In the three years since decriminalization, marijuana arrests in the city of Philadelphia have dropped from over 3,700 in 2013 to less than 600 in 2017. As a result, Philadelphia has saved millions of dollars in policing and court fees.
“Philadelphia has saved about $3 million each year by decriminalizing marijuana.”, said journalist Chris Goldstein, author of Philly 420, a blog featured on Philly.com and a self-proclaimed cannabis consumer advocate.
“That’s $3 million we’re saving right off the top for not putting people into handcuffs. We save another couple million dollars at the courts for not prosecuting these people either, and of course, there are millions of anecdotal reports of all the police time that is saved for not going after people for a small amount of weed. “
Mario Bocelli, a 13 veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department agreed that decriminalization frees up officers allowing them to focus on more serious crimes, describing past arrests for marijuana possession time as consuming.
“If [before decriminalization] someone was arrested for marijuana they would be handcuffed, taken into the processing center and they’d be charged with possession. They would see a judge, they’d get bail, and probably sign themselves and they would have a court date at the criminal justice center.”
This process was not only a lengthy one for police, but also for those charged. The ordeal could result in hours and sometimes days in jail, depending on the availability of a judge.
“Now if somebody gets charged, if they have under an ounce of marijuana it’s a $25 fine. If they’re smoking it, it can be up to a $100 fine.” Bocelli said.
Although decriminalization has drastically reduced the number of people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, the policy is not uniformly enforced by all law enforcement in Philadelphia. Marijuana possession remains a criminal offense under both state and federal law.
“Officers use discretion,” said Jessica Cooper a three-year veteran of the National Park Service assigned to Independence National Historic Park in Olde City Philadelphia, “but we do enforce possession of a controlled substance.”
In August of 2013, Goldstein was arrested by National Park Rangers at Independence Mall for marijuana possession while smoking a joint during an event entitled, Smoke Down Prohibition. He was charged in federal court and was sentenced to two years of probation as well as a $3,000 fine.
“We take it very seriously,” said Ranger Wayne Lamb, referring to marijuana possession at Independence National Historic Park.
Despite decriminalization, 594 people were still arrested in Philadelphia for marijuana possession in 2016, according to the PA Uniform Crime Reporting System. This is mostly due to a subsection of the PA Controlled Substances Drugs, Device, and Cosmetics Act of 1972, which makes purchasing marijuana a separate crime.
According to Goldstein, though rarely enforced, the law disproportionately targets black men “…an overwhelming majority of those still being arrested for marijuana in Philadelphia are young black men. This persists despite decades of data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration showing that black and white residents consume cannabis at nearly equal rates.”
In February 2018 Philadelphia Attorney General Larry Krasner vowed that his office would not pursue any marijuana charges which resulted from an arrest, “We are going to tell them, yes, drop any cases that are simply marijuana possession.”
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