Philly420: Lynne Abraham's marijuana madness

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File photo: Lynne Abraham, former district attorney of Philadelphia, announces her run for the office of Mayor of Philadelphia in front of supporters at the Franklin Institute on Wednesday afternoon November 19, 2014. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

Lynne Abraham, the hard-nosed former District Attorney of Philadelphia running for mayor, has finally stopped dodging questions about marijuana. Opening up to Philadelphia Magazine she was candid and blunt, but she also spun a web of half truths and lies.

It appears that marijuana policy is Abraham's real kryptonite. She is running on a platform as someone with insider experience in government and law enforcement who could work effectively with City Council. But when it comes to weed she was highly critical of council’s decriminalization of marijuana, a policy change popular among voters. She also took shots at Councilman James Kenney and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. 

In an interview with the magazine's Citified blog, Abraham was direct. "I'm already on record about the decriminalization of marijuana. I'm against it, especially for kids."

No real surprise here, but she had been ducking the issue on the campaign trail. When she first announced her candidacy, Abraham declined to answer a question from a WHYY reporter who asked her about the new city policy. 

Last year’s bill, sponsored by Kenney, changed local marijuana policy for adults and juveniles in three important ways. It reduced penalties: $25 fine for possession and $100 fine for public smoking. It stopped the practice of custodial arrest - handcuffs and holding cells - that was unique to Philly (the rest of the state issues court summons, not cuffs). And made it so violators would no longer be stigmatized with a permanent criminal record that could interfere with employment, financial aid, housing and military service.

Although Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Ramsey originally decried the move, both officials have come to embrace and implement the policy. So far, marijuana arrests have fallen 78% as Philly420 previously reported

Abraham had strong words about the bill's legality.

"First of all, let me just say that Jim Kenney's bills are illegal,” Abraham said. “They're not worth the paper they're written on."

Of course, Councilman Kenney did not pass the bill by himself. A super-majority of council members passed it, 13-3, and then Mayor Nutter signed it. The City Solicitor's office reviewed the bill and determined the new citations do not conflict with state law in any manner. They are perfectly legal. 

Council was actually building on a shift brought about by the current D.A. Seth Williams. In 2010, Williams started diverting low-level weed offenders out of the already over-burdened criminal courts into a Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program. 

The D.A.'s office estimated that the SAM program was saving the city's court system about $2 million every year. Eliminating the custodial arrests could save upwards of another $3 million per year out of the same public safety budget that also funds firefighter and police salaries.

Abraham went on to tell Philly Mag: "When I was DA we had many, many, many young kids arrested for possession of an ounce of marijuana. They all went into a program. They participated in a six-month program. They walked off their time. They went to a class on drug abuse and at the end of the six months, they had no criminal record."

This is a half-truth, at best. Let's first look at data in the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System (UCRS) from 2005 to 2009, the last five years of Abraham's tenure as district attorney.

According to the data, 4,212 juveniles were arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana in that time. Most (70%) of those minor weed arrests were of 16- and 17-year-olds. Since there was no formalized program, all of them had to go through regular criminal processing. Some of those kids may have cut deals with prosecutors and judges, but not all. Keep in mind that every one of those kids was locked up in a holding cell until a parent or guardian arrived to get them out. 

A juvenile conviction for a marijuana offense can come back to haunt an adult. One family friend, who was arrested in Philly when he was 16 under Abraham's tenure, did not find his way into her mysterious program. After completing law school, he had to go through the process of getting his juvenile record expunged before seeking admission to the PA Bar Association.

I certainly welcome any additional information and data Abraham might be able to provide to back up her claim. 

Abraham also seems unaware that under the previous policy all marijuana offenders in Philadelphia spent time in a jail.

"I absolutely, totally disagree that our jails are filled with people who are low-level marijuana possessors," she said.

Not true. Going back to the UCRS data from 2005-2009, when Abraham was D.A., there were 19,766 adults arrested for less than 30 grams of cannabis. That is an average of 13 people per day. Every single one was put into handcuffs and put into a Philadelphia holding cell. Before the SAM program was instituted in 2010 by Seth Williams, every one of these adults also had to make bail and many couldn't. That meant they could spend up to 48 to 72 (or more) hours in jail before arraignment. Then all of these offenders were brought into criminal court. Most were convicted and ended up with life-damaging permanent records. 

So, in a nutshell, when Lynne was D.A., city jails had plenty of marijuana smokers taking up space, time and city resources. If she is so proud of taking a hard line against weed, why dissemble about throwing cannabis consumers in jail?

Abraham also told Philly Mag that she had not followed her successor at all. 

"I haven't been paying attention, frankly. When I left that office, trust me, I left it,” she said. “You'll have to tell me how he's doing. I can only tell you about what I read in the newspaper."

Not exactly. It was marijuana policy that first brought Abraham's scathing opinion of Williams' policy. When she testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing in 2010, she claimed that cannabis consumers were all frequent criminals and any ease of law enforcement pressure on marijuana could result in a crime wave. Of course, none of that is true and sounds more like 1937 than the 21st Century. 

Philadelphia is not alone in decriminalizing possession of marijuana. We join Boston, Baltimore, Washington DC, New York and dozens of other cities.

Many of the decriminalization laws have been enacted since Abraham has been out of office. Perhaps she is completely unaware that full legalization has happened in Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Colorado, too. 

When it comes to this policy there are other candidates who offer a more evolved view. State Sen. Anthony Williams hosted a forum on marijuana policy last year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. While he did not take a position on recreational marijuana, Williams does fully support and voted in favor of access to medical marijuana. And like incoming governor Tom Wolf, St. Sen. Williams also tends to favor decriminalization.

Electing a candidate with antiquated and extremist views of marijuana consumers  could be a very expensive move backwards for Philadelphia. In a world of evolving harm reduction and legalization policies, Abraham is proving that she remains an unrepentant, old-school Drug Warrior. 

Chris Goldstein, an associate editor at Freedom Leaf magazine, smoked his first joint in 1994 and has been working to legalize marijuana ever since. He serves on the Board of Directors at PhillyNORML and has been covering cannabis news for over a decade. Contact Goldstein at chris@freedomisgreen.com or on Twitter @freedomisgreen.