Move to reduce pot penalty in Philly gains support

    Less than a week after Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill loosening marijuana regulations, he already has at least two-thirds of the votes needed to pass it.

    His legislation would make possession of less than an ounce of pot a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. Police could still make an arrest in “extraordinary circumstances” under the proposal, Kenney said.

    Council members Mark Squilla, Bobby Henon, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Wilson Goode Jr. and Bill Greenlee said they would join Kenney in supporting the measure, according to a survey of lawmakers by NewsWorks.

    “To have someone have a record and maybe hurt their employment opportunities for a long time, maybe their whole lifetime, for a very small amount of marijuana does not seem to make sense to me,” Greenlee said.

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    Marian Tasco, Dennis O’Brien, Curtis Jones Jr., Blondell Reynolds Brown and David Oh said they had not yet decided how they would vote on the measure. The remaining five lawmakers either did not return calls or, in the case of Council President Darrell Clarke, a spokeswoman said he “rarely advertises how he will vote ahead of time and this bill is no exception.”

    A spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration said it would offer comment on the proposal if and when there is a Council hearing.

    Some undecided lawmakers raised questions about whether the bill could be enforced, or if it would have a negative impact on children. Others said they simply have not had enough time to make a decision.

    “I do not want to send the wrong message to young people that smoking marijuana is not a crime, because it is, but yet it is decriminalized and won’t wreck their future,” said Jones. “I don’t know how you transmit both messages simultaneously.”

    “Is this enforceable?” said O’Brien. “And if so, by who? The police department? [Licenses and Inspections]? Does this really affect policy change? Does it really change the playing field?”

    Kenney said his goal is for fewer police officers to spend time arresting marijuana users, and more to be out on the street fighting violent crime. The legislation is enforceable and does not run afoul of state law, he said.

    “I’m not changing state law,” he said. “I’m adding an opportunity for an alternative to a custodial arrest that involves the issuance of a citation, which is similar to what happens when someone’s openly drinking.”

    In Pennsylvania, possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 30 days of probation or jail. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams introduced a diversionary program in 2010 that allows some city defendants to have their charges withdrawn if they take a criminal justice class and pay $200.

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