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Marijuana: Philadelphia to Decriminalize Possession of Up to 30 Grams, But Arrests to Continue Anyway

Submitted by Phillip Smith on
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 civil 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. But while pot smokers won't face criminal charges, they will still be arrested, handcuffed, searched, detained, and fingerprinted. Then, their cases will be heard by a special "quality of life" court that is already in use for things like dealing with unruly Eagles fans and public drinking. "We're not going stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, . 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 D We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop." According to the Inquirer, 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 Lynn Abraham, police arrested an average of 3,000 people a year for small-time pot possession, about 75% of them black. 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 decrim 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." Philadelphia NORML has been quietly lobbying city officials for the change. "The marijuana consumers of Philadelphia welcome this," said chapter head Chris 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." In most states and localities with decriminalization laws or policies, people are merely issued a ticket after police seize their stash. Still, this is a quarter-step forward for Philadelphia.

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