council members didn’t meet with them to discuss the bill—the fact that Aggie Brose was spearheading the initiative was all they needed to know to get them on board.
The decriminalization bill was introduced in City Council Nov. 17th and a public hearing on the issue will take place today with a preliminary vote scheduled for Wednesday.
While Brose can rattle off stats about the racial disparities inherent in drug arrests, her passion is fundamentally qualitative, stemming from the same mantra that has guided her since 1976: “improve the quality of life for all in Garfield.”
“I want people to have a future,” she says. “I want them to value their lives. I don’t want them to be cut out of society because they made a bad decision.”
And even after 39 years at the BGC, Brose says she isn’t ready to retire.
“As long as I have outcomes as to what I am charged to do, I’ll stay. There’s still a lot to be done.”