Year after Philly pot law changed, arrests are down

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Mike Whiter receives the first citation for rolling up a joint at City Hall.

On a clear morning last October, Mike Whiter woke up, rolled a joint, and took the Broad Street Line from South Philly to City Hall. Standing in the building's airy courtyard, he lit up and took a few puffs - and promptly was handed a ticket.

It was the first citation, and a ceremonial kick-off of sorts, after the city decriminalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana. In the year since the law took effect, arrests have fallen nearly 75 percent.

But the police aren't making up for the drop by doling out tickets. Arrests and citations combined are still 42 percent below the total arrests made by the department in the same time last year, which some say signals a waning interest from the police in penalizing use of the drug.

"Since I got my ticket, I have not received a ticket," said Whiter, 39, an Iraq War veteran who was medically discharged, uses cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and said he smokes daily, often outside. "And I haven't seen anyone else receive a ticket."

The law - which made possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $25 fine, and public use by a $100 fine - took effect Oct. 20, 2014. It was championed by then-Councilman Jim Kenney, who went on to make it a cornerstone of his successful bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

The law change was controversial, and for Kenney, politically risky, as he fought for the signature of a hesitant Mayor Nutter and the support of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who initially vowed his department would continue making arrests before pledging to abide by the new rules.

That hasn't dissuaded Kenney, who has acknowledged his own past pot use, from wanting to push the envelope on the drug even further.

In a recent interview, Kenney said that, if elected mayor, he would give the legislation six more months to sink in, then take a hard look at changes. Among his first priorities: expunging the records of those arrested before the law took effect. Kenney is determined that individuals aren't left with a burdensome criminal record over what is increasingly viewed as a minor infraction.

Complete legalization would be Kenney's ideal, but he said he is hesitant to make that a priority with the state legislature when issues such as school funding still hang in the balance.

"My goal is zero arrests," Kenney said. "I think it's worked here and in other cities."

Not everyone is as eager to see the law become even less stringent. Ramsey, for one, said a year later, his feelings haven't changed much.

"I was not real high on that," Ramsey said. "No pun intended. . . . As it deals with the issue of drugs, I have concerns that there needs to be more emphasis on prevention and treatment. And I would like to see more done in that area."

Lt. John Stanford, the department's spokesman, said he's less willing than some to attribute the drop in overall arrests and citations to a waning of interest in marijuana possession from officers on the street.

He said the department has started accepting more juveniles caught with marijuana into a diversionary program, which could account for some of the drop. Some of it, he said, might be because officers are prioritizing other crimes.

"It's not the biggest challenge on our plate," he said. "In some of our areas, we're going to be focused more on shootings and robberies. Marijuana may take a backseat in those situations."

In cases where officers do issue citations, the tickets can either be paid or appealed. Only 17 have been appealed, according to Paula Weiss, executive director of the office of administrative review.

A challenge, it seems, is getting people to pay their tickets. Only about a quarter have done that, less than half the payment rate seen with other kinds of citations handled by the office, mostly property violations such as failure to recycle or to put out trash properly, Weiss said.

While that office has seen less compliance with payment of marijuana tickets, another city department has seen higher compliance in regards to marijuana arrests since decriminalization took effect.

Derek Riker, chief of diversion courts at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said those arrested for possessing marijuana and accepted into the office's diversionary program are completing the program at a higher rate than before.

"It seems people who do get arrested for weed are taking it a little more seriously and making a bit more of an effort," he said. "I think because they're surprised they're getting arrested, because everyone else is getting a ticket."

That program allows people to have their case dismissed if they pay a $200 fine and attend a class at the community justice center. With overall arrests down, Riker said, his office is handling about a dozen marijuana-related cases weekly, compared with about 55 before decriminalization.

That means fewer classes, one way the city has saved money due to the drop in arrests. But city officials and Kenney said they were unable to quantify the total savings so far. Kenney said tha,t if elected, he would commission a study on how much decriminalization has saved the city. Until then, he's quantifying the impact in a different way.

"I'll probably never meet the number of young people that have not run into trouble because of this," he said. "But I wish them well and hope they can move on and get their lives together."

tnadolny@phillynews.com215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny