In June 2010, Philadelphia took a step toward decriminalizing marijuana with a program called SAM— standing for Small Amounts of non-medical Marijuana. Under this program, possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana was punished with arrest, a $200 fine and a three-hour class on drug abuse. As a form of decriminalization, this move failed horribly as arrests remained over 4,000 per year in Philadelphia.
This week, Mayor Michael Nutter finally agreed to sign the decriminalization bill that Philadelphia City Council passed 13-3 in May. Under the new ordinance, custodial arrest is finally off the table for small amounts of cannabis. Unlike other large cities that have taken steps toward decriminalization, this is the real deal.
One of those cities, Chicago, changed the law in 2012 so that mandatory arrest was not required for small amounts of marijuana. Instead, police have the option of writing a citation for $250 to $500. Unfortunately, according to a study by Roosevelt University, 93% of cases still end in arrest.
Philadelphia’s new law will fix this problem by making the penalties only financial with no chance of a criminal record. Instead, violations for possession of under 30 grams will be punished with a $25 civil fine. A Philadelphia-based news website reported in July that arrests for minor possession were still common– 264 in a month– even after the council’s vote. When the new bill passes, those arrests will drop to zero by law.
After holding out for several months, Nutter agreed on Monday to sign the bill before the September 11 deadline. The mayor finally gave in after City Council agreed to an extra $100 fine for public consumption of marijuana.
Councilman Jim Kenney, the bill’s author, pointed out the racial disparity that makes Nutter’s slow action surprising in a city where 82% of those arrested for simple possession are black, even though use rates are roughly the same among blacks and Caucasians.
“Marijuana possession and use has been decriminalized in Philadelphia for years … if you’re a white person,”Kenney told Mic. “If you’re a tailgater at an Eagle game, waiting for a Willie Nelson or Phish concert, or hanging out at a frat party, you’ll basically never be arrested for possession.”
While some cities around the country have decriminalized simple possession, Philadelphia is the largest by far– not counting Chicago’s weak attempt– with a population over 1.5 million. Philadelphia has the fifth largest population of any city in the United States. Even though Pennsylvania state does not have marijuana laws yet, Philadelphia has a larger population than several states that do such as Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Philadelphia City Council will have to revise the bill with the agreed additions, but the signing is a foregone conclusion. Whether Nutter will continue to drag his feet, however, remains a mystery.