D.A.: Philly's new pot policy just makes sense ... and saves dollars

File photo
File photo
Posted: July 08, 2011

LYNNE ABRAHAM doesn't get it. She didn't get it when she was Philadelphia's district attorney from 1991 until last year.

And she'll probably never get it, no matter how many statistics and reports show that America's 40-year-old "war on drugs" has been a hugely expensive and crime-inducing failure.

"My view remains unchanged with regard to drug abuse," Abraham, 70, said from her office at the Archer & Greiner law firm, where the bulldoggish ex-prosecutor is now a partner.

Her view is that people who smoke marijuana - by far the most widely used illicit drug in the United States - are violent deviants, roaming Philly's streets with deadly weapons, killing witnesses and committing "untold numbers of crimes" to support their habit.

They are the enemy, Abraham and other old-school politicians still insist, even as forward-thinking cities and states are decriminalizing marijuana possession, and polls show that public support for legalizing pot has nearly quadrupled in the U.S. since President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "public enemy No. 1" in 1971.

"Don't tell me about polls. I don't want to hear it," Abraham groused. "People want to drive 100 miles an hour. They want to smoke pot. They want to do everything!"

Or maybe, as a growing number of politicians and law-enforcement officials now realize, Americans just don't want to continue paying for the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders.

Fortunately for Philadelphia taxpayers, Seth Williams does get it.

Williams, who replaced Abraham as district attorney in January 2010, has saved an estimated $2 million in the past year by diverting thousands of marijuana-possession cases into a new program that processes pot smokers quickly and leaves them with a clean record.

'Smarter way'

The Small Amount of Marijuana (SAM) program, which Williams implemented in June 2010, frees up prosecutors to concentrate on more serious crimes by treating arrests for marijuana possession of up to 30 grams - slightly more than an ounce - as a summary offense, rather than a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor charge carried a maximum penalty of 30 days' probation or jail time and a $500 fine.

Few minor pot arrests resulted in jail time even under the old system, but those found guilty of possession were left with a permanent criminal record.

Now, marijuana offenders pay $200 for a three-hour class about drug abuse, and their record is expunged. No trial, no judge, no court-appointed defense attorneys, no prosecutor, no lab tests to confirm the "leafy green substance" is actually marijuana, no cops getting paid overtime to testify.

"We were spending thousands of dollars for when someone possessed $10 or $15 worth of weed," Williams said of the way marijuana cases were prosecuted when he was elected. "It just didn't make any sense."

Approximately 4,160 defendants enrolled in the SAM program during its first year, according to Jodi Lobel, deputy of the D.A.'s Pretrial Division. "We decided to design a smarter way," Lobel said.

Last week, defendants trickled out of Room 404 at the Criminal Justice Center after a trial commissioner had briefly explained the SAM program. The vast majority now take that option over a formal trial.

"I didn't even get to smoke it," Crystal Roberts smirked, with a touch of wistfulness.

The 21-year-old bartender was arrested last month with a few nickel bags of weed. She grumbled about the cost of the drug class she'd have to attend, but was glad that the SAM program would be quick and simple.

"This is better than going to trial," Roberts admitted.

Lobel cringes at the word "decriminalization," insisting that pot remains illegal in Philadelphia. But the SAM program is, in effect, backdoor decriminalization. Offenders who complete the program are not tagged with a criminal record, even though they technically committed a crime.

Cops switching sides

Last week, Connecticut became the 14th state to enact some form of marijuana decriminalization, and many activists see the building momentum as an indication that it's only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized.

What Abraham and other aging veterans of the war on drugs don't realize is how much they have in common with those now making the most rational argument for declaring a cease-fire. Not the pot smokers and civil libertarians, but the law-enforcement officials who've spent their careers in the trenches, locking up drug users and getting into shootouts with corner dealers - with nothing to show for it.

"You make an enormous seizure of drugs and the streets don't even blink," said Neill Franklin, who spent 33 years with the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, including a stint as a narcotics agent.

"You don't have to do some in-depth study from where we sit in law enforcement. It's clearly not working," said Franklin, now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former cops, prosecutors and judges fighting to end drug prohibition.

Franklin doesn't get high and doesn't think you should either. But he wants to end a national drug policy that has inadvertently fostered urban street crime, enriched drug cartels, driven up prison costs and drained resources that could be used to educate children or reduce violent crime.

"Drug prohibition is the biggest failed policy in the history of our country, second only to slavery," said Jim Gray, a former Superior Court judge in Orange County, Calif., now working with LEAP.

In Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and increased social services, drug addiction is declining, studies show.

"The policy has been a success using every possible metric that drug policymakers use," said Glenn Greenwald, who authored a 2009 Cato Institute study on Portugal's experiment.

Having recently returned from a trip to Australia on an Eisenhower Fellowship, Williams talks about a government-run, heroin-shooting facility in Sydney and how it is "saving lives" by preventing fatal overdoses and the spread of intravenous diseases. He talks about helping drug addicts get clean, rather than turning them into unemployable criminals.

"I can put someone in jail for 90 days because they possess crack. But if we don't get them the help they need for their addiction, when they get out of jail, they're just going to be a 90-day-older crack addict," Williams said. "We have to treat drug addiction as a public-health problem, not just a criminal-justice problem."

Arrests down

In the early 1970s, about eight in 10 Americans opposed marijuana legalization, according to Gallup's annual crime poll. Today, 50 percent are opposed and 46 percent support legalization.

Imagine the revenue generated by strictly regulating and taxing marijuana, a drug that is already available on the black market to virtually anyone who wants it. It's an old idea, but one that is gaining support as states slash their budgets and the recreational use of marijuana becomes less taboo.

In its first year, Philadelphia's quasi-decriminalization of marijuana doesn't appear to be having any noticeable impact on the city's quality of life, police say.

Marijuana-possession arrests were down 14 percent through May 31 compared with the same period as last year, but it is unclear if that's because of the SAM program, which went into effect in June 2010.

Lt. Ray Evers, a police spokesman, denied that street cops are backing off minor pot cases.

"If officers find drugs on an individual, they're going to get locked up, plain and simple," he said.

That's what happened to Chris McKoy, 23, a construction worker from South Philly who was busted with $15 worth of pot last month and opted for the SAM program.

McKoy was slightly perplexed when he walked out of the Criminal Justice Center last week. Why, he asked, was he arrested at all if he's being discharged without a trial and will have no criminal record?

"Weed don't even do nothing," he said, "but make you happy, hungry and sleepy."

McKoy said the arrest wouldn't alter his lifestyle. Besides, he said, he's Muslim, so he's expecting some type of deferred punishment, anyway.

"Every time I smoke, I'm a sinner," he chuckled. "Just once in a while."

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