Inquirer Editorial: Enough stonewalling

Posted: August 04, 2014

City Council approved a reasonable moderation of Philadelphia's approach to marijuana enforcement more than a month ago. But despite the increasingly antic advocacy of the bill's sponsor, Jim Kenney, Mayor Nutter has greeted the legislation with the sort of lassitude often blamed on heavy use of the drug. It's time for the administration to muster the motivation to support this more pragmatic and just policy.

A veto-proof Council majority passed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in June, making it a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. That would end a police dragnet that puts thousands in custody for the drug each year.

This is a progressive but far from revolutionary step. District Attorney Seth Williams' office already declines to prosecute most minor marijuana possession cases, making the Police Department's more than 4,000 arrests a year for the offense that much more excessive. In addition to the 23 states that have legalized marijuana in some form, cities such as Chicago, Washington, and Pittsburgh have largely ended custodial arrests for the drug.

In pursuit of joining this sensible crowd, Kenney, who is considering a run for mayor, has gone from collaborative - withdrawing an earlier bill to address the administration's misgivings - to confrontational. He recently wrote his second insistent open letter to the mayor, started a hotline to collect accounts of draconian drug arrests, and even tweeted at Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was meeting with her peripatetic Philadelphia counterpart in the French capital. But Nutter is still threatening to mull over the matter until fall.

Kenney's frustration is understandable given the bewildering array of supposed reservations deployed by an administration that once professed support for the idea - including that the legislation contradicts state law; exceeds Council's authority; will foment conflict between police and the public; amounts to legalization; won't conserve police resources; needs more study; presents "operational difficulties"; is "complicated"; and will yield different results for the same offense.

The last of these criticisms is perhaps the richest given the pronounced disparities already found in marijuana enforcement. Eighty-three percent of Philadelphians rounded up for possession of the drug last year were black.

And yet studies show that marijuana use is consistent - and common - across races. A Gallup poll last year found that 38 percent of respondents had used marijuana at some point. The administration does not appear to be an anomaly. Philadelphia Weekly reported that when mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald was asked whether he had ever smoked pot, he replied, "Look, I grew up in the '60s."

Laws that are flouted so widely cannot be consistently enforced. But they can be used by police to target certain people, which explains the skewed demographics of marijuana enforcement. So attached to this law enforcement tool is Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that he has vowed to continue locking people up for pot no matter what City Council does.

That's especially outrageous in light of the repudiation of the city's drug enforcement machinery suggested by last week's charges against six narcotics officers. Such obliviousness to the limits of police power is a consequence of mass criminalization. The mayor should order his police commissioner to tend to the real criminals.

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