Philly residents can toke a bit easier now. The city has officially decriminalized weed, and possession offenses will no longer carry potential jail sentences.
The new policy, approved by the City Council in September, will take effect Oct. 20. Mayor Michael Nutter signed the law Oct. 1. Under the new rules, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is punishable only by a $25 civil fine, similar to a parking ticket. Tickets of $100 will be issued for public consumption.
“Philadelphia voters and their elected city officials are fed up with laws that criminalize people for possessing a substance that is less harmful than alcohol,” said Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. “They disproportionately impact communities of color and do nothing to make people safer. We applaud city officials for taking this important step toward a more sensible marijuana policy. It is time for the rest of the state to follow its lead.”
Possession was a misdemeanor in Philadelphia until Nutter’s signature. Now it’s strictly a civil violation, and it won’t show up on public criminal records.
The city’s police have long used small-time marijuana offenses to incarcerate black youths, leaving behind a trail of lives devastated over a drug that is now legal in two states. African Americans account for 82 percent of pot busts in the city even though they make up less than half the population and smoke weed at the same rate as other races.
According to the ACLU, Philadelphia has long been one of the most racially biased cities in the country when it comes to weed. City council members said they wanted to end that discrimination and let everyday users live in peace.
Nutter initially opposed the new ordinance, until supporters convinced him the racial discrepancy is a serious problem.
Philly is now the second-largest city in the United States to remove criminal penalties for weed, and the third largest in North America. Chicago has decriminalized pot, as has Mexico City. A few other large cities, including Los Angeles, are located in states that have decriminalized.
The policy in Chicago, adopted in 2012, has had little practical effect on arrest rates, so Philadelphia may be de facto the largest decriminalized city in the country.
City Council Member James Kenney, who sponsored the decriminalization bill, praised the new law as a tool to address racial disparity and other problems.
“The most important thing here is to keep kids on a straight line and not allow someone’s life to get screwed up because of a mistake when they were young,” Kenney said.