People caught with 30 grams (a bit more than an ounce) or less of marijuana in Philadelphia will no longer be charged with criminal misdemeanors, but with summary offenses under a new policy that will go into effect later this month. Fines are expected to be in the $200 to $300 range.
"We're not going to stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday. Marijuana possession remained illegal, he said. "We're going to stop people for it... Our officers are trained to do that. Whether or not they make it through the charging process, that's up to the DA. We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop."
After the Inquirer ran its story Monday, emphasizing that the policy change would "all but decriminalize" marijuana possession, District Attorney Seth Williams had to issue a statement of clarification:
"We are not decriminalizing marijuana -- any effort like that would be one for the legislature to undertake. The penalty available for these minimal amount offenses remains exactly the same. What we are doing is properly dealing with cases involving minimal amounts of marijuana in the most efficient and cost effective process possible. Those arrested for these offenses will still be restrained, identified and processed by police in police custody. They will still have to answer to the charges, but they will be doing so in a speedier and more efficient process. We want to use valuable court resources in the best way possible and we believe that means giving minor drug offenders the option of getting into diversionary programs, get drug education or enter drug treatment centers. Again we are NOT decriminalizing marijuana, and the penalty for these offenses remains the same."
"It will be charged as a summary offense, but you will still get arrested, booked, and fingerprinted," confirmed Tasha Jamerson, media director for the district attorney's office. "But instead of getting processed as a misdemeanor, it is processed as a summary offense, and you face only one court appearance."
"They are making a policy out of what is the common practice," said Chris Goldstein of Philadelphia NORML, which has been lobbying local officials for reforms. "People arrested for a Class A marijuana possession misdemeanor for less than 30 grams typically pleaded down to disorderly conduct, but it took a court hearing to make that happen. Prosecutors are making a pragmatic choice here; this will save them a lot of time and money."
The policy shift is the result of a collaboration between new District Attorney Seth Williams and a pair of Pennsylvania Supreme Court judges. It is part of an effort to unclog the city's overwhelmed court dockets.
Under Williams' predecessor, former DA Lynne Abraham, police arrested an average of 3,000 people a year for small-time pot possession, about 75% of them black. Last year, the arrest figure jumped to more than 4,700. That figure represents roughly 5% of the city's criminal caseload.
About another 2,000 are arrested for marijuana distribution and 2,500 more are arrested for possession of more than 30 grams. Overall, enforcing drug prohibition has resulted in about 18,000 arrests a year in Philadelphia, or nearly one-third of the entire criminal caseload.
"We have to be smart on crime," Williams told the Inquirer. "We can't declare a war on drugs by going after the kid who's smoking a joint on 55th Street. We have to go after the large traffickers."
Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, one of the two justices who worked with Williams on the policy shift, said summary prosecution was "appropriate" for such a small-time offense. "It's a minor crime when you're faced with major drug crimes." Removing such cases from the criminal courts, he said, "unclogs the system."
"The marijuana consumers of Philadelphia welcome this," said Goldstein. "This is a very progressive thing to do on the part of the city," Goldstein said of the new policy. "I couldn't be happier about this."
Goldstein was much less enthused by the continued arrests policy. "It is completely absurd," he said. "It's harsh. For minor marijuana possession, it's very harsh treatment."
Nor was he convinced that the policy shift would do anything to reduce racially-biased marijuana law enforcement. "If we're paying attention to pot arrests in Philadelphia, we have to note that most are black. There hasn't been a single month when more than 10 white women have been arrested for less than 30 grams. Just go to a Phillies game parking lot. They could arrest a hundred white women in an hour out there," he said.
"At the same time, about 60 black women and 350 black men are getting arrested for it each month," Goldstein continued. "This points to bias in enforcement, and it costs a lot of money. We actually treat marijuana offenders here more harshly than anywhere else in the state, and it costs money. That's why the DA and the Supreme Court can initiate this change -- they're just bringing Philadelphia in line with the rest of the state and the region."
Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office director Roseanne Scotti, who lives in Philadelphia, had another concern about the policy shift. "My concern is that there could be an incentive to arrest more people, because it will cost the city less to process them," she said. "And the city will make money on fines. We could see net-widening, with even more people getting arrested. If that's the case, are we better off at the end of the day? This will be a time and money saver for the city, but is this really a good thing for people who use marijuana?"
Time will tell.