Philadelphia Is About to Become the Largest City in America to Decriminalize Marijuana

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The news: Breathe easy, potheads of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love is about to become the largest in the country to decriminalize marijuana.

Mayor Michael Nutter will sign a decriminalization bill, passed by the Philadelphia City Council in May, this week, according to an official with direct knowledge of the legislation. The bill was first introduced by Councilman Jim Kenney in May and would reduce the penalty for possession of an ounce (30 grams) of marijuana to a $25 fine, after which an offender would have the charge expunged from their record. Since June 2010, Philadelphia has punished possession with a $200 fine and a three-hour class on drug abuse.

Philadelphia isn't the first large (sorry Boston) American metropolis to play with decriminalization. Chicago, which is significantly more populous, gave police the option in 2012 of giving those caught with 15 grams of pot or less $250 to $500 citations. Reuters reports, "ninety-three percent of misdemeanor marijuana possession violations in 2013 resulted in arrest ... a study by Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy found." To this end, Philadelphia is the largest city in America to take arrests entirely out of the law enforcement equation regarding small amounts of marijuana. 

"I'm very pleased that we've gotten to a point where activity like possession of a small amount of marijuana will not result in booking or an arrest record going forward," Kenney told Mic. "Keeping it out of the criminal courts and keeping it a civil offense is groundbreaking in Philadelphia. An arrest record for possession under an ounce results in a criminal record, which makes getting a job virtually impossible and basically makes receiving college aid or serving in the military out of the question. It keeps people from progressing and becoming good taxpaying citizens and it puts them on the path to towards poverty. With a 26% poverty rate, this is unconscionable."

The background: Tuesday's announcement marks the end of a tedious political slugfest between the mayor and the city council. The Philadelphia City Council passed the bill with a 13-3 majority, enough votes to override a potential mayoral veto, but Nutter has spent the summer essentially stalling until the Sept. 11 deadline for his signature. This week, the City Council agreed to two Nutter amendments: one calling for an additional fine of $100 for those caught consuming marijuana in public places, and another delineating which part of the city bureaucracy would handle the citations.

Kenney plans to withdraw his existing bill on Thursday and push for passage with these amendments next week. Here's the full text of the current bill as it currently exists:

The delay hasn't gone particularly well for Nutter. Despite a Quinnipiac University poll finding that 85% of Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalization, the mayor has continually derided the effort as foolhardy. In August, he lashed out at the city council, declaring the measure a waste of his time. "People in this city ... come up to me all the time asking about jobs, asking about housing or asking about their children's education, or can we provide more services," he scoffed to CBS News. "No one has come up to me asking, 'Can you make it easier for me to stand on a street corner in front of some grandma's house and smoke my joint?' So let's be realistic here."

Local media see Nutter's dismissal as "sad media spectacle," as Philadelphia CityPaper's Daniel Denvir put it. "If Mayor Nutter is capable of making a good argument against marijuana decriminalization, he hasn't shown it so far," wrote Philadelphia Magazine's Joel Mathis after Nutter's August remarks. Two former African-American mayors, W. Wilson Goode Sr. and John F. Street, urged Nutter to sign the bill when it was first approved by the council.

Denvir took issue with Nutter's mocking reduction of the decriminalization push as "the great civil rights issue of our day — that black guys should be allowed to smoke as much dope as they want" in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. "A civil rights issue indeed: Eighty-three percent of the 4,314 marijuana-possession arrests made by Philly police in 2013 were of African-Americans," sighed Denvir. "The comments Nutter made showed him at his worst: arrogant, condescending and combative. And particularly so when speaking about poor black people."

This is exactly why decriminalization matters. For Kenney and many marijuana legalization advocates around the country, decriminalization is absolutely a civil rights issue. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to the ACLU. Under Chicago's flawed "decriminalization" experiment, 80% of those arrested since August 2012 for carrying small amounts of pot were black, while another 17% were Hispanic and just 4% were white. Even more troubling: Black drug offenders also receive jail sentences 13.1% longer than white offenders for similar drug-related crimes.

"Marijuana possession and use has been decriminalized in Philadelphia for years ... if you're a white person," Kenney told Mic. "If you're a tailgater at an Eagle game, waiting for a Willie Nelson or Phish concert, or hanging out at a frat party, you'll basically never be arrested for possession."

Is it worth destroying a young person's future over a bag of marijuana? Most proponents of the Philadelphia bill say no. "As you have heard we have two young people here who were not only arrested for a small amount of weed, but the rest of their lives are jeopardized," community leader Pastor Darrell Robinson told Philly Now. "Their future is jeopardized. Their ability to make money and live a decent life in the city is jeopardized because of a small amount of weed." 

And that's just what happened: Within the first month of Nutter's dithering, 264 people were charged with marijuana possession and, potentially, denied futures. And as of now, Philadelphia County is the only county in Pennsylvania to arrest, jail and give criminal records to citizens. "It's unconscionable," Kenney told Philly Magazine. "The issue for me is that we have a 26% 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." 

Of course, this will probably also help Kenney come Election Day in 2015: It's rumored he's planning to jump into the mayor's race.

Editors Note: Mar. 3, 2015 

An earlier version of this article failed to cite a passage from Reuters in accordance with Mic editorial standards. The article has been updated to properly attribute the language to Reuters.

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Jared Keller

Jared Keller is the former director of news at Mic.

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