On June 19th, Philadelphia City Council voted to decriminalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana, passing a bill introduced by Councilman Jim Kenney. But Mayor Michael Nutter opposes the bill, and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that he will continue to make marijuana arrests, even if the bill is signed into law. In the month following the bill’s passing, 264 citizens were charged with the crime.
"It's unconscionable," says Kenney. "The issue for me is that we have a 26-percent poverty rate. I need to have everyone working. And for a lot of these people, it is impossible to get jobs, all over a nickel bag of cannabis or a couple of joints."
We drilled down into court records to take a look at the marijuana charges between June 19th and last Friday, July 18th. Of those 264 arrests, the majority, 140 people, were charged only with marijuana possession. They weren't breaking any other laws, they didn't have any illegal guns on them, and they didn't resist arrest.
Of the 124 people charged with additional crimes, the majority of those crimes were also drug related (possession of another drug, manufacture with intent, and conspiracy related to the drugs). The War on Drugs is alive and well in Philadelphia.
There were also a handful of gun and solicitation charges, two aggravated assault charges, and a littering charge. Approximately 200 of those arrested and charged with marijuana possession were released without bail.
In other words, the vast majority of the people charged with marijuana possession in Philadelphia during the month following the decriminalization vote were just folks looking to relax with a few puffs. They weren't people with outstanding warrants or engaged in any violent criminal activity.
What we don't know yet about the arrests is the racial breakdown. As Kenney has previously pointed out, 83 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in Philadelphia in 2013 were black, suggesting that blacks are being disproportionately targeted.
"As a white male, the odds of me being arrested for marijuana possession are virtually nil," says Kenney. "If they want to arrest people for marijuana, why don't they walk through the parking lot of the ballpark before a game? There are plenty of white suburban people they could arrest. They could visit a frat party on a college campus and round up a bunch. But they don't."
(A little trivia for you. Question: How many drug arrests were there at the July 8th and 9th Phish concerts at the Mann Music Center in Parkside, which were, no doubt, replete with illegal drug use among the almost entirely white crowd? Answer: Precisely zero.)
If there is any good news here, it's that it looks like marijuana arrests may be down significantly. During the same monthlong period in 2013, there were 476 people charged with marijuana possession in Philadelphia.
To see how this is all going to play out, we'll likely have to wait until September, when Mayor Nutter will be legally required take action, either by signing the bill, vetoing it, or doing nothing, in which case it will go into effect but without his endorsement. And then we'll still have to see what Ramsey is going to do.
In the meantime, keep your marijuana consumption discreet, or you could wind up with a criminal record.
"We're supposed to be progressive," says Kenney. "But we're the only county in the entire state that does custodial arrests for marijuana. It's just wrong."
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