Philadelphia’s marijuana laws are officially relaxed.
Technically, the drug is still illegal, and buying or selling it can still land you in hot water. But under a new ordinance passed recently by City Council, most people caught holding or smoking marijuana in the city will just pay a fine — $25 for possession of up to an ounce, and $100 for using it in public.
The new laws went into effect Monday, making Philadelphia the largest city in the country to decriminalize cannabis. City officials say that the relaxed penalties will make the punishment more appropriate to the crime. Now, a marijuana citation won’t end up on an offender’s criminal record, where drug arrests can scuttle people’s chances to land jobs and student loans, or serve in the military.
Decriminalization will also save time and money for the police, said Chris Goldstein, co-chair of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Philadelphia used to spend about $4 million a year on arresting and processing marijuana users, Goldstein said, with a typical arrest costing about $1,000 for police time and lab tests, and easily requiring six hours of the arresting officers’ time.
The new arrangement is indisputably faster; NORML activist Mark Whiter earned the city’s first citation under the new rules by smoking a joint at City Hall on Monday. Within 10 minutes, he’d been given a ticket — he’d coordinated his smoke out with police beforehand — and was sent on his way.
The new non-arrest policy puts Philadelphia in line with many other parts of the state, Goldstein said.
“Maybe you’ve heard of the two Pittsburgh Steelers, who were pulled over outside Pittsburgh with a 22-gram bag of cannabis,” Goldstein said. “They were sent a summons in the mail. They weren’t taken to a holding cell. And they weren’t treated special because they were NFL players. That’s how everybody is treated in Allegheny County.”
Goldstein hopes Philadelphia’s new system results in better relationships between police and city residents.
But the push to decriminalize has a long way to go, he added. Top priorities for NORML in Pennsylvania include formally decriminalizing possession statewide and supporting efforts to legalize medical marijuana and industrial hemp.