Marijuana decriminalization is in effect in DC – Philly next?

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey ( CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer )

Our nation's capital is putting a pragmatic new policy into place today: removing criminal penalties for adults caught with small amounts of marijuana (SAM). Instead of being arrested and facing jail, they will be issued a civil fine of $25 in the form of a ticket. No handcuffs, no holding cells, no criminal records. 

Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. City Council passed the measure last year. One of their main reasons was to deal with the disturbing racial disparity in cannabis arrests. Police were targeting black residents for the violations. For the record, white people consume more marijuana and spend more money on it than any other ethnic group. 

Congress oversees the budget of Washington, D.C., and some representatives attempted a hollow effort to stop the policy from being implemented. But even the White House condemned any interference

So, starting today, the new procedure is going ahead, according to The Washington Post:

...police can no longer take action upon simply smelling the odor of marijuana. Nor can they demand that a person found in possession of up to 1 ounce produce identification. 

Although D.C. police remain skeptical of the new law, they are following it through. The same can't be said here in Philadelphia.

Last month, City Council passed a bill very similar to the D.C. law. Support was resounding in the 13-3 vote. The reasoning is similar: to deal with unquestionable institutional racism.

Here is the preamble to the Philadelphia bill

WHEREAS, Non-violent drug and alcohol abuse is proven to cause long-term health risks and should be dealt with as a public health issue, not as a criminal issue. Using criminal means for SAM violations does nothing to deter drug and alcohol abuse but does increase the number of people with life-changing criminal records, while incidents with criminal means only burdens taxpayers and damages an individual’s chances for prosperity in the process; and 

WHEREAS, There is evidence that minorities are disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of marijuana laws, with African Americans 5.19 times more likely to be arrested for SAM violations in Philadelphia than Caucasians despite evidence showing nearly identical use across both communities. Of those arrested in Philadelphia for SAM possession in 2012, 82 percent were African American;

Pot arrests are also all too frequent in Philly: more than 4,000 adults every year. In fact, the Philadelphia Police Department makes almost as many cannabis arrests as they do for heroin and cocaine combined

In the City of Brotherly Love, we require every single person caught with a roach or a dime bag to be taken into custody. This requires more than one police officer and can take several hours of their time. Councilman Jim Kenney estimates that the PPD spends 17,000 police officer hours each year just on marijuana possession arrests. In other counties a summons is issued.

A conservative estimate by PhillyNORML is that the custodial policy costs the city more than $4 million per year, right out of the same public safety budget that funds the Fire Department and other essential services. 

But although the City Council voted the measure forward, Mayor Nutter has offered no opinion. He has been uncharacteristically silent on the issue. Right now the bill is sitting on his desk. He could sign it any time, but Nutter seems to be waiting it out until the last moment.

When City Council is back in session in September, Nutter could veto the bill or sign it. If he decides to veto the measure, the 13 members of City Council who voted in favor could override it. 

In the meantime, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has directed his cops to remain tough on those who get caught with small amounts of cannabis. Ramsey and Mayor Nutter's staff member Michael Resnick have offered a variety of excuses as to why they don't like the new policy. They cite conflicts with state law, software problems and, essentially, ideological issues with reducing penalties. 

But according to a city Law Department review, there is no conflict with Pennsylvania state code. 

Civil-rights attorney Paul Messing, who helped craft the bill with Councilman Kenney, said the software issue was moot.

"Look, this is as simple as printing new tickets for city code violations," explained Messing. "There just needs to be a new check-box for marijuana."

That's exactly how Washington, D.C., is dealing with the issue: new tickets.

Decriminalizing marijuana is by no means an innovation and is far from politically taboo. Dozens of states and municipalities have already passed similar laws. All of the Democratic candidates for governor in Pennsylvania supported it at the state-level during the primary, including Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz and the primary winner, Tom Wolf. State Sen. Mike Stack, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, already has a package of decriminalization bills active in Harrisburg.

So with support from the local level and all the way up to the president, why are the mayor and police commissioner being so standoffish? Usually they would herald any move that would save money and free up cops. 

What is even stranger is that earlier this year, Ramsey himself seemed to back the change. In an article in the City Paper in February, author Daniel Denvir pointed out:

Indeed, Ramsey indicated support in public just three weeks ago, telling WHYY Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane he was “in favor of being able to write a citation for minor possession as opposed to actually having a physical arrest taking officers off the street.”

But once the bill actually was passed by City Council last month, Ramsey flipped 180 degrees, telling The Inquirer (predictably): "I am not in favor at all of any form of legalization." 

Ramsey's new statements are damaging, not to the issue but to the city itself. Police often say that they don't make the laws, they just enforce them. Except, apparently, when they don't agree with them.

The police already have a tense relationship with the community. By ignoring City Council and even the City Law Department's opinion, Ramsey is risking a dangerous increase of cynicism on the streets.

Yet if Ramsey and Nutter were to back the measure, it might go a long way to heal the rift. If Philadelphians were not afraid of being put into handcuffs for smelling like marijuana, then perhaps they might be more willing speak to police openly when they witness violent crimes in their neighborhoods. But right now, a guy who sees a shooting while smoking a blunt on the corner is not likely to walk up to a cop. 

Consuming marijuana for recreation or medication is happening every day. Hundreds of thousands of city residents (perhaps well more than a million) already engage in the underground cannabis market. It should be regulated and even taxed. But until then, City Council has given the police clear tools to improve community relations while saving time and tax dollars. 

Mayor Nutter should not be waiting out the clock until September. There are about 360 marijuana arrests still taking place each month here in the city. That means close to 1,000 residents will needlessly be put into holding cells this summer — all for something that already is legal in two states (Colorado and Washington). 

The mayor and the police commissioner should follow the will of the people and the City Council on reducing marijuana penalties. Philadelphia should be leading the way to end institutional racism and improve civil rights, not stalling progress because of a few city officials' personal viewpoints. 

Chris Goldstein is on the board of directors at PhillyNORML and is currently serving two years of federal probation for possessing a single marijuana joint on federal land.