Kenney: Ease up on pot smokers

Posted: June 11, 2014

CITY COUNCILMAN Jim Kenney won a small victory yesterday with initial passage of a bill that makes carrying less than an ounce of marijuana a civil penalty and not necessarily a criminal one.

The Committee on Law and Government gave the OK to Kenney's bill, which he says will save the city countless work hours and police overtime. If approved by Council, Kenney said, the new procedure would make getting caught with a few joints punishable with a ticket payable by mail and a $25 fine.

"Having an arrest record that will hamper them from finding employment? I continue to believe that we can and should be doing better," he said.

The councilman has since shelved a bill calling for the end of mandatory custodial arrests for people found with a small amount of marijuana, or SAM, the program adopted by the District Attorney's Office that reduces penalties for possession.

After it failed to garner support from Police Department heads and the Nutter administration, Kenney called this newer bill an alternative to locking up kids caught smoking weed.

Michael Resnick, Nutter's public-safety director, warned that the bill risked legal and operational difficulties for officers on the streets and gave no guarantees that other agencies, like transit, university or state police departments, would follow suit.

"Law-enforcement officers would be faced with an option - arrest under state law or issue a [citation]," he said.

"If [the Police Department] were to give its own officers discretion in choosing which law to enforce, the consequences could be significant.

"Allowing or creating such a dichotomy of possible outcomes for the same violations is simply unfair," he said.

The measure was criticized by Councilman Denny O'Brien, who voted against it.

"While this bill does not decriminalize marijuana possession, it essentially aims to have the same effect," he said.

"The bill does not change the law. Marijuana, the possession of it - the smoking of it - remains illegal. I still believe that if this effort went before the [state] Supreme Court, they would likely say that Philadelphia has no business making up its own penalties on something the Legislature has already penalized."

Kenney said the city's Law Department has assured him that his bill would not conflict with state law. It goes before Council on June 19.

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