One morning last October, Mike Whiter was fined $100 for something that usually lands people behind bars. The South Philly native puffed a joint in the courtyard of City Hall and was quickly ticketed for it. This was the first citation of its kind and kicked off the city’s newly adopted policy to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana.
Arrests and citations are 42 percent lower than they were this time last year, showing that the authorities aren’t retaliating the change in legislation. “Since I got my ticket, I have not received a ticket,” Whitler, a 39 year old Iraqi War veteran, told Philly.com. “And I haven’t seen anyone else receive a ticket.”
The 2014 law made possession of 30 grams or less of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine, and $100 for public use. Then-Councilman Jim Kenney drew up the bill and used it as leverage toward his democratic mayoral nomination. Kenney found himself seeking the support of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who originally vowed his department would continue to arrest people before abiding by the new legislation.
Lockups On The Low
The department’s spokesman Lt. John Stanford says he’d blame the drop in overall arrests and citations to the juvenile programs that they’ve introduced to keep young people caught with cannabis out of detention centers.
Stanford also feels that cannabis crimes should be at the bottom of officer’s priorities, “In some of our areas, we’re going to be focused more on shootings and robberies. Marijuana may take a backseat in those situations.”
In the rare occurrence that a citation is given, the tickets can be either paid or appealed, but only 17 have appealed according to Paula Weiss, executive director of the office of administrative review.
Derek Riker, chief of diversion courts at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, says that the diversionary program has never seen more success.
“It seems people who do get arrested for weed are taking it a little more seriously and making a bit more of an effort,” Riker said. “I think because they’re surprised they’re getting arrested, because everyone else is getting a ticket.” It is important to note that the people who are getting arrested have more serious offenses like trafficking.
Looking Forward For The City Of Brotherly Love
Kenney would give cannabis decriminalization legislation six more months to sink in and then reflect on the resulting changes if elected. His first order of business would be to expunge the records of those effected by cannabis prohibition before the law took effect, an initiative that Oregon has already deployed. Kenney explains,”My goal is zero arrests, and I think it’s worked here and in other cities.”
Across The Board
Currently there are four states that have legal cannabis legislation. One of them, Oregon, was the first to decriminalize marijuana back in 1973. The punishment for possession of 28.45 grams (1 ounce) or less was a $500 to $1,000 fine. Now, like its sister states of Colorado, Alaska, and Washington, cannabis is legal to possess and consume under certain restrictions. In the northeast in 2009, the Massachusetts Sensible Marijuana Policy Initiative dropped the penalty for possession from six months in jail and a $500 fine, to a civil infraction and a $100 fine. Initiatives like the Bay State Repeal want to put legalization on the ballot in Massachusetts in 2016, with similar movements going on in Ohio and California.