Mayor Nutter on Wednesday wanted to make a few things clear: He does not condone marijuana use. It is not a particularly wise personal choice. And it remains illegal.
With that out of the way, he put pen to paper and signed a new city ordinance that decriminalizes possession and public use of small amounts of the drug.
As of Oct. 20, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana will be considered a civil offense in Philadelphia, punishable by a $25 fine. Public use of the drug also will be a civil offense, with a $100 fine or up to nine hours of community service. Violators of either offense will not face arrest or a criminal record.
In addition, Nutter signed an executive order that authorized an outreach campaign to educate Philadelphians about the new ordinance, as well as promising support for efforts to expunge criminal records stemming from the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The signing, a rather sober affair given the subject matter, marked a significant achievement for City Councilman James Kenney, who sponsored the legislation and fought fiercely for the mayor's signature once Council passed it in June.
Kenney has contended that existing marijuana laws excessively punished violators for what is increasingly viewed around the country as a minor transgression. He noted that African Americans were disproportionately arrested for marijuana and, as a consequence of resulting criminal records, found it harder to get jobs, student aid, or into the military.
"The most important thing here is to keep kids on a straight line," he said, "and not allow someone's life to get screwed up because of a mistake when they were young."
Like the mayor, Kenney did not want to be perceived as a supporter of marijuana use, however.
"I'm not advocating people use marijuana," he said. "I'm not advocating anything in excess, except prayer."
In signing the bill, Nutter said part of the city's outreach would be to ensure that Philadelphians know what remains a criminal offense in regards to marijuana.
He held up a palm card to be distributed that delineated behavior that will still lead to an arrest and a criminal record:
Possession of more than 30 grams.
Sale of marijuana.
Driving while under the influence of the drug.
Failure to give a police officer proper identification.
He also noted that the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services offers drug-treatment programs. He urged anyone needing treatment for drug abuse to call 1-888-545-2600 for referrals.
"We want to make sure people know it is still against the law to possess and use marijuana in Philadelphia, and that it can have serious consequences if you are convicted," he said. "However, many Philadelphians are in fact looking for help. We want to get them that help they need."