City Council members last week eased enforcement of marijuana laws in Philadelphia by voting to reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of weed from arrest to a $25 citation.
The measure is aimed at removing the stain of a criminal record for people who are caught with a few joints, the bill’s sponsor, Councilman James Kenney (D-at large), said during an interview the day before the June 19 vote. Its implementation, too, he said, will save the city about $7 million in the policing and court costs involved.
The move makes sense, Kenney said, because the district attorney’s office is not prosecuting cases that involve small amounts of grass.
If they’re not going to jail anyway, Kenney said the night before the vote, “it’s a waste of time” to arrest people for a little grass. It’s a “total farce” and a waste of resources to arrest people you’re not going to prosecute, the councilman said.
Under his measure, police could just take away under an ounce of dope and issue a citation. Marijuana possession remains illegal under state law and whether or not Philadelphia can relax enforcement of a commonwealth statute remains to be seen. At least, that’s what Mayor Michael Nutter thinks.
“I don’t know that, on the local level, we can actually, in fact, decriminalize something that the state deems to be an illegal substance,” the mayor told CBS 3 in a report broadcast after council’s vote.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told The Philadelphia Inquirer last Friday that he will ignore Kenney’s measure even if Nutter does sign it because marijuana remains illegal under state law, and state law supersedes city ordinance. Besides, he said, it is not a time-saver in that police still would have to keep records of any marijuana they seize.
Last week’s 13-3 vote could be considered a veto-proof majority if the mayor does nix the ordinance, something that wouldn’t happen until council returns after its summer break. All of council’s Democrats voted for the measure, and all the Republicans voted against it. The June 19 vote was a rare party-line split, Councilman Brian O’Neill (R-10th dist.) said after council concluded its last session until September. O’Neill, too, wondered if the city could write its own marijuana law regulations.
Before the vote, Councilman Dennis O’Brien (R-at large) said he had several concerns about Kenney’s bill. He said the public might get the mistaken idea that marijuana is legal and that pot smokers would indulge in public. O’Brien also believed the $25 fine is so low that it almost encourages pot smoking. Councilman David Oh (R-at large) stressed that it is against state law to possess marijuana and anyone who does can be arrested and can be prosecuted.
One of the problems Kenney said in a June 18 phone interview is that anyone who is arrested in Philly on pot charges usually is black. More than 80 percent of those arrested for possessing small amounts of dope are black, he said.
“How do you justify the numbers?” Kenney asked.
Further, an arrest record will follow a person throughout his or her life, seriously hampering the ability to get a job, Kenney said.
Tashira Moss told council members she recently was arrested for having a small amount of marijuana. Not only did she spend a night in jail, she said, but “I lost my job … I have a record now.”
Bishop J. Darrell Robinson said he supported Kenney’s bill because young people are penalized for life because they were arrested for a little weed.
Kenney said the day before the vote that he was confident he would have enough support for passage. He said he was going to ask the mayor to implement the measure immediately.
Although council members did spend some time listening to testimony and talking about Kenney’s marijuana bill, most of their long, final spring session was spent passing resolutions and other bills.
Council members voted to borrow $30 million for the city’s schools, a measure they’ll consider fully when they return in September. They also passed the city’s $4.5 billion operating budget. Members did not, however, schedule hearings on Nutter’s proposed $1.86 billion sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works assets to New England power company, UIL Holdings Inc.
Councilwoman Marian Tasco, an opponent of the deal, praised the decision not to rush into a sale. She said the Nutter administration worked four years to get a PGW buyer, but she said the administration had given council only eight weeks to make a decision on it.
Council hired a consultant to advise members on the contents of the thousands of pages of documents that spell out the deal. Tasco said scrutinizing the sale will take time and that council will not be rushed. Members would be irresponsible, she said, if they didn’t look over the sale carefully.
Council is adjourned until Sept. 11. ••
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