Overheated argument gets in way of good change in Philly drug law

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Hey, some Philadelphia elected officials are squabbling. Yes, I know, and the sun also rose this morning. But when bad blood gets in the way of good policy, then it’s news.

Last week, Mayor Nutter chewed up the City Hall carpets complaining about a bill sponsored by Councilman Jim Kenney. In a galaxy long ago and far away, back when Nutter served on Council with Kenney, the two men often made common cause on smart measures.

But now the temperature between the two is sub-zero.

The recent target of Nutter’s ranting contempt was a Kenney bill, approved by Council 13-3, that would essentially decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Finding someone holding, city police would just seize the weed and issue a $25 ticket. Nutter has a few more weeks to decide whether to veto it. Sounds like he’s already mde up his mind, the way he was bashing Kenney’s bill and, by implication, Kenney himself.

If so, this would be too bad, because the Kenney bill would be a step in a sane direction.

The War on Drugs’ obsession with weed not only fails to achieve its objective, but also spawns corollary ills. It wastes the time of the police and courts. It deepens the distrust of urban youth for police. It saddles people pointlessly with criminal records that complicate their efforts to do the very things we claim to want them to do, like finish school, find a job and parent their children.

Lest you misunderstand, I’m no advocate of stoner culture. I don’t ignore that marijuana use can lead to bad consequences, for individuals and communities. So does alcohol, arguably at worse levels. But we don’t toss young men into jail and ruin their lives for walking home with a six-pack under their arms.

In pushing his bill, Kenney, a white man, apparently offended Nutter, a black man, by noting that marijuana enforcement disproportionately punishes young black men. In his rant last week, Nutter seemed to suggest that Kenney was racist for citing this fact. The mayor also implied the councilman was dealing in trivia while ignoring real issues like murder and jobs.

C’mon, Mike. First, low blow. Second, one reason violence is so high in some neighborhoods is that our War on Drugs creates a lucrative black market for gangs to fight over.

Kenney’s bill would take a small step to tone down that black market.  The harder law enforcement cracks down on a drug, the higher the prices and profits to be made by selling it.

And what’s one impediment to young men finding jobs? Those criminal records from minor drug charges.  Now, I understand that often marijuana charges are tacked on when a person is arrested for more serious misdeeds and is found also to be holding.   But, too often, simple possession is a person’s entry point into the justice system, and the procedures for expunging the arrest from someone’s record without lasting damage don’t always get completed.

As you know, recreational marijuana has been legalized in Colorado and Washington.  In Philly, the Kenney bill would be part of the less dramatic move of decriminalizing it.

Someday, Americans are going to look back at our current marijuana policies and view them as today we view Prohibition: quaint, misguided and counterproductive.

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