Today, pot gets you get arrested—tomorrow, that could start to change

Councilman Jim Kenney

Councilman Jim Kenney

“If the D.A. is not going to prosecute, then there’s no reason to arrest. We can put our limited police resources to better use.”

That’s what Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney wrote on Facebook Wednesday morning, regarding an Inquirer story about his plan to introduce legislation that would end arrests for marijuana possession in the city.

On Tuesday, Kenney’s office put out a press release regarding a future City Council bill which would get rid of the arrest process for marijuana possession cases. “Instead,” reads the release, “police would issue a summons for the person to appear at the District Attorney’s ‘Small Amount of Marijuana’ [SAM] program, which includes a 3-hour drug abuse class and a $200 fine.” The SAM Program was created in 2010 by the District Attorney’s office and has largely been a success.

But SAM isn’t perfect. Even though you’re not charged with a felony for weed-on-person, you’re still handcuffed, brought to jail and finger-printed with the potential of staying the night. Kenney’s bill would end that, and save a ton of money in the process; potentially $3 million, according to Chris Goldstein, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.

Goldstein says the bill is a move in the right direction.

“What Kenney’s bill is going to do is make it a summary offense and give a ticket. So, it’s not an arrestable thing. Yes, people are going to have their marijuana taken away, but at the end of the day … [Kenney’s idea is] how we treat marijuana in most of Pennsylvania.”

Goldstein adds he and Philly NORML have been in contact with several offices in Philadelphia government over the years, including Kenney’s.

“There’s been a real sea change this month. This issue is accelerating rapidly on the local, state, and national level,” he adds, making note of Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and NORML-endorsed) John Hanger’s support of marijuana, as well as a bipartisan medical pot bill being introduced in the Pennsylvania state Senate.

“I think a lot of it is, people don’t want to be left out. That’s the truth. There is this great inequality now, in America, and you can look at other cities and states that don’t arrest people.”

In much of Pennsylvania, possession of a small amount of marijuana gets you a summons, which you can then plead down to disorderly conduct.

Kenney’s bill wouldn’t make the process of getting caught with pot much different from getting a traffic ticket—at least the preliminary process.

The idea comes not long after both Washington and Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. It also happens in the wake of both Chicago passing a bill similar to Kenney’s and Washington, D.C., beginning discussions on doing the same thing.

One of the points that Kenney, who plans to run for mayor in 2015, says led to his legislation is the racial disparity of marijuana arrests in Philadelphia. In fact, 89 percent of Philadelphians arrested for marijuana possession in 2012 were African-American, even though studies have shown blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, according to 2012 figures released by the ACLU.

By ending arrests, Goldstein hopes, we may see less confrontations on marijuana in general—for all races. “I don’t want to see police give more summaries to white people … the whole idea and the concept is, there’s better community policing and there’s better ways to do this and marijuana shouldn’t be a focus of what’s going on.”

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