Is it about to get easier to roll a j in Philly?

A Philadelphia City Council member is trying to push through an ordinance that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s fifth-largest city.

Jim Kenney
Jim Kenney

Criminal penalties for simple possession of up to 30 grams of cannabis, slightly more than an ounce, would be removed if the ordinance, proposed by Council Member Jim Kenney, becomes law. A $25 civil fine for a “code violation” would apply instead.

Police would issue citations on the scene, and violators would pay them like speeding tickets. The court system generally wouldn’t be involved.

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Decriminalization Opposed by Philly Mayor

Under Pennsylvania law, it’s currently a misdemeanor to possess 30 grams or less, with penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Attempts to reform state law have stalled in recent years.

Police would still have the power to arrest offenders under the plan proposed by Kenney. That quirk alone led Mayor Michael Nutter to oppose the proposed ordinance.

Letting police decide in the field whether they should arrest someone for a decriminalized offense would almost certainly create injustices, said Public Safety Director Mike Resnick.

“The consequences could be significant as equally reasonable and well-trained law enforcement professionals make decisions in widely varying circumstances,” Resnick said. “Consistency and fairness are the hallmarks of procedural justice, and allowing or creating such a dichotomy of possible outcomes for the same violation is simply unfair.”

Hopes to Help Young People

But the bill was approved by a committee of the City Council June 9 and sent on to the full council for a vote this month.

Michael Nutter
Michael Nutter

Kenney said the key concerns behind the ordinance were redirecting resources for police and the courts, and saving young people from the damage a criminal record can cause.

“I think the problem is carrying an arrest record around for probably most of your life when you make a mistake as a 25-year-old,” Kenney said. “That is more obnoxious than anything else we’re concerned about here.”

Bishop Darrell Robinson of the Yesha Ministries, a supporter of Kenney’s ordinance, agreed, saying current laws hit young black men the hardest while sparing area college students.

Racial Disparity Is Large in Philadelphia

According to NORML, police in Philadelphia arrest African Americans for cannabis possession at five times the rate of whites, even though both races use weed at similar rates. Blacks make up 44 percent of the city’s population, while whites account for 37 percent.

“I can go to any of the universities and take them [police] to some of the frat parties and houses, and guess what?” Robinson asked. “Plenty of marijuana! They’re not being arrested, though. The only people who are really being arrested are these black youth.”

Kenney took a stab at decriminalization earlier this year. That attempt would have given police the authority to write citations so violators could avoid booking, but it would have required that they later go to court.

That proposal made it through committee, but it never came up for a full council vote because of objections from Nutter and the courts. Kenney’s latest effort will likely be voted on June 19.

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