Marijuana has been decriminalized for a year in Philly; how's it going?

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Marijuana activist N.A. Poe smokes a joint in February. He's impressed police went along with the law.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Marijuana activist N.A. Poe smokes a joint in February. He's impressed police went along with the law.
Posted: October 21, 2015

LET'S BE BLUNT - Philly blunt: Possessing a small amount of marijuana or smoking some in public has been decriminalized here for exactly one year today, and the city hasn't gone up in smoke.

In fact, since decriminalization took effect, police have cited 73 percent fewer people than they arrested for possessing weed during the same time period in the year prior to decriminalization.

And if mayoral candidate Jim Kenney has his way, citations for marijuana users may become a thing of the past, too.

"I'm not interested in issuing citations, either. We'll get to that conversation at the appropriate time next year," Kenney told the Daily News. "As time goes on, I don't know if there's going to be a need for any kind of punishment."

As a councilman, Kenney championed the decriminalization bill. He said he did so because Philadelphia was the only municipality in the state still physically arresting people for possessing a small amount of weed and the city was arresting black pot smokers at five times the rate of white ones.

"I think it's pretty hypocritical in a state that licenses, sells and taxes alcohol - that actually runs alcohol-dispensing stores - to say that marijuana rises to the level of an opiate," Kenney said. "It's not necessary, productive or good for the community."

On top of the racial disparities and custodial arrests, Kenney said that otherwise law-abiding citizens were getting saddled with an arrest record that might prevent them from obtaining employment, entering the military or getting financial aid.

"Now, one year later, there's literally thousands of people without a criminal record," Kenney said. "That's many more people who aren't in the criminal-justice system and have a better chance of getting a job."

According to statistics provided by the Police Department, 3,686 people were arrested for pot possession between Oct. 1, 2013, and Oct. 19, 2014.

From Oct. 20, 2014, to Sept. 5, 2015 - the most recent date for which department statistics are available - just 1,012 people were cited for possessing or smoking a small amount of marijuana.

Of those cited over the past year, 170 received a $100 citation for smoking in public and 842 received a $25 citation for possessing under 30 grams of marijuana, according to statistics from the Police Department and the city's Office of Administrative Review.

Police are still arresting people for possessing a small amount marijuana, too - but only if they are caught in the act of buying it, if they are found driving under the influence of it, if they are found in possession of other drugs along with pot or if they are arrested for another offense on top of marijuana possession, a police spokeswoman said.

For recording purposes, those marijuana arrest numbers are lumped in with the people who are arrested for possessing more than 30 grams of marijuana, the spokeswoman said.

The Police Department could not immediately provide the number of people arrested for marijuana possession over the past year. A look at the state's online Uniform Crime Reporting System, however, shows that 625 adults and 114 juveniles were arrested by Philly police for some form of marijuana possession between November 2014 and September 2015.

When the number of citations issued is added in with the number of arrests, instances where police arrested or cited someone for possessing marijuana are down 52 percent over the previous year.

For Chris Goldstein and N.A. Poe, the marijuana activists who lobbied Kenney to get the bill passed, the stats are promising.

"Kudos to the Philadelphia Police Department for evolving," Poe said. "Whether you like them or not . . . the fact that they kind of went along with this is a great thing."

Goldstein, co-chairman of the board of directors of Philly NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and a marijuana blogger for Philly.com, said there was one thing that struck him about the statistics.

"The citations were not nearly at the level that the arrests used to be, which was kind of a surprise," Goldstein said. "It seems that marijuana possession has taken on a lower priority now that it's become a civil citation."

Goldstein has a theory why: He cited news stories out of New York City earlier this month that said that when police Commissioner William Bratton caught a woman smoking a joint on Wall Street, he took the joint, threw it in a sewer and went on his way, without arresting or citing the woman.

"Here's the police chief of New York City and he is taking that approach to someone using marijuana," Goldstein said. "That's what we're likely seeing here on the streets of Philadelphia."

Lt. John Stanford, police spokesman, had another theory. He said a new diversionary program at city schools dictates that children found in violation of lower-level offenses while at school - such as marijuana possession or theft - are being placed into a diversionary program now, instead of being arrested or cited.

"So a large decrease you may see is in that aspect, with our juveniles," Stanford said.

Among the factors that aren't captured on the new marijuana citations are race, age and sex, so it's impossible to determine whether racial disparity still exists. In a statement, the department said it is working to resolve the issue.

When it comes to paying the citations, only 275 of the 1,012 people who have been cited have paid up, according to the city's Office of Administrative Review.

South Philly resident Sam Weinrott, 26, wants to do something about those figures. Together with a friend, he came up with "Free Weed Philly," a fund to pay off the fines of those hit with marijuana citations in the city.

Though not up and running yet, Weinrott has secured the FreeWeedPhilly domain name and said he intends to start a crowdfunding page - where suggested donations will be $4.20.

Weinrott said he never wants anyone to have to choose between paying their fine and buying more marijuana.

"It would be so great for that guy who gets cited," Weinrott said. "He'd be like, 'My pot-smoking brethren have my back!' "

So what's next for pot activists in Philly - and Pennsylvania?

Goldstein would like to see the Philadelphia model of decriminalization replicated in other cities across the state. Many municipalities still criminally charge people, even though they don't physically arrest them.

"Once other cities adopt this ordinance, I think it will compel the Legislature to do it statewide," he said.

Poe would like to take it a step further.

"My frustrations with the current medical-marijuana bill in Harrisburg have led me to believe that Philadelphia should secede, in a cannabis-related capacity, from Pennsylvania," he said.

As for Kenney, while he thinks the "overall intent" of decriminalization has been met, he believes "we still have a ways to go."

"I intend, in January, if I'm successful, to get [marijuana citation and arrest] numbers down even more," he said. "I think ultimately, at some point in time, this should not even be an issue."

As for Poe, when he looks to the future of marijuana reform, he thinks of his yet-to-be-born kids.

"I'm hoping that when I have children they can have their 21st birthdays in a cannabis club instead of a bar," Poe said. "There would be so much less puke on the streets of Philadelphia."

On Twitter: @FarFarrAway

Online: ph.ly/crime

Blog: ph.ly/Delco

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