Understanding Philadelphia’s Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Philadelphia made national news earlier this month when Mayor Michael Nutter signed a bill decriminalizing possession of marijuana in amounts up to 30 grams.  With a population of over 1.5 million, the “City of Brotherly Love” is now America’s largest city to affect decriminalization.  What are the new rules Philadelphians need to understand?  And can you still get arrested on possession charges?

Law And Marijuana

Philadelphia Becomes Nation’s Largest City to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

Philadelphia’s journey toward decriminalization hasn’t been quick or easy.  When City Councilman James Kenney first introduced the bill in May of 2014, Mayor Nutter initially took an opposition stance.  The Mayor’s opposition to Councilman Kenney’s proposals continued throughout much of the spring and following summer, with Nutter stating in early August, “People in this city… come up to me all the time asking about jobs, asking about housing, or asking about their children’s education, or can we provide more services. No one has come up to me asking, ‘Can you make it easier for me to stand on a street corner in front of some grandma’s house and smoke my joint?’  So let’s be realistic here.”

But as summer slipped into fall, Nutter began to change his mind about Philadelphia’s marijuana policies, noting the city’s high rates of incarceration and arrest related to minor drug possession offenses — particularly along racial lines.

“In particular, we have seen striking racial disparity in arrests for small amounts of marijuana,” said Paul Messing, an ACLU attorney.  “We’re hoping new legislation reduces or eliminates that disparity.”

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

Better late than never, as the saying goes.  In early September, the bill finally passed 13-3 through the City Council, and was formally signed by Mayor Nutter on the first of October during a ceremony at City Hall.

“I am very pleased we have reached this commonsense agreement that will improve opportunity for countless Philadelphians,” said Councilman Kenney.  “Under this new policy, police will be able to remain focused on more serious offenses, and many young people will be spared the life-altering consequences of a criminal record.”

As Kenney suggests, one consequence of marijuana decriminalization may be increased prosecution for felony offenses such as rape or murder.  Because the changes are so new, the ripple effect remains to be seen.

Philadelphia City Hall building.

Philadelphia’s New Marijuana Laws and Penalties

It’s important to understand that while marijuana may be decriminalized, that doesn’t mean it’s legal.  In simple terms, decriminalization means that a crime punishable by incarceration becomes a civil offense punishable by fines, citations, and/or community service.

So what are the new rules and restrictions?

As of October 20, 2014, possession of 30 grams or less may be penalized with a $25 fine and a citation, while smoking in public may be penalized with a $100 fine and a citation or nine hours of community service.  Obviously, these new penalties are far more relaxed than their predecessors; but at the same time, decriminalization can only stretch so far, and certain crimes will remain exactly that — crimes.

For example, it is still illegal (and punishable with jail time) to be in possession of more than 30 grams.  The sale and distribution of marijuana also remains illegal despite the provisions of the new bill, regardless of the amount involved in a transaction.  Even if a sale involves less than 30 grams,  under the new bill it is still considered a criminal offense. Additionally, if a police officer stops an offender for public smoking, and the offender is unable to present some form of identification, he or she can still be placed under arrest. Finally, officers will also confiscate any marijuana they encounter.

It’s also important to keep in mind that while Philadelphia has taken its own initiative, Pennsylvania and federal law still classify marijuana possession as a crime, which puts the city’s decriminalization into somewhat murky legal territory.  As a result, the discretion of the Philadelphia Police Department remains a key factor in making arrests, as noted by policy director Chris Goy.  As Goy explains, “The police commissioner said that they’re going to do everything they can to implement the bill.”

Of course, individual discretion is never a completely reliable safeguard against potential prosecution, and numerous marijuana offenses can still trigger jail time and the creation of a lasting criminal record.  If you’ve been arrested for drug possession, distribution, or other narcotics crimes, call the Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys of Young, Marr & Associates today at (609) 755-3115 in New Jersey or (215) 701-6519 in Pennsylvania to set up a totally free and confidential case evaluation.

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