City police to remain tough on pot

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey leaves the Criminal Justice Center on July 28, 2010. ( David Maialetti / staff photographer )

City Council's attempt to soften penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana is not going over so well with Philadelphia's top cop.

On Friday, the day after Council passed a bill that would treat possession of less than about an ounce no more seriously than a traffic violation, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said his department would ignore it should it be signed into law.

"We still have to treat it as a misdemeanor," Ramsey said Friday, referring to marijuana possession, "until we are told otherwise by state law. ... State law trumps city ordinances."

He was referring to a law that treats possession of any amount of marijuana as a crime subject to arrest.

Councilman James F. Kenney, who sponsored the bill, lashed back, saying that other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania do not arrest people for small amounts of marijuana and that the state has not challenged them.

Regardless, the commissioner said he was not in support of Kenney's bill, which reduces the penalty for less than an ounce to a citation and $25 fine. "I am not in favor at all of any form of legalization," Ramsey said Friday.

Nutter has not yet said whether he would sign Kenney's bill. His decision could be moot, though. Kenney's bill passed 13-3. Only 12 votes are needed to override a mayoral veto.

Kenney sent a letter to Nutter on Friday urging the mayor to sign the bill soon and not wait to make a decision until Sept. 11, when Council reconvenes after summer break.

"If no action is taken and no policy change initiated," Kenney wrote, "we risk having hundreds more young people arrested and with criminal records, when it can be avoided."

Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the mayor would take the time he needed to make a decision.

Kenney noted in his letter that the city Law Department issued a memo on the legality of his marijuana bill and concluded that "the balance of factors weighs in favor" that the marijuana ordinance would not preempt the state's controlled-substance law.

Kenney's bill is part of a nationwide reassessment of marijuana laws.

Colorado and Washington state have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 19 other states allow pot for medical reasons.

New Jersey permits medical-marijuana use. Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, and Ohio have legislation or ballot measures pending to legalize marijuana for patients.

But, Kenney said Friday, "the State of Pennsylvania will never legalize marijuana," and changes needed to be made at the local level.

"Philadelphia is seen as a progressive city, yet it is the most regressive" concerning marijuana laws, the councilman said.

One goal of Kenney's bill is to let police devote more time to more serious offenses.

Ramsey said he doubted the bill would achieve that end.

Even if penalties for marijuana possession are reduced, Ramsey said, police "still have to take and process contraband." Not having to arrest someone, he said, "is not really a time-saver at all."

"If you recover" marijuana, Ramsey said, "what is the officer going to do with it?"