Philadelphia Nears Deal to Ease Marijuana Laws
Sep 13, 2014
People in Philadelphia caught with small amounts of marijuana or smoking it in public may soon face no more than a written citation and a modest fine as the City Council moved Thursday to decriminalize the drug after a reversal by Mayor Michael A. Nutter.
The mayor, who had scoffed at arguments that black men are unfairly targeted in arrests involving marijuana, announced his support of decriminalization this week. He had declined to sign a bill the Council passed in June, saying it needed more study.
Under the measure, which if approved would be effective Oct. 20, people stopped with less than 30 grams of marijuana, about one ounce, will be fined $25, and those caught using it in public will be fined $100 or be required to perform up to nine hours of community service.
In neither situation will violators be arrested, taken to police stations, fingerprinted or left with a criminal record — all of which stigmatize small-time users, making it harder to find and keep jobs or attend college, advocates of decriminalization say.
Of the more than 4,000 arrests in Philadelphia each year for possessing small amounts of marijuana, 83 percent are of blacks or Latinos, said James F. Kenney, a City Council member who sponsored the decriminalization bill.
“It follows you,” he said. “If you’re young, black and trying to find a job in this economy, it’s very difficult. With a criminal arrest, it’s impossible. On top of that, you’re not eligible for college financial aid and you can’t go into the military.”
Mr. Kenney said nearly three out of four of those arrested have no previous police record. Moreover, he said, possession is already effectively decriminalized for white residents, whom the police rarely target. “There are no arrests at Phish concerts or fraternity parties,” he said.
In August, Mr. Nutter, who is African-American, called that argument “a bogus issue” and an “insult to the community.” He denied that the police discriminate against blacks. Arrest rates on marijuana charges are higher for blacks because, the mayor said, there is more police “engagement” in black communities, where most of the city’s shootings and homicides take place. Blacks, like whites, want safe neighborhoods without “knuckleheads” smoking marijuana on the corner, the mayor said.
On Wednesday, in an appearance with Mr. Kenney, who is white, the mayor said he would support an amended version of the bill that included a separate civil offense for marijuana use in public. In cases of possession or use, police officers will write a notice of violation and confiscate the marijuana.
“We want to ensure that the punishment for using or possessing small amounts of marijuana is commensurate with the severity of the crime, while giving police officers the tools they need to protect the health and well-being of all Philadelphians,” Mr. Nutter said.
An amended version of the original bill was introduced in the Council on Thursday, with a vote scheduled for next week. The mayor has said he will sign it.
The District of Columbia and 17 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, according to Norml, which advocates legalizing the drug. Colorado and Washington State this year became the first states to allow the sale and use of recreational marijuana.
Under Pennsylvania law, possession of small amounts or public use of marijuana is still subject to arrest and heavy fines. A spokesman for the State Police said the agency would enforce the state statute along portions of Interstate highways it patrols in the Philadelphia limits. “As far as our department is concerned, it’s not going to change anything for us,” said the spokesman, Trooper Adam Reed.
Source: The New York Times