World & Nation

Philadelphia City Council poised to pass bill decriminalizing marijuana

Michael Nutter
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced an agreement with the City Council to decriminalize marijuana on Wednesday.
(Associated Press)

The Philadelphia City Council is expected to pass a bill decriminalizing marijuana next week, after a review of drug arrests showed that city police were overwhelmingly targeting black men and women when enforcing marijuana laws, city officials said Wednesday.

Mayor Michael Nutter and City Councilman James Kenney announced the agreement to decriminalize marijuana Wednesday, and Kenny will make necessary amendments to pass the bill at a Thursday council session.

Once signed by Nutter, the measure will take effect Oct. 20.

“This bill will not legalize marijuana.  Rather, it will decriminalize marijuana, which means that offenses involving small amounts of marijuana will result in a civil penalty, not an arrest or criminal record,” Nutter said in a statement.


“We want to ensure that the punishment for using or possessing small amount of marijuana is commensurate with the severity of the crime while giving police officers the tools they need to protect the health and well-being of all Philadelphians.”

The penalty for possession of less than 30 grams — about an ounce — of marijuana in the city will be reduced to $25, and people caught smoking marijuana in public will be subject to $100 fines, Nutter said. All marijuana penalties will be processed by the ‘s municipal court.

The City Council this year passed a measure to make major reductions in marijuana penalties, but Kenney told the Los Angeles Times that he began pushing for complete decriminalization after a review of arrest records showed 83% of those charged with simple marijuana possession were black.

“It’s just not a fair situation. I think marijuana use is pretty even across most demographics, and arresting these young people for that reason and putting that weight around their neck to carry for the rest of their life doesn’t make any sense,” Kenney said in a phone interview.


In a city where 25% of residents live below the poverty line, Kenney said, it is unthinkable to saddle young men and women with criminal records that could disqualify them from attaining college loans or getting jobs.

The councilman cited stop-and-frisk tactics for the racially disparate arrest numbers, and said tailgaters at sporting events and concert-goers often smoke marijuana in the city with little hassle from police.

More than a dozen states, and the District of Columbia, have decriminalized marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. And Colorado and Washington state have legalized the use of marijuana.

“This will go a long way toward a much saner and a much better policy for people in Philadelphia,” Chris Goldstein, co-chair of the city’s chapter of NORML, said  in a statement. “This is something that should have happened earlier in the summer. It would have alleviated almost 1,000 people getting arrested.” 

The advocacy group also expressed concern that city police might not cooperate with the new ordinance, pointing to comments made by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsay, who has repeatedly said he does not support any form of legalization.

“We still have to treat it as a misdemeanor,” Ramsey said in June, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Until we are told otherwise by state law. ... State law trumps city ordinances.”

But on Wednesday, Kenney said Ramsey has since backed off that stance.

“Since we’ve come to an understanding, he’s been helpful and as a matter of fact he called me yesterday and he committed to making this program work,” the councilman said.


Officer Tanya Little, a Philadelphia Police Department spokeswoman,  told The Times that the department will comply with the new ordinance.

“We are a law enforcement organization, so whatever laws that are intact, we will enforce the law,” she said.

Kenney will recall the previous ordinance, which the City Council passed 13-3 in June, and make the necessary amendments. The revamped bill is expected to pass during the Sept. 18 council session.

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