City Council votes to ease enforcement of marijuana laws

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. ••

What do you think?

What’s your opin­ion of the City Coun­cil meas­ure that gives po­lice the op­tion of not ar­rest­ing people who have small amounts of marijuana? Send your opin­ion to Write “Marijuana” in the sub­ject line.

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