Weed can do better

COURTNEY MARABELLA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philadelphia marijuana activist Chris Goldstein lights up at 5th and Market streets.

About 3,300 people were charged in 2012 for personal possession of marijuana.

  • The vast majority of those arrested are referred to the Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program.
  • The program has created a gaping disconnect between how marijuana is treated on the street and in court.

ANTHONY GARNER knows that marijuana is illegal in Philadelphia. He just figured that the police focus on drug kingpins and corner dealers these days. They wouldn't waste their time on him.

He was wrong.

There he was last summer, sitting in a holding cell for possessing what he estimates was $20 worth of weed, commiserating with others who'd been busted for simply smoking it.

"I didn't think it was going to be this big of a thing," said Garner, 23, a gas-and-electricity salesman from Germantown. "I was in with guys that were locked up for smoking a joint. They didn't even have bags."

This is standard procedure in Philly, where Garner was one of about 3,300 people charged in 2012 for personal possession of marijuana - each of them handcuffed, fingerprinted, photographed and thrown in a holding cell, often spending the night before they were arraigned.

But the vast majority of those arrested - 97 percent last year - are referred to the Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program, where defendants can have the charge "administratively withdrawn" and expunged from their record if they pay $200 and show up for a Saturday drug class.

Officials say the SAM program, essentially a quasi-decriminalization policy, has saved the city millions of dollars since its implementation in June 2010: Cops aren't paid to testify in these cases, and the "leafy green substance" doesn't have to be sent to a lab to confirm that it is marijuana.

That means assistant district attorneys can spend more time preparing for serious criminal cases, instead of being paid to prosecute potheads.

The SAM program, however, has created a gaping disconnect between how marijuana is treated on the street and in court: Thousands of smokers continue to be arrested every year, only to be told that prosecutors let the whole thing slide. For those who go through the SAM program, it's as if the arrest never happened - at least on paper.

"Thousands of dollars we were spending on defendants who possessed $10 or $15 worth of weed. It just makes no sense from a management standpoint and criminology standpoint," District Attorney Seth Williams said. "All that money is saved now."

So why not just issue court summonses instead of performing time-consuming custodial arrests? And why should taxpayers pay for the police man-hours if most of the cases are expunged?

Reformers say issuing summonses would save the city millions, but it's tough to get a straight answer from city officials.

There's also the problem of racial disparity. Most of the people arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana are black even though studies show that white people smoke it as much, if not more.

"When you think of all the things people are doing - the killings, robbing people, hurting kids - I wasn't hurting nobody, just having fun," Garner, who is black, said last week outside Room 404 in the Criminal Justice Center, where defendants enroll in the SAM program.

"The whole process is wasting time and money," he said. "You're wasting space having me in jail for weed."


'You're out the door'

There is a better way to do this. Not just in states with more progressive drug laws, but right here in Pennsylvania.

When Allegheny County state Rep. Paul Costa was busted a couple of years ago for allegedly smoking a joint with another man outside a Steelers game at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh cops handed him a summons and continued on their way. He showed up in court the next month, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct and was fined $50 plus court costs.

That's it.

Pittsburgh police weren't giving Costa special treatment. In most cases, they don't physically arrest people for marijuana possession of 30 grams or less, (about an ounce).

Offenders usually receive a summons to appear in court on the misdemeanor charge, then the judge gives them the option to plead guilty to disorderly conduct, a summary offense, and pay a fine ranging from $100 to $350.

"We fine you and you're out the door," said Lt. Daniel Herrmann, acting commander of the Pittsburgh police narcotics and vice unit. "It helps our overcrowding problem. It eliminates a lot of steps, so we don't have a detective tied up for two hours with paperwork."

Defense attorney Phillip DiLucente, who represented Costa in the marijuana case, said Pittsburgh's policy makes sense - no matter where you stand in the national debate on decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

"I think Pittsburgh is being proactive and progressive in the way they're handling this particular offense," DiLucente said. "I'm not a big pro-drug activist saying, 'Legalize this' and 'legalize that.' [This is] coming from someone whose stance on drugs is pretty firm."

In August, Chicago began issuing citations for marijuana possession of up to 15 grams; in November, voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of marijuana; and, last week, Rhode Island became the 14th state to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession. Last week's Pew Research Center poll found that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.

"The way the laws are changing lately," Herrmann said, "pretty soon we might not be writing anything."


Millions could be saved

The SAM program has reduced court costs by an estimated $2 million a year, but police are still sending in marijuana cases as if nothing has changed.

Chris Goldstein, a local marijuana activist who pushed for the creation of the SAM program when Williams took office in 2010, estimates that police could save an additional $2 million to $3 million a year with a Pittsburgh-style approach. Every hour a cop spends locking someone up for weed is an hour that he can't patrol the streets or respond to a more serious crime.

"That's money on the table they could put right back into the public-safety budget," Goldstein said.

Lt. John Stanford, a Philadelphia police spokesman, said the department believes that state law requires its officers to perform a custodial arrest of people who possess marijuana.

"We have to proceed in that manner. It's state law," Stanford said. Asked about Pittsburgh's policy, he said: "That's not the way that it's supposed to be done."

"The most appropriate way to do it is the way that we are doing it," Stanford said. "A summons wouldn't be the appropriate way."

Attorney Daniel-Paul Alva, a former prosecutor in the D.A.'s narcotics unit and a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said police brass and other city officials could choose to deprioritize minor marijuana cases.

"Do they have to make all these arrests? Absolutely not," Alva said. "The police and district attorney can say, 'Enough is enough,' but they haven't. They're choosing to do this."


Racial disparity

The vast majority of people arrested for marijuana possession in Philadelphia are black, according to two audits performed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

On a recent visit to Room 404, every defendant who walked out was black. Studies have shown that whites smoke marijuana more than blacks.

"Philadelphia still stands out, weirdly, with a set of expensive and overly harsh prohibition policies that tend to target people of color," Goldstein said.

Between September and November 2012, for example, African-Americans made up 84 percent of the city's marijuana-only arrests; 6 percent were white, according to the report. Even in some predominantly white districts, mostly young black men were getting arrested for marijuana. And in the largely white police district that includes Manayunk and Roxborough, not a single marijuana arrest was reported during two-month periods in 2011 and 2012.

"It raises concerns that the laws are being applied in a racially discriminatory manner," said attorney Paul Messing. "I think a lot of it relates back to the stop-and-frisk initiative. They're stopping hundreds of thousands of people and they're not coming up with much contraband or stolen property or weapons."

What they are finding, Messing said, is personal quantities of marijuana, like nickel bags and dime bags.

Williams declined to say whether he would prefer the drug to be legalized or decriminalized statewide, or whether he believes Philly police should adopt a summons-based approach for processing marijuana cases.

"Ultimately, it is up to the General Assembly in Harrisburg if they are going to change the law," Williams said. But, he added, "I'm not opposed to seeing the best practices - in Pittsburgh or Peoria."

Garner, the Germantown resident who was busted with a small bag of pot last year, said he'll pay the $200 and go to the Saturday drug class. But he's not going to stop smoking it.

"I'm stressed out. It's a crazy world out there," he said. "I could have been robbing people or stealing cars, but if I'm home smoking weed, I don't feel like doing that. It keeps me out of trouble."

Fred Stanley, who said he was arrested by undercover cops for half a bag of marijuana two doors from his Southwest Philly house, walked out of Room 404 with a defiant and disgusted look on his face. Stanley, 54, is one of the few people who didn't choose to enroll in the SAM program.

"I ain't giving them $200. I ain't giving them s---. They can kiss my ass," Stanley said. "They're getting ready to legalize it anyway. I'm going to wait these motherf---ers out."

He then hopped on his bike and rode down Filbert Street.



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Blog: philly.com/DailyDelco