Philadelphia to Ease Prosecution Policy on Marijuana Possession

Philadelphia is making a big change in its marijuana prosecution policy. It will no longer charge adults possessing small amounts of pot with a crime. Rather, they will be charged with a "summary offense" that carries a fine and has no effect on a criminal record.

Under a policy to take effect later this month, prosecutors will charge such cases as summary offenses rather than as misdemeanors. People arrested with up to 30 grams of the drug - slightly more than an ounce - may have to pay a fine but face no risk of a criminal record.

"We have to be smart on crime," said District Attorney Seth Williams, who took office in January. "We can't declare a war on drugs by going after the kid who's smoking a joint on 55th Street. We have to go after the large traffickers."

Two justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, including Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former homicide detective, have been working with the D.A. on the new policy. The cops aren't happy. [More...]

"We're not going stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, said Friday. He said marijuana possession remained illegal.

"We're going to stop people for it. . . . Our officers are trained to do that," Vanore said. "Whether or not they make it through the charging process, that's up to the D.A. We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop."

The change is expected to bring in some big bucks to the city.

The new approach could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the Philadelphia courts. While the amount has not been formally set, fines for minor drug possession would be $200 for first-time offenders and $300 for others.

The new policy will also free up judicial resources to concentrate on more serious crimes:

[Justice] McCaffery...said the shift would help the courts focus on more serious cases.

"This will free up a lot of time in the courtroom," he said. "The fewer de minimis cases, the more time the judge and the prosecutor are going to have on other cases."

Here's how the policy is expected to work:

Under the new policy, people charged with possession for personal use will still be arrested, handcuffed, searched, detained, and fingerprinted. Then, regardless of their criminal history, their case will be heard by a special late-afternoon summary court in Courtroom 408 at the Criminal Justice Center. This "quality of life" court handles offenses such as public drinking and disorderly conduct.

Defendants determined to fight the charges could still demand a full trial, but few are expected to do so.

Chris Goldstein, director of Philadelphia's NORML chapter, who has been lobbying for the new policy says:

"This is a very progressive thing to do on the part of the city," Goldstein said of the new policy. "I couldn't be happier about this."

He said the change also would redress a racial pattern apparent in Philadelphia drug-possession arrests. More than 80 percent typically have been of African Americans, Philadelphia police data show. "All the data from the federal government indicates that blacks and whites consume marijuana at near-equal rates," Goldstein said, yet "the pattern of arrests is that over 75 percent are black men."

This is a smart policy, that would be even smarter if the police were directed to ticket people rather than arrest them.

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  • Display: Sort:
    FWIW, McCaffery knows from street rowdies (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by scribe on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 12:33:32 PM EST
    He made his name while a judge in the Philly courts.  He was instrumental in establishing and then ran the courtroom (and ancillary jail) which the City established deep in the bowels of the late Veterans' Stadium to deal with all of the sorts of arrests which would occur before, during and after Eagles games.

    Arguably, that was the one thing which made his election - PA elects Supreme Court justices - to the PA Supreme Court possible.  No one ever heard of him before that and he got all sorts of press cred as "tough on crime" out of running a courtroom for drunks and rowdies and notsparing the lash.  This program is a money-raiser for the city - an extractive industry if you will - pure and simple.  The police would be smart to not haul the offenders in and keep them in custody, but no one ever accused the Philadelphia police of making smarts into a job qualification.  Besides, from their perspective the time in custody will be useful to help them hang other crimes on the people they catch.

    The police in Philadelphia (none / 0) (#1)
    by Peter G on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 12:24:49 PM EST
    don't work for or under the District Attorney, but they do answer to the Police Commissioner, who takes direction from the Mayor.  I doubt very much the DA would be doing this without the Mayor's having signed on.  If the police don't get on board with the new policy, and insist on making arrests for something knowing it won't be prosecuted, that should be very good news for my friends who practice civil rights law for a living in Philadelphia.

    $200. Tax (none / 0) (#2)
    by squeaky on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 12:28:37 PM EST
    Seems steep to pay a $200. tax for smoking a j.

    What if you don't have the money? Not to mention that everyone gets fingerprinted.... DNA too?

    Seems like it ought to be scale (none / 0) (#6)
    by cawaltz on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 02:15:35 PM EST
    However if you have about 30 grams then a search engine said it's got a street value of $450. Kind of hard to cry poor when you are willing to pay that kind of dough for the stuff.

    EVERYBODY wins! Sort of. (none / 0) (#4)
    by Yes2Truth on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 02:00:38 PM EST

    That's the ONLY logic I can see in this policy.

    Maybe the idea is to create lots more dealers, since

    you're only allowed up to 30 grams in this scam.

    Maybe one day "they" will decide to give everybody

    a gift and legalize freedom in this country, with

    life, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness

    without being subject to the terrible consequences

    of being caught trying to do so.

    Count me unimpressed with Philadelphia's new


    Common sense policy IMO (none / 0) (#5)
    by cawaltz on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 02:10:32 PM EST
    as long as their only offense is having a small amount of weed. Trying and incarcerating someone costs money. There are certainly better uses for our limited resources than locking someone up for having a small portion of a drug that has a negligble effect on the population as a whole(I am assuming that if they are caught as a result of driving a vehicle that they can be charged with other stuff besides possession).

    May Lead to Decrease In Other Drugs (none / 0) (#7)
    by john horse on Mon Apr 05, 2010 at 06:17:57 PM EST
    Maybe its an urban myth but I once read that one of the reasons for the crack epidemic was that marijuana became more difficult to obtain.  
    From an economic point of view the effect of easing prosecution for marijuana should be to reduce its cost, especially the cost of being prosecuted and/or incarcerated.  This should increase the demand for marijuana among those that indulge in illegal drugs and reduce the demand for more dangerous drugs like crack.