Philly420: Marijuana arrests plummet in Philly after decriminalization

The city is saving big money by not arresting people for small amounts of weed. 

The latest data released by the Philadelphia Police Department show that marijuana arrests have continued to fall dramatically since the city’s new decriminalization law was launched in October.

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Mayor Nutter signs pot bill.

Police made 63 arrests for marijuana possession between Oct. 20 (the day the new procedure went into place) and Dec. 31. There were 35 of the new citations issued in the same time period. The code violations are $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public. 

Philly420 first reported a 78 percent reduction in arrests during the first month of decrim. Now a police spokeswoman says the numbers have been adjusted down even further for simple possession. Police say they now have a new arrest code for those caught "in the act of a transaction." Those "buyer of" weed arrests don't show up in the possession totals. 

Compared to previous years, this now amounts to an 88 percent decline in arrests. There were 559 arrests in November and December of 2013 for possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis. 

A recent report from the RAND Corporation on legalizing marijuana in Vermont took a stab at the cost of individual arrests. RAND estimated each cost the state $1,266 --  but just $20 to issue decrim tickets. 

Using that formula, we might safely say Philly saved $627,000 in 60 days under the new decriminalization policy. That puts the city on track to save $3.75 million over the course of a year. 

For decades there was a disturbing racial disparity to weed arrests with more than 80 percent of those caught being people of color. The same disparity did not exist for other drug possession arrests. The racial makeup of the most recent arrests will not be available until the full Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting Data is compiled in the fall. 

The city's decriminalization law was championed by Councilman James Kenney and passed by 13 members of Council. Initially Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey did not approve of the shift. But Nutter eventually signed the bill into law and Ramsey fulfilled his promise to implement the policy on the streets.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently issued a policy paper calling for decriminalization. The AAP position "encourages pediatricians to advocate for laws that prevent harsh criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana. Additionally, a focus on treatment help for adolescents with marijuana use problems should be encouraged."

Philadelphia is the largest city to decriminalize by city ordinance, one that also applies to juveniles. But Philly is far from alone. Dozens of American cities have taken similar steps, including Washington, D.C. 

A new law in Maryland reducing possession penalties went into effect in 2014. Massachusetts voters removed criminal penalties for adults caught with less than an ounce in 2009. New York City also announced a new approach to possession late last year. For the first time in almost a century, marijuana consumers within the East Coast's biggest metro areas - from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the District of Columbia - no longer face handcuffs and holding cells for cannabis possession. 

Newly inaugurated Gov. Tom Wolf has stated repeatedly that he supports statewide decriminalization in Pennsylvania. Lt. Gov. Mike Stack introduced a decrim package last year when he was a state senator. 

If the Philly marijuana policy is adopted across the commonwealth, municipalities could save a total of $26 million every year.

Chris Goldstein is an associate editor at Freedom Leaf magazine. 

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