Philadelphia largest city to decriminalize pot

Michael Nutter speaks at a press conference addressing Philadelphia's decriminalization bill, which took effect Oct. 20. Photo courtesy AP.
Michael Nutter speaks at a press conference addressing Philadelphia’s decriminalization bill, which took effect Oct. 20. Photo courtesy AP.

Decision could have ramifications in health-oriented drug policy

The City of Brotherly Love just made waves in the world of drug policy as they passed a marijuana decriminalization policy that took effect on Oct. 20 becoming the largest city in America to do so.

“This bill will not legalize marijuana,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said in a press statement. “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.”

Specifically, people who are caught possessing fewer than 30 grams of marijuana would be issued a citation and fined $25 as opposed to facing possible criminal charges. People caught using marijuana in public would face slightly harsher penalties, but nothing exceeding either a $100 fine or nine hours of community service.

By contrast, Illinois laws state that possession of anything under 2.5 grams of marijuana result in a Class C misdemeanor that could potentially lead to a $1,500 fine or 30 days of prison time. Possession of up to 30 grams — the threshold in Philadelphia — could possibly result in a year’s worth of incarceration in Illinois, and anything beyond is considered a felony that carries a mandatory prison sentence.

Critics of the criminalization of marijuana pointed out a number of aspects that they find burdensome. Policy Mic reported that the cost of incarcerating marijuana offenders is more than $15 billion per year, while many others take issue with the widespread imprisonment of nonviolent offenders. reported that only 17.8 percent of imprisoned marijuana users nationwide were caught with the intent to manufacture or sell.

“The ‘three strikes you’re out’ laws (which impose harsh penalties on repeat offenders) are something that have resulted in a disproportionate amount of minor drug felons being locked up for life,” Susan Bennett, a DePaul public policy professor versed in the field of law enforcement, said. “As a society, we should ask if this is an outcome we really desire.”

Many studies show that the enforcement of criminalization is often subject to racial profiling and the effects spread disproportionately toward minorities. An analysis of arrest records conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) concluded that African-Americans were 3.73 more times likely than Caucasians to be arrested for marijuana, even though rates of drug use were about the same.

“Research shows that people in general — even some African-Americans — are most afraid of young black males. This likely holds true for most police,” Bennett said. “With patrol policies in (minority) neighborhoods, police are far more likely to tell groups to disperse or to ask for IDs. Many drug busts may randomly occur through this.”

In addition to decriminalization, Nutter announced a forthcoming campaign in Philadelphia to “educate residents about the impact and consequences of marijuana use and how they can get help to overcome the habit.”

“Educating people about harms or potential drug effects is great,” Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, a DePaul public health professor who has researched substance use, said. “Decriminalization would also help reduce stigma, helping people feel more comfortable seeking treatment. The fear of self-incrimination is a major public health barrier.”

Figures from the White House showed that federal budgeting in fiscal year 2015 for domestic drug law enforcement, drug interdiction and international drug operations totaled more than $15 billion. By comparison, only $8.8 billion was allocated for treatment, although that figure has been increasing somewhat in recent years.

In contrast, many nations in Europe maintain drug policies that are comparatively liberal.

“In parts of Europe, for instance, drug offenders go to a hearing to determine whether they have an addictive problem or not,” said Kari Semel, an officer for DePaul Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). “From there, many are referred to the appropriate resources for counseling or treatment.” This health-oriented attitude toward drugs has been praised by many observers as conducive toward bettering citizens’ overall quality of life.

“In no way does criminalization reduce drug-related harm. It hasn’t been found to reduce use,” Carlberg-Racich said. “(Users’ reliance) on a criminal market increases the risk of exposure to contaminants, and there’s no ability to control purity.”

“(In the United States), we say drug abuse is a medical issue, but we continue to treat drug addiction as a moral or spiritual issue,” Carlberg-Racich said.

The decriminalization of marijuana in Philadelphia occurred amid larger national movements toward liberalization of drug laws, including the full legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington.

The topic of marijuana laws hit Chicago recently as Mayor Rahm Emanuel called upon state legislators on Sept. 23 to decriminalize marijuana possession statewide.

“Its time, in my view, to free up our criminal justice system to address our real public safety challenges and build on the progress that has been made,” Emanuel said.

With movement toward drug law liberalization occurring at various locales throughout the nation, many observers are wondering whether a nationwide push for marijuana decriminalization could occur in the near future.

“A lot of people our generation aren’t shy about drug use,” Semel said. “Many people in our parents’ generation did, too, but they often refuse to talk about it. Our generation often acknowledges that it’s often a normal thing. Due to this, we could possibly be the change in the future.”

Carlberg-Racich agreed. “I think public support for liberalized marijuana laws is probably already there. If the laws were entirely based on public support, we may possibly already have decriminalization or liberalization.”

Marijuana laws in Chicago

Currently, Chicago has technically decriminalized small-scale possession of marijuana. However, the Chicago Tribune found that marijuana offenses still often result in arrest, with about 93 percent of misdemeanor marijuana posession violations resulting in a criminal arrest. According to the Tribune, “Because different municipalities have different laws and policies, the way the cases are handled is inconsistent and unfair.”

The commonly mandated policies toward marijuana are included below (with facts gathered from My Illinois Defense Lawyer, which gives legal consulting to Illinois residents).

1. Not more than 2.5 grams = Class C misdemeanor (up to 30 days in jail, fines up to $2,500)

2. More than 2.5 grams but not more than 10 grams = Class B misdemeanor

3. More than 10 grams but not more than 30 grams = Class A misdemeanor; (Subsequent offense = Class 4 Felony)

4. More than 30 grams but not more than 500 grams = Class 4 Felony; (Subsequent offense = Class 3 felony)

5. More than 500 grams but not more than 2,000 grams = Class 3 Felony

6. More than 2,000 grams but not more than 5,000 grams = Class 2 Felony

7. More than 5,000 grams = Class 1 Felony