The Philadelphia City Council approved legislation Thursday that would relax marijuana laws, giving police the option of issuing a $25 ticket to those caught with a small amount of pot instead of arresting them.
But don’t expect police to stop arresting folks with a joint anytime soon.
Just one day after the bill passed, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said, if it becomes law, he is not planning to instruct his officers to issue tickets for marijuana possession in lieu of making arrests. Council’s legislation would apply to those with 30 grams or less of pot.
Ramsey said he would be willing to change course only if he received a legal opinion stating that the city legislation doesn’t run afoul of state law. In Pennsylvania, possession of about an ounce of marijuana or less is punishable by a $500 fine and 30 days of probation or jail.
“The bottom line is, at this level, can we change existing state law and do something different than the commonwealth?” he said. “Maybe the answer is yes, but we need to have a legal opinion in writing that instructs us to move forward.”
City Councilman James Kenney, who sponsored the legislation, said it does not interfere with state law.
Kenney’s office shared a memorandum from the city’s law department that suggests he may be right. The letter states that the bill might not be ironclad, but “the balance of factors weighs in favor of a conclusion that [the bill] is not pre-empted by the state Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.”
Ramsey said he had not received the memo.
The police commissioner also expressed procedural concerns about enforcing the Council bill, and said those would need to be addressed as well before he made any change.
“We’ve got to think through how all this stuff will be handled. Who’s going to collect the fine if there is a fine?” he said. “We certainly don’t do that.”
Kenney, who has long argued that African-Americans are disproportionately penalized for marijuana possession despite evidence that whites and blacks use the drug at roughly the same rate, said he is prepared to take the city to federal court if police do not begin easing up on arrests should his bill become law.
“There’s 4,200 [marijuana possession] arrests in the last two years. Eighty-three percent of them were African-American. That’s a pretty stark disparity,” said Kenney. “I don’t want to go to federal court, but we’ll go. I’m not going to allow kids’ lives to change radically for the worse because the [police and Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration] are too stubborn to do what we’re asking them to do.”
Nutter, meanwhile, said he has not yet decided whether he’ll veto or sign the bill.
Read the city law department’s memo below.