Mayor Nutter on Monday dismissed Philadelphia City Council's effort to soften penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana as "simplistic," saying the drug's use remains a serious public health concern and deserves a harder look.
"We are dealing with a tremendously complicated societal issue and challenge," he said. "I think we owe the citizens of Philadelphia a much more comprehensive and holistic approach."
Nutter was responding to criticism of his delay in signing a bill Council passed in June that would reduce the penalty for the possession of less than an ounce of pot to a $25 fine, with no arrest. At the time the bill was passed, he said he wanted to take the summer to evaluate it.
City Councilman James Kenney, the legislation's sponsor, has been leading a campaign to keep pressure on Nutter to sign the bill. Kenney, who is considering a run for mayor next year, has argued that minor marijuana arrests waste valuable police time and disproportionately target young black men.
"He could've signed the bill on June 19," Kenney said Monday. "He could've started the process going forward then. . . . I've got hundreds of kids getting arrested with life-changing criminal records."
Nutter said his administration was still in the process of a comprehensive review of research on marijuana use and how other cities deal with it. He noted that even if he had signed the bill June 19 - the day Council approved it on a 13-3 vote - the measure would not have taken effect for three months.
"We are trying to figure out how police can appropriately deal with small amounts of marijuana in a noncriminal context that focuses on getting people to stop using, get treatment, help and services," Nutter said. "We want to put forward a more comprehensive set of pragmatic responses and not have mass confusion out on the street for the Philadelphia Police Department and the citizens of the city."
He said he thought that process would take into September.
Nutter criticized a number of aspects of the legislation. For one, he said, it would do little to ensure that those cited for drug use are directed to possible treatment.
The bill also would leave it up to the arresting officer whether the drugs are confiscated or destroyed on the spot.
"Do we really want to leave the decision-making to the discretion of our officers out on the street?" Nutter said. "How would you ever know the material was destroyed?"
If officers are required to confiscate the drugs, the time and effort required to handle them properly would eliminate any time savings under the legislation, he argued.
Using some of his strongest language to date on the issue, Nutter dismissed as disingenuous the argument that penalties should be reduced because a disproportionate number of those arrested are African American men. He noted that many of those arrested already had criminal records and lived in high-crime neighborhoods.
"Suddenly, this is the great civil-rights issue of our day - that black guys should be allowed to smoke as much dope as they want," he said. "Eighty to 85 percent of the people being murdered in this city are black, 75 percent of them are young black men. I don't see anyone writing about that. I find all of this sudden interest in the lives of black men by . . . some elected officials fascinating. They never talk about the real issues black men care about, like getting a job."
Nutter said the debate over the legislation had lost sight of a larger truth.
"The overwhelming majority of people in this city are hardworking, law-abiding citizens who don't use drugs," he said. "They are trying to raise their children right. . . . They don't want them around people using drugs."
Finally, he offered little sympathy for those caught with the drug.
"There is in fact a personal responsibility aspect to this," he said. "The best way not to get arrested for small amounts of marijuana? Don't have any marijuana."