Philly420: Philadelphia marijuana decriminalization at one year

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Oregon started selling retail marijuana this week. Ohio is voting on full legalization next month. And in Pennsylvania, 48 people each day will continue to be charged with a criminal misdemeanor for possession of marijuana. (REUTERS/Steve Dipaola)

On October 1, 2014 Mayor Nutter signed a bill to make marijuana possession a civil, non-criminal offense. Philadelphia became the largest city in America to make the shift on its own. 

The new policy of issuing citations of $25 for possession and $100 for smoking in public went into effect on October 20.

The bill was championed by then Councilman-at-large Jim Kenney, who is now running for mayor. 

The sky has remained in place. No one has tried to turn the Liberty Bell into a bong. Yet.

One year later the impact of decrim has been positive and far reaching. More than 300 cannabis consumers used to be hauled into jail every month. But now all of the friends of Mary Jane can breathe a little easier. So can the city's Public Safety Budget. 

There were 2,408 fewer adults and juveniles put into handcuffs and holding cells for having less than 30 grams of weed. This has has saved the city an estimated $2 million.

Police officers still have the option of performing an arrest under state law. According to state statistics, the Philadelphia Police arrested 576 adults and 107 juveniles for possessing less than 30 grams from November 1, 2014 to October 1, 2015.

Prior to the decrim ordinance those numbers would have been chalked up in any given two month period. 

There is still a disturbing racial disparity to the arrests. Black residents are five times more likely to get arrested for weed than their white counterparts. 

The age and ethnic breakdown of the civil citations given out this year likely will be reported to City Council in November. Producing an annual report was required when the code was implemented. 

It is worth noting that easing these penalties wasn't a quick victory. Advocates, including myself, had been meeting with city officials for years leading up to Kenney sponsoring the bill. 

Then, even after City Council passed the measure 14-2 Mayor Nutter was not behind the move. Nutter and Kenney got into a very public spat after the mayor intimated that he might not sign. Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey also hinted last year that he might not follow the new code. 

But when Nutter's pen went to the paper the PPD backed the shift and the city dutifully put it into practice on the streets.  

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said that most marijuana arrests occur when a person is observed in a transaction.

"We actually have a different code now to break out those numbers," said Stanford.

He also noted that it was difficult to put a number on how much money the department was saving with decrim.

"The officer is no longer transporting that individual to headquarters," said Stanford, "But the officer is still coming off the street," to turn in the confiscated marijuana.

One interesting aspect of Philadelphia's decriminalization code is that it not only applies to adults but to juveniles.

Stanford noted this was part of a broader policy being applied to the city's youth.

"What we've been doing in schools is not to arrest when not necessary," said Standford, "Not putting kids into the school to prison pipeline. That's what we've been doing with juvenile diversion programs.

"It gives us  the opportunity to provide additional services. Instead of just locking them up and that leading to additional problems in life it allows them to have a second chance. Later on, if they have to answer that question for a job 'Have I been arrested'  they can say 'no.'"

This past year, 2,400 fewer people spent time in a holding cell and did not have to appear in court. Those cited did not lose jobs, student loans, housing or the ability to serve in the military. 

Amidst a robust national conversation about criminal justice reform this is one solution, working, right before our eyes. 

Oregon started selling retail marijuana this week. Ohio is voting on full legalization next month. And in Pennsylvania, 48 people each day will continue to be charged with a criminal misdemeanor for possession of marijuana. 

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at chris@freedomisgreen.com.