For some, the City of Brotherly Love just got a little more lovely. Mayor Michael Nutter has finally signed into law Councilman James Kenney’s bill to decriminalize marijuana use in Philadelphia.
After a bitter summer of negotiating Philadelphia’s new drug policy, Philly is now the largest city in the country to decriminalize cannabis use. The new law completely redefines Philadelphia’s stance on legal treatment of marijuana users. Possession of less than thirty grams of marijuana now carries a fine of only $25, the same fine levied on jaywalkers. Public smoking is a slightly more serious offense; still, it carries only a $100 fine, with the option to complete eight hours of community service and bypass the fine entirely.
Lawmakers involved in the bill’s conception and passage have indicated that the racial disparity in how Philadelphia drug users have historically been treated was a key factor in the decision to pass the bill. On average, four thousand people are arrested annually in Philadelphia for marijuana-related crimes, of which 83 percent are African-American or Latino.
Both the American Civil Liberties Union and President Obama himself have criticized this shocking racial disparity, both in Philadelphia and nationwide. Black media outlets, community organizations, and police of all races tired of arresting nonviolent drug offenders contributed to the city council, voting 13-3 in favor of the bill — a margin so high that Mayor Nutter could not have vetoed the bill even if he had wanted to.
Stories such as a the firing of a young mother who was caught with possession of a mere five dollars worth of weed have shocked the public and have brought the efficacy of the policy into question. Civil rights groups are celebrating the new policy’s successful passage as a victory.
Interestingly, although marijuana has been decriminalized in Philadelphia, it is still fully illegal in the rest of Pennsylvania, carrying a large fine and possible jail time. This means that police officers can still arrest people under the state law if they so wish. Luckily for decriminalization advocates, many officers, such as members of LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), have been among the bill’s greatest advocates, and are unlikely to enforce the state law. This inconsistent stance on drug laws is reminiscent of similar confusion in Washington and Colorado, where state governments have fully legalized marijuana but federal law against its use can still be enforced. Until the federal government catches up with the states, and the states catch up with local legislatures, these inconsistencies will continue to plague new progressive drug policies.
According to Councilman Kenney’s policy director Chris Goy, “With the cooperation of our police department, we helped forge the agreement to pass the bill. The police commissioner said that they’re going to do everything they can to implement the bill, and they even recognize there are a lot of questions about those [who] have gotten arrest records in the past.”